Reflections on Children’s Music – Part I – Leslie Fiedler
31 Thursday May 2012
One of the best courses I ever took in all my many years of college was a graduate class on children’s literature by the legendary American scholar Leslie Fiedler. What I learned from Leslie informs my interpretations of children’s music.
Leslie said that children’s literature – books written specifically for children – is a recent phenomenon. Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, published in 1865 was probably the first such book. The same is true of children’s songs. Much of what we now regard as classic children’s music, was never intended for children at the time it was created.
Fairy tales were originally not written for children at all. Even the Mother Goose stories of Charles Perrault – author of “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” and inventor of the Fairy God Mother – were meant to be read by courtiers. Unexpurgated fairy tales are often full of flagrant lust and blunt violence. One of Leslie’s favorite fairy tales was “The Juniper Tree,” collected by the Brothers Grimm – a bewildering and mystical tale in which the wicked step mother serves her husband a stew made from the body of his beloved son.
Leslie said that practically every great 19th Century American novel has become a children’s classic: Last of the Mohicans, Moby Dick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, Rip Van Winkle, the stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe. Similarly many great 19th Century British works have entered the children’s canon: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and several of the books of Charles Dickens. And novels of the 20th century like Gone With the Wind and Of Mice and Men have been taken in by children. Leslie said Gone With the Wind is the greatest American book of the 1930’s, meaning it shuts down F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, and Dr. Seuss. Beginning at the age of nine, my daughter, Cadance, read Gone with the Wind over and over. Most of the history of children’s literature is the appropriation of adult literature by kids. In fact, one of the marks of great literature is whether or not it has been picked up by children.
This is certainly true of children’s music as well, as is demonstrated by many of the children’s songs I will discuss in the future. But with contemporary, late 20th Century children’s music, I would suggest, there is also a reverse dynamic. Nowadays, the mark of a great piece of music for children is that it is appreciated not only by the sprogs, but by the biddies as well. So much children’s music is patronizing and panders to a misguided interpretation of a child’s interests. Children know the world is not all bunnies and Magilla Gorillas and silliness. When I was a yard ape, my favorite songs were “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley, “A Guy is a Guy” by Doris Day, and everything and anything by Harry Belafonte. None of this music was intended for children. The one ostensibly childish song, “Purple People Eater,” concerns cannibalism, about which I will tell you much more, later. Some of the best children’s tunes are old gospel songs.
The greatest children’s songs do not avoid romantic love, loneliness, poop and pee, spirituality, violence, and death. And these subjects are prevalent in the ancient folk songs that have entered the children’s canon. I am not suggesting that high production contemporary commercial kid’s music can’t be great. Nor am I suggesting that a great children’s song cannot be grounded in calculated innocence. The most polished songs in the Disney movies like, “You Can Fly,” “Zorro,” “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” “Wringle Wrangle,” or “I’m Wishing,” and the guileless sweetness of Raffi, Dick Lourie, and Sandy Tobias Offenheim are as captivating to children as the wise, edgy, sparsely produced songs of Woody Guthrie, Ella Jenkins, or Leadbelly. The greatness of all this music lies in the fact that it captivates the squirts and the coots and all the schlimazels in between.
Photo of Leslie Fiedler by Todd Goodrich.