Check It Out: Elizabeth Mitchell – Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie

July 14, 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birthday and just a few days before that Smithsonian Folkways released ”Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie” by Elizabeth Mitchell, the only CD of Guthrie’s children’s songs coinciding with the Woody Guthrie Centennial. This is Mitchell’s third release from the Smithsonian Folkways label and her sixth children’s album to date. “Little Seed” is a mix of 8 previously released tracks and 5 newly-recorded tracks by Mitchell which sound great laid out on one album together.

The songs covered on “Little Seed” stem from two of Woody Guthrie’s children’s albums, recorded in 1947, called “Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child” and “Nursery Days.” Like Guthrie, Mitchell is a folk frontrunner and icon in her own right, being the first female artist signed to the Smithsonian Folkways label and certainly one of the most beloved artists within the kid’s music scene. So it is with little surprise that Elizabeth Mitchell released a children’s album in celebration of Woody Guthrie’s life. And, while all of her music in the last 10+ years has been directed towards children and families, her sound is highly portable and could very well crossover into the adult arena without a snicker or sneer.

In comparison to the otherwise dusty recordings of the Guthrie originals, Mitchell brings color and life to her re-imagined versions on “Little Seed.” Not to mention she very easily glides through some complex tongue-twisting lyrics, which happen to remind me of a few Dr. Seuss books, making it even easier to follow along than some of the originals. Mitchell’s voice is soothing and clear like a serene lake and refreshing like a cold glass of water on a hot day.

“Little Seed” contains regularly covered classics like “Riding In My Car” which features Mitchell’s niece’s sweet little voice singing along and laughing about a frog riding in a car, and “Bling Blang” which is brought to life by the upbeat rhythm of some chest thumps and knee slaps. There is also an ode to the wonderment with which a child experiences while riding on a carousel in “Merry Go Round” which personifies the experience of riding a pony and reels us into the innocence and wonder of a child’s imagination. The lyrics so sweetly and vividly bring the pony to life as Mitchell sings /come lets rub the ponies hair…/now let’s climb on the ponies back…/pick up my reins and buckle my straps…/it’s faster now my pony runs/up to the mooon and down to the sun/my pony runs to the music and drums/around and around and around/now he runs as fast as the wind and gallops and trots and dances a jig/ my pony is tired and wants to slow down/around and around and around.

Mitchell is not alone in the arrangement and production of this album. As in previous albums, her daughter Storey and her husband Daniel Littleton join in with additional vocals and instrumentation. I particularly like the dimension Littleton’s voice adds on “Why Oh Why” and his guitar solo on “Who’s My Pretty Baby,” which happens to be a beloved Elizabeth Mitchell classic in our home.

Additional artists like Dean Jones from Dog On Fleas, as well as Clem Waldmann, a recognized percussionist from Blue Man Group and his wife Kristen Jacobsen also join in broadening the depth of the sound, further bringing Guthrie’s songs to life. The addition of the the balafon, played by Dean Jones, and the flute played by Clem’s wife Kristen Jacobsen in “Sleep Eye,” one of my favorites on this album, brings a playful element to the song. Also notable is Clem Waldmann’s percussive accompaniment on “Rattle my Rattle” which is funky and adds more space to the updated version; whereas Guthrie’s version feels slightly more rushed in order to keep up with the complexity of his own words and much like a baby shaking a rattle.

“Little Seed” was a sentimental project for Mitchell as the discovery of Guthrie’s children’s album “Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child” is what inspired her to start making music for children. She has done an excellent job of capturing Woody’s sweet, loving and sensitive side in her celebration of his life.

The album is 29 minutes long, available for purchase or download through Amazon and is packaged with 20 pages of liner notes containing snippets of lyrics and beautiful photos of Mitchell and her family; it’s a beautiful keepsake for already devoted fans, as well as, newcomers. The booklet also contains a bit of historical fact and references for literary works that have been published on Woody, as well as the song “This Land Is Your Land.” Mitchell not only includes this song on the album, even though it was not intended to be a children’s song when Woody first wrote it, but makes a point of singing three verses that are often left out in more recent versions of the song.

