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On Children Songs
- by Roy Bailey Issue 50 January/February 2003


Let me tell you a story. It was a long time ago yet not so far away (although that depends on where you are as you read this!). 1966. "Let's make a childen's album", Leon said. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We were interested in children. Val was carrying our first child - Katherine - and Leon had written some songs for young people. So, Bill Leader (of Leader and Trailer Records), Leon Rosselson, Val and I set off on a recording trip that was to echo down the years. The album was called "Oats and Beans and Kangaroos". Fontana Records bought the master and our first children's album was released early in 1967 on a new label, "Fontana Special" at 14/6 (fourteen shillings and sixpence!). In today's currency that's about 75p! It proved quite successful. A lot of young people grew up with that record - including Kate Rusby, her brother, Joe and sister, Emma (so their dad, Steve, tells me).

In the late 1980's grown-ups would approach me and tell me how much their mother liked me! I suppose their intention was to say something nice! (All I heard was: "gosh aren't you old!") "...She bought me an album when I was little and in my pram!" They had grown up. "Oats and Beans and Kangaroos" had long gone. They urged me to make another children's album as they had their own kids now. I used to explain that that album was a "one-off". I didn't do children's songs. Then, in 1989, I was at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and was approached by Marjorie McLean, then the Director of the Vancouver Children's Festival. She had heard about the earlier album and was keen to invite me to the next children's festival in 1990. After some hesitation, I accepted. I returned home filled with doubts as to whether I had made a mistake. After all, I didn't sing children's songs. I decided I needed to do some work and I would also make another album for young people. I began to think about how to select songs for children.

I certainly didn't want to do silly things with inconsequential words and sounds. The songs had to say something sensible and of interest to young people at various ages, after all the Vancouver Children's Festival attracted an age range from months to teens. Leon had written some songs that at that time he hadn't recorded and we agreed I might record some of them, including Skin, Vitamin Dance, Questions, Flying High Flying Free and others. I also thought that a few of the songs from the original record should be revived. That album was no longer available and the songs were too good to leave lying in a box of second hand records in some dusty junk shop: "Why Does It Have To Be Me?", Kangaroos Like to Hop" and "Nasty Spider". I had also met Fred Small and discovered his wonderful song "Everything Possible". I wanted to say this to my children and others - grown-ups included!

I used to be an academic and as an external examiner at University College, Cork, in the Republic of Ireland, I had the good fortune to meet John Maguire - Professor of Political Science. We discovered a mutual interest in our extra curricula activities, namely folk songs and children's stories and songs. He had written some songs and poems and kindly agreed to allow me to include some of them on the album. I especially liked the poem entitled "People". It is about the huge variety of different people we all meet in our lives and without actually saying it out loud, is an encouragement of tolerance of diversity. Songs and poems were emerging that fitted my criteria of "something to say". I don't pretend to offer answers. I'd rather raise issues and a few questions through songs and hope they will "speak" to people of all ages of something serious and most importantly, be entertaining. You don't have to be solemn to be serious. My sense of humour is attracted to satire and commentory - to Richard Prior, Robin Williams, Billy Connolly and Eddie Izzard

"Why Does It Have To Be Me?" became the album title and has proved perhaps my most successful recording - as an album, a cassette and finally as a CD. It remains a popular item all year round. Children make requests for songs as varied as "Skin" to "Everything Possible". Someone once questioned my inclusion of "Everything Possible" on a children's record. Their view of what constituted a children's song was and probably remains, very different from mine.

At Whitby Folk Festival last year (2001) a young girl of 11 or 12 years old, in one of the singarounds, was very keen that I should hear her sing Si Kahn's song "What You Do With What You've Got". This wouldn't "normally" be described as a children's song. The point is children listen and participate in much more than we grown-ups often give them credit for. We think of children as simply young and we have a pre-set image of them. What do they know or care about grown-up stuff? I suspect more than we realise.

Children are not taken seriously except in a slightly condescending way. People who entertain children are admired as much for their patience and tolerance as for their talent and art. Our idealised concept of children is of innocence. During the 19th century as children were released from the necessity to work and contribute to the family income, so there developed the social concept of innocence but at a considerable price.

I was once invited to participate in a public debate in Canada on children and their rights, including the right to vote! I and others, argued the next great Electoral Reform Bill should be to abolish the age of majority when people have the right to vote. We should enfranchise everyone. As you can imagine this caused some alarm. Ridiculous! Absurd! Stupid! What do children know of the world to enable them to vote? They'll just vote the way their parents tell them to vote. Oddly, these are exactly what men said to resist women's right to vote! What do women know and understand? They'll do what their husbands tell them.! Women and children were coupled together. They could not understand the complex and responsible task that voting entails. I've met young schoolchildren of 14/15/16 years of age who are aware, articulate and familiar with current political and social issues. I've also met many grown-ups of 20/30/40 years of age and more, who haven't a clue as to what's going on in their street or their town, let alone their country and beyond. Men offered their "protection" and in return denied rights other than to be protected. I doubt education would ever be underfunded if school children had the vote! Politicians would not simply pat the child on the head and talk to the parents. Their interest wouldn't just be to be photographed with them. It would be in the politician's interest to listen to what they had to say.

In the 1980's I was elected Chair of Theatre in Education at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. I became a member of the Theatre's Board of Directors. I learned much about our views of children and of those who entertain them. The actors in T.I.E. were not really taken seriously by "proper" actors i.e. actors for grown-ups! T.I.E. was where you might start but if successful, you'd be promoted to proper acting, namely to adult audiences. This is often defended by arguing that children's shows don't bring the people in. This just isn't true. The annual pantomime, a traditional Christmas show for children, for many of our theatres, is the show that contributes most to meeting the cost of the rest of the year - namely of "adult" productions. In some cases the pantomime renders the theatre solvent! A poor response to pantomime and the deficit is even greater!

At the Vancouver Children's Festival I was astounded at the skills, talents and sheer artistry of many of the performers I met yet I had never heard of any of them. The arts intelligentsia, the critics, the cultural aparatus simply don't noticed them. If you perform to and for marginal groups you join their marginality.

Children's songs are important vehicles for entertaining and engaging children in the world. Sing to your children. Talk to them. Listen to them. Play with them. Challenge them as growing, intelligent people. Perhaps we could avoid horrors such as in April 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Nevada. (Changing the USA gun laws would help too!)

I've just released another CD for children. Well, for my grandaughter Jessica to be exact and ALL grandchildren. I've included songs that some might not acknowledge as children's songs. But Jessica and others will grow up with these songs and hopefully, come back and listen to them when they're young adults and possibly in some cases, as parents, uncles and aunties. I want to speak to children of all ages - from under six to over sixties! Jessica's dad asked me to record On Children from Kahlil Gibran's poem "The Prophet". It may not be a children's song in the conventional sense but it expresses a view that Val and I are happy to offer to all children and their parents and I believe they can enjoy and learn from it.

I'll leave you with a sound piece of advice given to me some years ago by a wonderful children's entertainer, Sandra Kerr: the secret of success she told me is to treat children as adults and treat adults as children. She's got a point I think! If you buy "Up The Wooden Hill", I hope you enjoy it.

Roy Bailey


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