My kids are enchanted by the music collected and performed by Elizabeth Mitchell, and so am I.
Well, the music I make for Smithsonian Folkways is children’s music. I don’t feel the need to call it ‘family music,’ as many people do these days. I’m really proud to make music for children; I always start with them first. If there have to be categories of music, I believe children deserve their own. There is such an incredible tradition of creative and artistic children’s literature—we don’t call it ‘family literature!’—and I believe it can be the same for children’s music. The work set forth by Folkways artists Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Suni Paz sets a standard of excellence that humbles and challenges me.
Here’s one of our favourites, Shoo Lie Loo, from her Sunny Day album, to give you the idea straight away:
Shoo Lie Loo is a folk song adapted and made popular by singer Bessie Jones, who worked with him. Elizabeth Mitchell works for the Smithsonian Folkways project to bring out treasures from their collection.
I first heard this song on an album by Bessie Jones called Step It Down. Bessie was a member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, a folk and gospel group who were recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1950s. Bessie’s incredible music can only be matched by her work collecting and transmitting the songs and games of the Sea Islands for future generations. Storey learned this song in a music class taught by my good friend, Nancy Chusid. The song is accompanied by a dancing game where you stand in a circle, clap your hands to the beat, and call out for your friend to fly across the circle like a bird.
That’s another cool thing about Elizabeth Mitchell’s music for children: her own child, Storey, is right in there, contributing.
Storey’s contributions and creativity are an enormous part of the path of our music, and it’s meaningful to me that children can see and hear her sing and feel inspired and empowered to write a song and share it with their friends and family as well. To me the sound of a child’s voice is the true magic of the universe. It’s fleeting, ever changing, entirely unique, and pure beauty. It’s important to me that children see and hear themselves reflected in our music. I began my path of making children’s music as a preschool teacher in a classroom, not on a stage, and that is still a perspective I try to maintain, although now I have added the role of being a mother as well. I approach children’s music more from the perspective of a parent or a teacher than an entertainer. I’m not really drawn to being the center of attention myself; I find it much more exciting to turn the focus on the child’s experience of the music than on the fact that I am making it.”
My kids think of Storey as a person they know, and they can recognise her voice on a track. In the videos of Mitchell’s work, we see Storey grow up, learn new instruments, and even lead songs herself.
Here Storey helps Elizabeth on stage to demonstrate the actions in the Japanese children’s song, Okira Kuri-No:
There are songs in Spanish, Japanese and English, so far. More than once, my son and I have delighted ourselves and new friends by performing Okira Kuri-No. Mitchell’s collections are an easy path to cross-cultural engagement.
Mitchell’s children’s music was recommended to me by a friend who had attended multi-instrumentalist Jannah Dennison‘s Windmill Music kids’ concerts, but I had come across her music for adults independently.
Here’s the way my kids remember the months of the year (side benefit), one of my favourites from The Sounding Joy, her album of Christmas songs from ethnomusicologist and composer Ruth Crawford Seeger‘s collection of American folk songs:
And here’s Baby Born Today from the same album:
Just to finish with, here’s Elizabeth, her family and friends (that’s her husband playing guitar on most of the tracks), singing Turn! Turn! Turn!, from the album collaboration of the same name with Dan Zanes:
For some more Sacraparental posts on music with children, you might like to check out:
9 ways to give thanks or ‘say grace’ with kids
Emotional literacy with Seasame Street
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