Children's song may be a nursery rhyme set to music, a song that young children invent and share among themselves, or a modern creation intended for entertainment, use in the home, or education. Although children’s songs have been recorded and studied in some cultures more than others, they appear to be universal in human society.
Pioneers of the academic study of children’s culture Iona and Peter Opie divided children’s songs into those taught to children by adults, which when part of a traditional culture they saw as nursery rhymes, and those that children taught to each other, which formed part of the independent culture of childhood. A further use of the term is for songs written for the entertainment, or education, of children, usually in the modern era. In practice none of these categories is entirely discreet, since, for example, children often reuse and adapt nursery rhymes and many songs now considered as traditional were deliberately written by adults for commercial ends.
The Opies further divided nursery rhymes into a number of classes, including:
Playground or children’s street rhymes they sub-divided into two major groups, those associated with games and those that were entertainments, the second category including:
- Improper verses
- Joke rhymes
- Nonsense verse
- Macabre rhymes
- Popular songs
In addition since the advent of popular music publication in the nineteenth century a large number of songs have been produced for and often adopted by children. Many of these follow the form of nursery rhymes and children’s songs and have sometimes been adopted as such. They can be seen to have arisen from a number of sources including:
Nursery or Mother Goose rhymes
The term nursery rhyme is used for ‘traditional’ songs for young children in Britain and many English speaking countries, but usage only dates from the nineteenth century and in North America the older ‘Mother Goose Rhymes’ is still often used. The oldest children's songs of which we have records are lullabies, which can be found in every human culture. The Roman nurses' lullaby, 'Lalla, Lalla, Lalla, aut dormi, aut lacte', may be the oldest to survive. Many medieval English verses associated with the birth of Jesus take the form of a lullaby, including "Lullay, my liking, my dere son, my sweting" and may be versions of contemporary lullabies.
However, most of those used today date from the seventeenth century onwards. We know that some rhymes were medieval or sixteenth century in origin, including 'To market, to market' and 'Cock a doodle doo', but most were not written down until the eighteenth century, when the publishing of children's books began to move towards entertainment. The first English collections were Tommy Thumb's Song Book and a sequel, Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, both thought to have been published before 1744, and at this point such songs were known as 'Tommy Thumb's songs'. The publication of John Newbery's Mother Goose's Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle (c.1785), is the first record we have of many classic rhymes, still in use today. These rhymes seem to have come from a variety of sources, including traditional riddles, proverbs, ballads, lines of Mummers' plays, drinking songs, historical events, and, it has been suggested, ancient pagan rituals. Roughly half of the current body of recognised 'traditional' English rhymes were known by the mid-eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century printed collections of rhymes began to spread to other countries, including Robert Chambers's Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1826) and in the United States, Mother Goose's Melodies (1833). From this period we sometimes know the origins and authors of rhymes, like 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star', which combined an eighteenth-century French tune with a poem by English writer Jane Taylor and 'Mary Had a Little Lamb', written by Sarah Josepha Hale of Boston in 1830. Early folk song collectors also often collected nursery rhymes, including in Scotland Sir Walter Scott and in Germany Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim in Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1806–8). The first, and possibly the most important academic collection to focus in this area was James Orchard Halliwell's, The Nursery Rhymes of England (1842) and Popular Rhymes and Tales in 1849. By the time of Sabine Baring-Gould's A Book of Nursery Songs (1895), child folklore was an academic study, full of comments and foot-notes. The early years of the twentieth century are notable for the illustrations to children's books including Caldecott's Hey Diddle Diddle Picture Book (1909) and Arthur Rackham's Mother Goose (1913). The definitive study of English rhymes remains the work of Iona and Peter Opie.
Children’s playground and street songs
In contrast to nursery rhymes, which are learned in childhood and passed from adults to children only after a gap of twenty or sometimes forty years, children's playground and street songs, like all children's lore, are learned and passed on almost immediately. The Opies noted that this had two important effects: the rapid transmission of new and adjusted versions of songs, which could cover a country like Great Britain in perhaps a month without anything but oral transmission and second, the process of 'wear and repair' as songs were changed, modified and fixed where words or phrases were forgotten, misunderstood or updated.
Origins of songs
Some rhymes collected in the mid-twentieth century can be seen to have origins as early in the eighteenth century. Where sources could be identified they were often taken from popular song, including ballads, music hall and minstrel shows. Children also have a tendency to recycle nursery rhymes, children's commercial songs and adult music in satirical versions. A good example is the theme for the mid-1950s Disney film Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, 'The Ballad of Davy Crockett', with a tune by George Bruns, whose opening lines: 'Born on a mountain top in Tennessee / The greenest state in the land of the free' was endlessly satirised to make Crockett a spaceman, parricide and even a Teddy boy.
Many children's playground and street songs are connected to particularly games. These include clapping games like 'Miss Susie', played in America, 'A sailor went to sea' from Britain, and 'Mpeewa' played in parts of Africa. Many traditional Māori children's games, some of them with educational applications, such as hand movement, stick and string games, were accompanied by particular songs. In the Congo the traditional game 'A Wa Nsabwee' is played by two children synchronising hand and other movements while singing. Skipping games like 'Double Dutch' have been seen as important in the formation of hip hop and rap music.
