If the difference between the sound of an actual melodeon and the ‘accordion’ setting of a keyboard bothers you, then it can be quite challenging to find palatable children’s media. Whilst cheap animation (insert least favourite brand here) has all the whizz-bangs that programmes seem to require to keep toddlers safely immobilised, for many folkies, the quality of the music simply doesn’t cut it. So here, for the delight of parents, grandparents, and friends, I have compiled a list of media products, created by artists suitably mired (or should that be steeped?) in British folk culture.
In this article, you’ll find…
Folk music for kids
Top of my recommendations is the double CD set Off We Go (2010) and Off we Go Again (2014) by Jess and Richard Arrowsmith. My son, who has just turned three, lovingly refers to these, as “The Purple One” and “The Blue One”, and wants me to transport them from car to house so they can be with us wherever we go. Though the music is played by true masters, they do feature a good dose of child-pleasing silly noises. Together the CDs have 74 tracks, and a playing time of approximately two hours, making them particularly suitable for longer car journeys.
The duo Megson (Stu and Debbie Hanna) have also produced two albums for children, When I was a Lad (2011) and Little Bird (2019), both of which combine collected songs with newly composed numbers. For about a year of our lives, every morning would start with the opening track of Little Bird: “All around the kitchen”, I would sing; “cock-a-doodle-doo”, would reply my husband. What it lacks in raspberry blowing it makes up for in lyrical composition and melodic arrangement. Moreover, there is an opportunity to listen to some traditional children’s songs which have yet to make it make it to the run-of-the-mill rhyme-time session.
Shortly before the birth of my first child a good friend pushed a DVD into my hands. “You’ll need this,” she said. I was presented with The Classic Nursery Rhymes Collection (2010). This selection of music was first released as an LP in 1979 under the title 70 Golden Nursery Rhymes, and then in the early 80s, it was released on VHS. Looking through the reviews on Amazon I can understand why some buyers were outraged that anyone would recommend this DVD. The addition of actual morris dancers fails to compensate for clunky puppets and single-image ‘animation’. Even my fairly laid-back son can’t sit through all 10 minutes of the sparse visuals presented in ‘Old Macdonald’. However, the music itself is fabulous. So I was delighted to find out that you can bypass the 1980s puppet-woe by streaming the music or buying the CD instead. In so doing you will gain 70 nursery songs sung by some of the luminaries of the second folk revival, including Martin Carthy, Isla St Clair, and Shirley Collins.
Whilst we are into the ‘vintage’ folk section, it is worth noting that My Very Favourite Nursery Rhyme Record by Tim Hart and Friends (1981) is now available to download. This 32-track record is a mixed bag. Some of the tracks, featuring Maddie Prior’s unmistakable voice, sound like they should be on a Steeleye Span album (in a good way), while others make alarmingly frequent use of synthetisers. Forearmed is forewarned.
The good people of the Putumayo ‘world music’ label continue to produce high-quality compilations (CDs/Digital Downloads) aimed for children. World Playground (1999) and World Playground 2 (2001), Putumayo’s early ventures into the juvenile market, provide good quality music rooted in traditions from across the globe. While the songs are specially selected to appeal to children, they are not necessarily ‘nursery’ songs. These two albums remain my go-to-choice for upbeat music at children’s parties. Although, perhaps I should also invest in another one of the eight lively children’s albums they currently have available.
Music books for kids
If someone in your family can read ‘dots’ or knows a few guitar chords then, amongst the many available publications, I can recommend The Funny Family by Alison McMorland (1978), which features a raft of lesser-known songs/rhymes collected by the author and includes a number of witty illustrations by Kevin Maddison. Though long out of print, it’s currently cheap to buy on the second-hand market. Strawberry Fair: 51 Traditional Songs (1985), printed by A&C Black, is the mass-market’s answer to the ‘trad’ problem. Obviously designed for schools, it is nonetheless a nice introduction to some British classic folk songs. Perhaps more importantly, this book prepares young folkies for what the classical world considers to be a standard folk song. There are some simple black-and-white illustrations and an accompanying CD which, with its sparse piano accompaniment, is not a great listening record in its own right.
