Pete Seeger’s Animal Folk Songs

By request of my kid, I’ve been listening a lot to Pete Seeger’s children’s record, Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes: Animal Folk Songs. Originally released in 1955, it’s a collection of traditional folk songs for kids, many of which his stepmother Ruth Crawford Seeger had transcribed from Library of Congress field recordings. The songs get me thinking…

I think of listening to it with my parents when I was a kid.

I think of how hard it is to pull off kid-friendly songs without being corny, condescending, or cloying, and how effortlessly he does it.

I think of how, considering that he was singing already-old songs in the fifties, it’s amazing how the songs don’t have any racial stereotypes or other objectionable content (other than a certain comfort level with talking about death, which it seems was part of the culture back then, as it may come to be again today).

I think of how the songs’ strange magical-realist rural imagery evoke the Anthology of American Folk Music, the early folk anthology that permanently blew my mind when my friend Taylor Savvy introduced it to me in the late 90s. (In fact, the Seeger record and the AAFM share one song, “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” one of my Anthology favourites). 

I think of how Pete Seeger was a dedicated socialist his whole life, and was indicted for contempt of Congress for having refused to answer questions at the McCarthy hearings.

I think of him singing “This Land is Your Land” with Bruce Springsteen at the Obama inauguration (and I want to cry when I think about that moment vs. this one).

I think of how much I regret not going to see Seeger when he played in Montreal sometime in the late 2000s. What the hell was I thinking—that I would see him next time he came?! He was in his 90s, and died not too long after.

All these thoughts have a thread—the times that are gone, that will never return.

But my five-year-old son doesn’t know any of this—he just listens, sings along, and asks us to play it again and again. There must be something to it.

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