Should you wish to download the album and liner notes, you can find them at the Smithsonian Folkways website, which also offers the option to buy the CD. Either way, it’s an excellent sampler which will invite your family into the beautiful world Mitchell creates through her music. These are classic little ballads that should be passed down (and most likely will be) through generations, as Woody’s songs have thus far.

Recommended for ages 0 – 5, however, older ones will most likely enjoy trying to keep up with Mitchell as she sings some of the quick repetitive verses.

Below is a video released a while ago created for an HBO animated family series.

Grassy Grass Grass [courtesy of YouTube]

View This: Caspar Babypants – The Frogs

Two Plush Two Productions brings us another adorable video for one of my favorite Caspar songs “The Frogs” (although that’s not saying much because so many of Caspar’s songs fall under the category of “my favorite”).  This video features a singing bear and, you guessed it, frogs!  It’s lots of fun and reminds me of Sugar Smacks cereal but without the cavities and sugar induced hysteria that usually occurs after a little one consumes the teensiest big of sugar.

Two Plush Two is a video production company specializing in storytelling through the eyes of stuffed animals.  The videos are quirky, funny and adorable.

To date, they have produced 3 Caspar Babypants videos in addition to “The Frogs” which include “Baby’s Getting Up” and “Light It Up.”  They have also done interpretations of Cake’s “The Distance” and Men At Work’s “Who Can It Be Now.”

Enjoy! [Courtesy of YouTube]

View This: Randy Kaplan – Ice Cream Rag

Ice Cream Rag, one of the singles off the newly released “Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie,” was recorded by during one of Randy’s live shows at McCabe’s guitar shop in Santa Monica, CA.  And since it’s the summer, it’s very appropriate as ice cream is a yummy necessity for the enjoyment of this season.  Enjoy!
[Courtesy of YouTube]

Check It Out: Randy Kaplan – Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie

Oh yeah, it’s time for another Randy Kaplan release! Randy is a regular listen at our house and his latest release, “Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie,” has been played so much that we have now started referring to him on a first name basis. As in, “I want Randy, Mom!”

Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie, recently awarded a 2012 Gold Award from NAPPA (National Parenting Publications Award) and included in People Magazine’s “8 Cool Kids’ Albums Now!” is Randy’s fourth not-JUST-for-kids release and probably our favorite to date.  The album is a period piece of sorts in which Randy brings us the blues! And boy am I a sucker for the blues. On this album we are taken on a journey through the great musical heritage of country blues and ragtime from the 1920s, 30s and 40s and actually taught a thing or two about the masters who made up the genre.  Some of the most mysterious and wildly talented bluesmen and women are covered here from the likes of Robert Johnson, one of the most influential artists of his time to Muddy Waters, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Bessie Smith and Elizabeth Cotten whose “Freight Train” was covered on Randy’s first kids album, “Five Cent Piece.” So, although Randy has dabbled in the blues before, we now get to experience a full-length celebration of one of the greatest periods of music. And it’s fantastic!

Various segments of the album are introduced by the craggy voice of Lightnin’ Bodkins, a blues historian extraordinaire who got his blues name because he was a lightning fast knitter back in his day (emeritus president of the Mississippi Mitten Guild, to be exact). Lightnin’ not only provides tidbits of history and sources for each song that Randy covers on the album (both in-between songs and throughout the liner notes), but also participates in some comedic interplay as he tries to cajole Randy into having a blues name for himself. Lightnin’ gets pretty crafty as he strings together hilarious combinations based on things like pools (“Chlorine Kaplan”), breakfast food (“Papa Waffle Kaplan”) and even goes as far as creating a formula based on ailments + fruit + a president of the United States to produce Chicken Pox Kiwi Cleveland, for example.