Folk books for kids
Turning from music to the written word, not a year seems to go by without a new collection of nursery rhymes being published. My local second-hand bookshop has provided me with many such compendiums. If I were to have my Desert Island Discs moment and be forced to pick a single edition, it would have to be The Jackie Morris Book of Classic Nursery Rhymes (2020) initially printed as The Cat and the Fiddle: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (2010). Jackie Morris has also drawn upon folkloric themes for her books such as the Scottish selkie myth for The Seal Children (2005). As an illustrator, she created The Lost Words (2017) with Robert MacFarlane, which spawned the The Spell Songs project with Julie Fowlis, Karine Polwart, and Kris Drever (amongst others). Aside from her beautiful illustrations and folkie-leanings, this is a solid collection of nursery rhymes which perfectly fills the 10-minute bedtime slot without overstaying its welcome.
Traditional themes pop up in a number of children’s books. For sheer twee nostalgia, you can’t go wrong with Grey Rabbit’s May Day by Alison Uttley (1963), which practically overflows with folkloric references to British May Day customs. Sadly, my just-turned-three-year-old son finds Uttley’s books to have a disappointingly low vehicle-to-word ratio. Perhaps he might be more amenable in a couple of years. Thankfully, May Day also features in Graham Oakley’s Diary of a Church Mouse (1986) wherein Sampson the Church Cat is decked out as The Queen of the May (although the cat’s mascho-heteronormativity did strike me as generally unhelpful in my quest to parent balanced children). Thankfully, I have no such qualms about the maypole dance squeezed into the gorgeously illustrated re-telling of the Medieval English legend The Green Children (1997, by medievalist, Kevin Crossley-Holland). The illustrator, Chris Riddell, sneaks in a morris dancing pirate fiddler in Neil Gaiman’s Pirate Stew (2020), which almost makes up for the book’s ghastly rhyming structure. A more heartfelt overall recommendation comes in for Dick King Smith’s absolutely charming The Whistling Piglet (1990), the plot of which hinges upon the 17th-century catch song or round attributed to John Hilton (‘Come Follow Follow Me’).
A trip to see the Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain exhibition at Compton Verney (a great venue for families, by the way) prompted a detour to the gallery shop. There I acquired not only two tea towels designed by Penny Macbeth printed with his-and-hers morris dancers which can be turned into cloth dolls, but three books I’m squirrelling away for a few years. Rob Flower’s Festival Folk – An Atlas of Carnival Customs and Costumes (2019), Claire Cock-Starkey’s Lore of the Wild (2021) and Lore of the Land (2022). All three books brim with beautiful bright illustrations which are a joy to behold. However, they all suffer from lack of depth, giving a shiny Staffordshire lustre-ware glaze to most of the content. Still, I’m hoping that these attractive publications will act as a starting point for an interest in folklore which will eventually progress to the writings of Steve Roud.
Folk TV for kids
Moving from page to screen, recent programmes fail to come anywhere close to Bagpuss in terms of folk content. The 13 episodes, originally released in 1974, featured the beautiful music of Sandra Kerr and John Faulker, although I find myself needing to fast-forward through the long two-minute introductions of sepia footage in order to keep my son engaged. Thankfully no fast-forwarding is necessary with the BBC’s adaptation of Joel Stewart’s Abney and Teal series (2011), which features the melodeon playing of Tim Van Eyken. Sadly, Ragdoll productions seem to have only paid Tim for one, or possibly two (lively household debate continues) 14-second samples, which is a pity as he features on every episode, sometimes multiple times.
Last but not least, lullabies. Ah, lullabies. Let me tell you, I’ve experienced one-too-many gut-wrenchingly synthetic versions of ‘Rock a Bye Baby’. Thankfully, over the course of three years and two babies I’ve been able to sift through the dross and have discovered some remarkably delightful albums. Jackie Oates’s Lullabies (2013) is a wonderfully eclectic selection of gentle bedtime songs, sung and arranged by one of the doyens of the contemporary English folk scene. My two favourite lullaby compilations are Putumayo’s Celtic Dreamland (2007) and The Rough Guide to Celtic Lullabies (2012), both of which include well-known artists such as Dougie MacLean and Teresa Doyle. The Rough Guide also throw in a bonus harp lullaby CD by Irish harpist, Gráinne Hambly. However, my very favourite CD on my lullaby roster is Christina Stewart’s Kist O’Dreams (2010). Also available as a song book, the selection of material is inspiring – many of songs are the result of stringent musical ferreting. I also love the simple arrangements and general lack of effects which almost make it seem as if Christina is actually in the room gently lulling my youngest to sleep.
For Welsh language children’s folk music, Daffydd Iwan’s 1973 album ‘Fuoch Chi Rioed Yn Morio’ is absolutely excellent