I grew up in the suburbs, where wildlife was scarce, though we had our share of squirrels and birds, and the occasional rabbit sighting in the backyard. When we wanted to see larger animals, we generally headed out to Drumlin Farm, a working farm run by the Audubon Society, where caged birds of prey lined the path to the chick hatchery, the pigs and sheep gave birth every spring, and you could always spot the queen in the glass-lined, thin-sliced beehive, if you looked long enough. There was a pond, too, for crawdad spotting. Well worth the membership, and the half hour drive.
These days, we live in the country, where turkeys congregate around corners year round, and the neighborhood dogs roam aimlessly throughout our lives. Round these rural parts, Spring brings a whole mess of animals into the yard, from the new baby robins that nest in our holly bush to the frogs, toads, and salamanders that scatter when the kids run through the tall grass and hollows. On weekends, it's a five minute jaunt through the woods to the dam and its shady, overgrown waterways, where turtles, ducks, and beavers play in the water, and the fish practically jump on the hooks the moment we throw our lines in.
On hot days, we head up the hill to Westview Farm, where the new baby goats skitter up and down the concrete barriers, butting heads and bleating; in the evenings, the mother cow in the grazing field across from our driveway lows to her new calf. This year, the neighborhood has even been graced by a family of foxes; we haven't seen the mother and her kits yet, but the father runs past our windows and down into the growing darkness just about every day towards suppertime.
The world of kidsong is chock full of songs about animals, and for obvious reasons. A healthy child's life is full of nature, and nature is full of life. Too, the developing awareness of what it means to be alive, and be part of a world full of other things that are alive, is an important part of child development; songs which portray the various relationships we have with animals -- both wild and domesticated -- help prepare us to think deliberately about our world, and our place in it, as we grow up to become parents of our own.
Today, in service to this aspect of development, we present a sprawling collection of animal coversongs from my growing kidfolk cache. Most predate the phenomenon of song authorship. And with artists such as Tim O'Brien, Nickel Creek, Garcia/Grisman, and Seldom Scene lead singer Phil Rosenthal on the list, the set skews towards the bluegrass, but I make no apologies for this; it is only very recently, with the advent of the NYC indie bluegrass scene, that bluegrass has begun to leave behind it's associations with rural community and farmlife, and this makes it good solid folk music in my book.
But regardless of origin, as with all previous entries in our Covered in Kidfolk series, the point here is to provide a respite from the cheesy, cloying pap that passes for mainstream children's music, that we might -- as cool moms and dads -- stay true to ourselves while providing our children with music that befits their age, and their emotional and developmental needs. I think this particular set hits the mark admirably. Whether these songs speak of the swamp or the barnyard, the woods or the stream, each is wonderful, in both the usual sense and in the older sense of the word: full of the wonder which we should nurture in every child, and in ourselves.
- Tim O'Brien, Man Gave Names To All The Animals (orig. Bob Dylan)
- Townes Van Zandt, Man Gave Names To All The Animals (ibid.)
Dylan's origin story of domestication is usually read as a subtle dig at the human tendency to name (and subsequently claim) what should be wild. Here, bluegrass master Tim O'Brien brings the song a rocksteady mandolin and accordian, while Townes Van Zandt breaks it down into a walking guitar blues; both retain the slightly sinister reggae-beat undertone, as befits the original subtext. From O'Brien's Red on Blonde and Van Zandt's Roadsongs, respectively.
- Nickel Creek, The Fox (trad.)
- Nickel Creek, The Fox (live; ibid)
A rollicking jam from these young members of the newgrass renaissance. The original, from Nickel Creek's self-titled debut, is light and airy; the faster-paced live take from Austin City Limits includes a bit of Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues, just for fun.
- Taj Mahal, Little Brown Dog (trad.)
Acoustic bluesman Taj Mahal brings the perfect dreamlike quality to this short, sultry, jangly flight of fancy, in which dogs dwell in music boxes, and horses sneak into his room in the middle of the night and carry him away to Mexico. From his 1988 kid's album Shake Sugaree.
- Roger McGuinn, Old Blue (trad.)
In 1995, one-time folkrock god and The Byrds co-founder Roger McGuinn began recording one traditional folk song each month, posting them free on his website along with liner notes; ten years later, he compiled 100 of his favorite tracks onto a wonderful CD set called the Folk Den Project. His version of this traditional tribute to a long-gone hound dog post-dates the CD, but its repetitive trope, played out with banjo and rhythmic handclaps, gives it an appropriately timeless folk feel.
- Pete Seeger, Fly Through My Window (trad.)
Simple banjo plucking and Pete Seeger's prematurely ancient vocals were a major part of my earliest folk experiences. From Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Fishes (Little and Big), a combined set of two old, old recordings of animal folk songs that was part of the inspiration for today's collection.
- Sweet Honey in The Rock, Did You Feed My Cow (trad; arr. Ella Jenkins)
Long-standing, Grammy award-winning a capella gospel folk group Sweet Honey in The Rock takes on highly prolific early kidfolk artist Ella Jenkins' comprehensive re-arrangement of this old chanted chestnut on Smithsonian Folkways' awkwardly named but generally excellent tribute recording cELLAbration: A Tribute to Ella Jenkins.
- Buckwheat Zydeco, The Crawfish Song (trad.)
We featured Buckwheat Zydeco's take on kidsong (and animalsong) Skip To My Lou way back in December, when our Subgenre Coverfolk series took on Zydeco music. Here, on the eminently diverse collection A Child's Celebration of Folk Music, he brings his high-energy swamp-pop accordion sound to another kid classic, with similar success.
- Laurie Berkner, Froggy Went a Courtin' (trad.)
Laurie Berkner has made her name as a performer of kidfolk, but don't hold that against her: it may be cheerfully delivered, but like the bulk of her work, this take on traditional kidsong has all the upbeat coffehouse singer-songwriter charm that one could ask for. Collected via Putamayo's Folk Playground collection.
- David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, There Ain't No Bugs on Me (trad.)
A playful, silly song from these two grizzled and greyhaired masters of a particular backporch sound. From 1993 release Not For Kids Only, which isn't.
- Elizabeth Mitchell, Ladybug Picnic (orig. Sesame Street)
- Elizabeth Mitchell, Shoo-Fly (trad.)
It just wouldn't be a Covered in Kidfolk without our favorite kidfolk interpreter Elizabeth Mitchell, a darling of the Smithsonian Folkways catalog who, along with her husband Daniel Littleton, also doubles as an indierocker under the band name Ida. Here, in her tenth appearance on Cover Lay Down, she remakes a pair of beloved bugsongs for kids.
- Phil Rosenthal, Turkey in the Straw (trad.)
- John McCutcheon, Turkey in the Straw (ibid.)
What would a kidfolk post about animal songs be without that song we all had to square dance to in Kindergarten class? Ex-Seldom Scene lead vocalist and official Connecticut State Troubadour Phil Rosenthal comes across with a guitarist's old-timey take on this old square dance tune from his own label; the seldom-heard lyrics turn out to be about all sorts of animals. Meanwhile, prolific singer-songwriter and family music pioneer John McCutcheon's use of hammered dulcimer, banjo, and fiddle here makes for a more appalachian sound, though his explanation of how bands work makes this eminently kidfolk.
As always, folks, links above go to label- and artist-preferred sources for purchase, not some faceless and inorganic megastore. If you like what you hear, buy, and buy local, to help preserve the little spaces, for the little people you love.