Randy’s talents lie within his ability to recognize other artists’ talents and successfully blend them together with his own. On Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie, the sound of the original songs is mainly intact with the addition of Randy’s masterful storytelling, as well as, accompanying instruments such as drums, bass, trombone, tuba, banjo, mandolin and even a washboard, giving the songs more depth and in some cases a jazzy New Orleans type of feel. Additionally, kids play an integral part in bringing some of these songs to life, adding some serious laugh out loud moments as they interject, inquire, make irrational demands, shake their tushes and even yodel along with Randy. There is even an inquisition in the song “In A Timeout Now” in which a girl from the chorus challenges Randy on whether timeouts existed when he was a kid by asking “aren’t you being anachronistic?” It’s basically an example of Randy’s approach to making kids music. He plays it straight, assuming kids are capable of understanding a lot more than we might expect.

Opening the album is a fiery Robert Johnson ragtime number which Em refers to as “the tasty song.” “They’re Red Hot” is a fast paced ragtime jig with a catchy chorus “Hot Tamales and They’re Red Hot” that will get you and your family up and moving as if you just ate some hot tamales.

There are several songs about bullies which provide enough of a message to kids about the consequences of being mean. “In A Time Out Now,” adapted from Jimmie Rodgers’ “In The Jailhouse Now,” does an excellent job of drawing a parallel between timeouts and being in jail. The song features a troublemaker named Carl who is constantly trailed by his Mom and consequently gets “throwed in the can” for tormenting Randy and his friends. “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon”, a Bessie Smith tune, features some hubris on Randy’s part as his 10-year old self defends his right to help a girl in his class with her math homework by referring to a bully as a metaphorical wagon who is past his prime (which was his single digit years). As a result, the bully starts to fake cry and, as Randy says “he let out a counterfeit hoax of a howl and a dissembling invention of attention.” And then there is a Blind Blake inspired tune called “That Will Never Happen No More” featuring Denise, a childhood tormentor whom Randy was in elementary school and sleepaway camp with. In this song, Denise comes up with ways to terrorize Randy including giving him lice and dropping a bowling ball on his big toe.

Other notables songs include “Ice Cream Rag”, a rag about getting the Ice Cream Man’s attention in which Randy comes up with a plan to do a dance called the “Pigeon Wing” which he is sure will not only capture the Ice Cream Man’s attention but may just crown him the Official Ice Cream King. Not only does the song feature some tap dancing but we get to hear some mighty fine scat singing along the way.

“Green Green Rocky Road” is a sweet, sweet Dave Van Ronk inspired song in which Randy asks the chorus of kids who they love. As Randy sings “Green Green Rocky Road/ promenade in green/ tell me who you love/ tell me who you love,” the kids reply with things like their dog, Dad, brother, pet bird, and even piano teacher. It’s a perfect song to engage in with your kids and what better topic to discuss than those you love.

Finally, “Black Mountain Blues” is a creative song about a land where babies cry grape juice tears and it’s illegal for cats to sharpen their nails. I happen to personally know two cats who wouldn’t live a free life if they found themselves on Black Mountain, ahem. Kids are also able to make irrational demands and are prompted to dole them out at the end of the song and they gladly do with things like wearing shorts in the snow and even having the power to have all the powers in the world.

Randy Kaplan has made quite a name for himself in the kindie music scene. With his serious storytelling chops and musicianship, he has won over both kids and adults alike. In my mind, Randy is a pioneer who is able to tackle a wide range of styles from broadway to blues underscoring the fact that he is one of the most versatile and creative voices in kids music today.

Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie is being released by MyKaZoo Music and runs for about 1 hour containing 17 songs with 7 segments featuring Lightnin’ Bodkins. The CD contains 20 colorful pages of liner notes giving kids more information on what they are listening to, and features Randy posing as some of the great bluesman he pays tribute to, creating a pleasing visual element to tie it all together.

I could totally see this as a Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 series but I will gladly take the full-length of Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie for now. Very highly recommended and appropriate for kids ages 3-10, but adults may just find themselves reaching for a listen without their kids.

As the almost eponymous title track suggests, listening to this is good for your health and will put a spring in your step.

You can preview the album on Randy’s MySpage page here, as well as download and/or purchase Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie from Amazon.

Full Disclosure: I received a copy of this album for review.