In the tub with Leadbelly

An ex-punk rocker turned mother contemplates her latest passion, children's folk music.

Published March 1, 1999 10:23AM (EST)

I used to sing in a punk/lounge band. One of my costumes was a sheet stiffened by glue and stretched over chicken wire so it would resemble a 13th century gown. I remember not being able to sit down comfortably after performing because the chicken wire had sharp spikes sticking out here and there where the wires hadn't been twisted together tightly enough. So resting my butt anywhere was like sitting on a bed of nails. Our band played publicly only five or six times, but those were really vivid experiences for me. Now I find myself spending my nights in the bathtub with a lathered head, singing along with the Smithsonian Folkways Children's Music Collection to my 19-month-old daughter, Flannery.

I've always played my own "grown-up" CDs for Flannery, and we dance and sing to them. I like exposing her to all types of music -- Brazilian samba, French accordion, Italian film vocals from the '60s, Indian film music, experimental, punk and classical. She loves techno, and did from an early age -- maybe it's all that womblike whooshing and the steady beat. She also loves punk music. I can't help feeling proud when she runs around in circles nodding her head to hard guitar riffs, looking like the lead dancer in a mosh pit.

When Flannery hears the Beastie Boys' "Body Move," she tilts her headback with a knowing look, bangs falling over her half-lidded eyes, and nods in approval, as if saying, "Yeah, man, this is dope!" I have caught her holding up to her mouth a toy rattle that looks something like a microphone while trying to sing along with Bjvrk's "State of Emergency." She loves how expressively Bjvrk sings. She also loves the hip-hop song by Aaliyah with the baby-cooing loop in it. Flannery remembers that song and imitates a few coos and some bass sounds, and then points to the radio, saying, "Onie, onie, musa, musa!" ("Music on!")

I admit that before I discovered this collection, I had never really investigated children's music. I chalk it up to having no time to read reams of children's music reviews during the 7.2 minutes a day of "free time" that's available to me. Now I see what I was missing. I received the CD as a gift from a friend, and to my surprise it has become one of my favorites. It includes songs by Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie; there is a warm calypso orchestra song, an African song, spoken words by Langston Hughes and a jump-rope rhyme.

I started playing it when Flannery and I take our evening bath together. She often asks to sit in my "blap" and she likes to nurse while I sing along to it. She nods in approval. I had forgotten how good it feels to sing along with a children's record, to sing while driving in the car or taking a walk or playing in the yard. It's something we do together where we both are learning. It's also useful when she's unhappy and wants some cheering up. When I sing these songs, she instantly stops crying and listens -- and this brings great comfort to me, too.

After I played the collection for Flannery a few times, she began asking for it and remembering the words. "Mary Mack," recorded by Ella Jenkins in 1966, is easy for her to remember and sing along with because everything is repeated three times and Jenkins has such an engaging voice. When she sings "with silver buttons, buttons, buttons, all down her back, back, back," Flannery points to her back and gives me a smile that slays me. Another wonderful song is Leadbelly's 1942 version of "Ha-Ha This A-way." I remember this song from my own childhood, but I never paid much attention to the lyrics. It's the story of a boy whose father left him when he was 12 years old, but the song ends happily with the boy's mother, teacher and preacher teaching him the golden rule. It's so catchy and fun to sing, I always find myself clapping and singing along.

One surprise on the collection is "Los Pollitos/The Chicks," sung by Suni Paz. My daughter loves this song because her baby sitter always sings it to her -- I imagine her mother sang it to her when she was a child. The song, which is about little chicks who cry when they're hungry, is sung in both Spanish and English. My baby sitter likes to listen to it because it helps her learn English, and I like to because I learn some Spanish. For my daughter and other children, I think, the song is a great way to learn both languages.

The songs on this collection have a beautiful soulful sound, the soulfulness that comes from being passed down from generation to generation. Yet they seem fresh because they're not part of our immediate popular culture -- they're not associated with any animated movie, used to sell action figures or blared at us daily on TV. They are part of our folk music history and of the oral tradition of telling stories through music. They reflect different cultures and different times, and they all have different stories to tell. Listening to them makes me feel connected to past generations of mothers and to my own childhood.

It's strange, but now that I'm reconnected to the pleasure of children's folksongs, I have suddenly begun reading about children's music. Flannery's musical education has taken a detour for a while. We still dance to CDs like the Afro-Latin compilation "Sabrosa!" but I find myself turning on children's music more often than anything else. She has plenty of time to appreciate the finer points of no-wave music.

By Sarah Seager

Sarah Seager is a freelance writer and artist.

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