Songs to Grow On: A Children’s Music Primer

Songs to Grow On will be semi-regular feature on the blog, talking about children’s music, music not for kids but related to childhood, and random reminiscing from me on songs that were important to me as a kid.

Children’s music is a much-maligned genre. Some of it for good reason – Barney’s “I love you” song is intolerable in even the smallest of doses. I haven’t heard a single song by The Fresh Beat Band, but its name alone makes me shudder. Some of it is out of exhaustion born of repetition – even Love Reign O’er Me by The Who would be tedious the 30th time in a row. But despite its reputation, there’s some fairly good children’s music (and music appropriate for children) out there if you know where to look.

The Old-School Classics: Sometimes, it’s best to go back to the basics, as many of the musicians who follow are but poor imitations. Obviously, nursery rhymes were the first form of children’s music to exist. In addition to the music, a lot of nursery rhymes have accompanying hand motions, which are great for developing kids’ visual tracking and motor skills. If you don’t happen to remember the lyrics on your own, you can actually find whole albums of them. I particularly like the Mainly Mother Goose album by Sharon, Lois and Brahm, who actually put on the very first concert I ever attended.

While nursery rhymes have probably been around as long as nurseries, one of the first artists to popularize children’s music as a specific genre was Raffi. And his music is just as great as you remember it, especially if you like folk. He has fun riffs on classic songs and charming original material. We have The Singable Songs Collection, which is a great overview.

The Non-Children’s Musicians Making Children’s Music: Not all children’s music is made by people who cater only to the little ones. Some of the best stuff is done by artists who largely write for adults. In particular, art-rock geek favorite They Might Be Giants has a bunch of kids’ albums. We have Here Comes Science, with its hilarious songs about evolution and astronomy, but I’ve heard their others are good too. The Barenaked Ladies’ Snacktime album isn’t as educational, but it is quite entertaining. Of particular note is the title song, where they manage to cram in guest spots from a shocking number of famous folks including Rush’s Geddy Lee, Sarah McLachlan, and Weird Al. And this isn’t a new trend. Both Pete Seeger (who has recently been wonderfully honored in so many places) and Woody Guthrie put out albums of original material specifically for children. (Respectively, Birds, Beasts and Bigger Fishes and Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child.) In addition, some artists have one-off kids songs, like on this collection, although I can’t speak for its quality.

Non-Children’s Music that is Appropriate for Children: There’s a ton of music that wasn’t written for children, but nonetheless appeals to them. Obviously, it’s important that the lyrics are appropriate – I think most people would prefer not to inadvertently teach swears to their three-year-old or bring up adult subjects before you are ready to talk about them – but it’s good if the music is kid-friendly too. The best bet for fairly simple, melodic songs is going to older rock or folk-rock. In particular, The Beatles have a lot of lovely songs in this category, whether fun ones like Yellow Submarine or lullaby-like ones like Blackbird. A number of other artists have individual songs that reflect on childhood but are still appropriate for kids as well on otherwise adult albums, such as James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Billy Joel’s Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel), and Loggins and Messina’s House on Pooh Corner. (There are a couple of lullaby-like songs from other artists that are best avoided unless you’re prepared for some tough conversations like Harry Chapin’s Cats in the Cradle and James’ Lullaby!)

Movie and TV soundtracks: There are a lot of movies and TV shows with great songs, especially from the classic era of Disney musicals. Sprout doesn’t watch any TV right now, but in most cases you don’t need to have seen the movie to enjoy the songs. Other good possibilities include anything from The Jim Hensen Company (the Muppets, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street) and kid-friendly musicals (Wizard of Oz, Sound of Music).

The “Radio”: Pandora sometimes comes up with some good options that I’ve never heard of. We usually use the Raffi station to start with. Unfortunately, commercials interrupt the music unless you subscribe.

While these are my favorite types, I know there are others some parents enjoy. For example, I think Led Zepplin done as lullabies is weird and vaguely distresses my musical sensibilities, but to each his or her own. Pregnant Chicken and Rants from Mommyland also have some fun lists.

What is your favorite music to play for kids?

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  1. Pingback: This week in the Slacktiverse, February 8th, 2014 | The Slacktiverse

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