Other songs have a variety of patterns and contexts. Many of the verses used by children had an element of transgression, and several have satirical aims. The parody of adult songs, like Christmas carols with alternative verses, such as the rewriting of 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by night' to 'While shepherds washed their socks at night' and numerous variations, was a large element in British playgrounds investigated by the Opies in the twentieth century. With the growth of media and advertising in some countries advertising jingles, and parody of those jingles, has become a regular feature of children's songs, including the 'Macdonald's song' in the USA, which played against adult desire for ordered and healthy eating. Humour is a major factor in children's songs, although the nature of the English language, with its many double meanings for words, may mean that it possesses more punning songs than other cultures, although they are found in other cultures, for example China. Nonsense verse and song, like that of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, has been a major part of publication for children and some of this has been absorbed by children, while many verses seem to have been invented by children themselves.
Commercial children’s music
Commercial children's music grew out of the popular music publishing industry, associated with New York's Tin Pan Alley in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Early songs included "Ten little fingers and ten little toes" by Ira Shuster and Edward G. Nelson and "School days" (1907) by Gus Edwards and Will Cobb. Perhaps the best remembered now is "Teddy Bears' Picnic", with lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy in 1932 and the tune by British composer John William Bratton was from 1907. As recording technology developed, children's songs were soon being sold on record; in 1888, the first recorded discs (called "plates") offered for sale included Mother Goose nursery rhymes. The earliest record catalogues of several seminal figures in the recording industry such as Edison, Berliner, and Victor all contained separate children's sections. Until the 1950s the major record companies produced albums for children, mostly based on popular cartoons or nursery rhymes and read by major stars of theatre or film. The role of Disney in children's cinema from the 1930s meant that it gained a unique place in the production of children's music, beginning with 'Minnies Yoo Hoo' (1930). After the production of their first feature-length animation Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, with its highly successful score by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey, the mould for a combination of animation, fairy tale and distinctive songs was set that would carry through to the 1970s with songs from films such as Pinocchio (1940) and Song of the South (1946). The mid-twentieth century baby boomers provided a growing market for children's music. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Ella Jenkins were among politically progressive and socially conscious performers who aimed albums to this group. Novelty recordings like "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (a Montgomery Ward jingle that became a book and later a classic children's movie) and the fictional music group "The Chipmunks" were among the most commercially successful music ventures of the time. In the 1960s, as the baby boomers matured and became more politically aware, they embraced both the substance and politics of folk ("the people's") music. Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Limeliters, and Tom Paxton were acclaimed folk artists who wrote albums for children. From the 1970s television, with programmes like Sesame Street became the dominant force in children's music. In the early 1990s, songwriter, record producer, and performer Bobby Susser, emerged with his award-winning young children's songs and series, Bobby Susser Songs For Children, that exemplified the use of children's songs to educate young children in schools and at home. Disney also re-entered the market for animated musical features, beginning with The Little Mermaid (1989) from which the song "Under the Sea" won an Oscar, and was the first of a string of Oscar winning best songs. The twenty-first century has also seen an increase in the number of independent children's music artists, with acts like Dan Zanes, Cathy Bollinger, and Laurie Berkner getting wide exposure on cable TV channels targeted to children. Trout Fishing in America has achieved much acclaim continuing the tradition of merging sophisticated folk music with family-friendly lyrics. Also recently, traditionally rock-oriented acts like They Might Be Giants have released albums marketed directly to children, such as No! and Here Come the ABCs.
- Simon Mayor and Hilary James – Lullabies with Mandolins CD (2004)] Children's Favourites from Acoustics (2005)
- Mike and Peggy Seeger – American Folk Songs for Children (1955)
- Isla St Clair – My Generation (2003)
- Broadside Band – Old English Nursery Rhymes
- Tim Hart and Friends – My Very Favourite Nursery Rhyme Record (1981)
- Bobby Susser – Wiggle Wiggle And Other Exercises (1996)
- Various Artists - Hello Children Everywhere Vols. 1-4 EMI Records (1988-1991)
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Granada, 1977), p. 21.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 12–19.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Granada, 1977), p. 37.
- H. Carpenter and M. Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 383.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), p. 6.
- H. Carpenter and M. Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 326.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 30–1, 47–8, 128–9 and 299.
- H. Carpenter and M. Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 382–3.
- H. Carpenter and M. Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 363–4.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997).
- H. Carpenter and M. Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 384.
- R. M. Dorson, The British Folklorists: a History (Taylor & Francis, 1999), p. 67.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Granada, 1977), p. 27.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Granada, 1977), p. 26.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Granada, 1977), p. 33.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Granada, 1977), pp. 138–40.
- S. E. D. Wilkins, Sports and games of medieval cultures(Greenwood, 2002), p. 32.
- M. McLean, Maori Music (Auckland University Press, 1996), pp. 147–64.
- T. Mukenge, Culture and customs of the Congo (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002), p. 56.
- K. D. Gaunt, The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-hop (New York University Press, 2006), pp. 158–80.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Granada, 1977), pp. 107–17.
- Simon J. Bronner, American children's folklore (August House, 1988), p. 96.
- Roger T. Ames, Sin-wai Chan, Mau-sang Ng, Dim Cheuk Lau, Interpreting culture through translation: a festschrift for D.C. Lau (Chinese University Press, 1991), pp. 38–9.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Granada, 1977), pp. 37–44.
- E. C. Axford, Song Sheets to Software: A Guide to Print Music, Software, and Web Sites for Musicians (Scarecrow Press, 2004), p. 18.
- P. Van der Merwe, Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Western Music (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 436.
- D. A. Jasen, Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song (Taylor & Francis, 2003), p. 111.
- D. A. Jasen, Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song (Taylor & Francis, 2003), pp. 111–12.
- Educational Dealer, August, 1997
- D. A. Jasen, Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song (Taylor & Francis, 2003), p. 113.
- Lullabies of Europe/Languages from the Cradle A European Union, government funded, education project to collect lullabies (in their native language) from across Europe – includes samples in 7 languages.