Much of the subject material of kids music is lyrical fluff, and that's not a bad thing: kids need all the playful silliness and sweet sleepytime nothings that hip moms and dads with heart can bring them. On the other hand, play and sleep alone aren't enough, and kids ain't gonna grow up by themselves. The bigger they get, the more we have to show and tell them the right ways to move through the world.
Thankfully, song is an especially effective way to pass along morals and messages. That's partially because a spoonful of sugar really does make the medicine go down, I suppose. But it's also because children see music as coming from everywhere. As such, using music to pass along values helps universalize a message, making it less about "Daddy's way" and more about the right way to do things.
Folksong has a long history of carrying morals to and for cultures. That doesn't make all folksong successful: as with all styles of music, performing songs which mean is much more difficult. Far too much kidsmusic that tries to say what needs saying ends up sounding sappy and preachy. Happily, a few musicians get it right, making something which manages to be both musically powerful and lyrically meaningful. The best songs of this type stick in the soul, planting valuable seeds which compliment our most deliberate parenting on our best days.
Today, then, some covered kidsongs which take a lighthearted approach to some very serious subjects, from inner life to external behavior, from the social to the ecological. Your kids may not notice the messages as they hear them, of course. But if the true affection that these modern singer-songwriters have for these old songs tells us anything, it is that years from now, these songs will be remembered. And that's not nothin'.
- Moxy Fruvous, Green Eggs and Ham (orig. Dr. Seuss)
- Ann Percival, I Don't Want To Live On The Moon (orig. Ernie)
- Taj Mahal, Don't You Push Me Down (orig. Woody Guthrie)
- Willie Nelson, Rainbow Connection (orig. Kermit)
- Rex Hobart, It's Not Easy Being Green (orig. Kermit)
- Jack Johnson, The 3 R's (orig. Bob Dorough)
- Dan Zanes, We Shall Not Be Moved (trad.)
- Walter "Wolfman" Washington and the Roadmasters, This Land Is Your Land (orig. Woody Guthrie)
- Lynn Miles, Everybody Cries (orig. Jim Cuddy)
- Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Teddy Bears' Picnic (Bratton/Kennedy)
Sadly defunct folkband Moxy Fruvous makes a popcult-heavy, anti-commercialist folk-rap out of this Dr. Seuss classic. A repost, and out-of-print, but relevant.
Moral: How do you know you won't like it if you won't even try it?
If it were up to my littlest one, we'd never leave the house. This is her favorite song, and she always asks for it when we first get into the car. She likes Ernie's original, but I think contradance chanteuse Ann Percival makes it more palatable for the whole family. From The Sweetest Hour, which is.
Moral: The imaginative world is fun to visit, but there's no place like home.
A reggae beat, the classic kidsong rasp of bluesman Taj Mahal, and a message originally intended both to help kids learn how to play fair and, later in life, to feel justified in standing up for what they believe in. Via Sing Along with Putumayo.
Moral: Leave your sister alone.
An especially poignant take on this old Muppet standard. I've got nothing against Dixie Chicks twang and Sarah McLachlan dreampop, but of all the covers of this song I've got kicking around, it's Willie Nelson who really brings the fragile, shortlived nature of the subject to life.
Moral: Wishes come true. Never stop dreaming.
I've posted this track before too, but it bears repeating. From The Bottle Let Me Down -- kids like indiecountry, right? Bonus points: the lyrics are almost open enough for you to use this song to talk with your kids about "being green" in the more post-millenium, save-the-earth way.
Moral: Celebrate diversity; be who you are.
This half-cover from mellow surfer and fratfolk god Jack Johnson is based on jazzman Bob Dorough's old Schoolhouse Rock standard Three Is A Magic Number. Johnson gets bonus points for helping me sit through Curious George for the tenth time.
Moral: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Dan Zanes remakes this old protest song with banjo and spunk; like Elizabeth Mitchell, Zanes knows how to speak to adults and kids about what really matters. Warning: side effects may include strong-willed children.
Moral: Stand your ground. Together, we shall not be moved.
Technically, this one isn't a kidsong either. Kind of socialist, too. But I learned it as a kid, and so did you. And who wants kids who grow up thinking this land isn't theirs to care for? From Funky Kidz, an amazing new compilation of classic kidsongs by a dozen of New Orleans’ best and funkiest; proceeds benefit music education in New Orleans and nationally.
Moral: This land was made for you and me.
There are a surprising number of songs out there which address this subject, but Cuddy's is as comprehensive as it comes, and Lynn Miles makes a gentle yet powerful case for buying into the complexities, and growing into responsibility. I promise this is the last song I'll share from the incredible kidfolk compilation Down At The Sea Hotel.
Moral: Life isn't always easy, but it's worth it. Try, fail, and try again; I'll always be there to hold you.
An always-successful bedtime selection, given the teddy bear motif and the mellow voices and mandolins of Garcia and Grisman's Not For Kids Only. But have you ever really listened to the lyrics?
Moral: Teddy bears are scary. If you must go in the woods, bring a buddy.
If this list seems heavy on the Jim Henson and protest songs, it's not just you. After all, like me, many of these artists grew up in the early days of PBS, back when kidculture refused to speak down to us, and our parents were just emerging from a feelgood sixties adolescence. We may have cut our hair since then, but the values we found in those old songs still matter.
So click on the links above to buy these albums direct from the artists and labels, just to show your kids how to best support the music that matters. And once the CDs arrive, play 'em early and often. But take good care of them, too, so one day, you can pass them down to your children's children. Because somehow, I can't see the greatest hits of Barney or Dora the Explorer having this kind of credibility when our kids grow up to become folksingers.