Styles & Forms | Children’s Songs | Popular & Novelty

Children’s songs have evolved from mothers’ lullabies to teachers’ nursery rhymes to the singalong numbers of TV and film. Through all of their incarnations, they have retained the same stylistic values: a melodic, upbeat mood; a catchy, easily repeatable chorus; and lyrics that tell a story.

Many popular musicians have released child-friendly songs. The 1960s, in particular, saw a glut of light-hearted, escapist fantasies, such as Peter, Paul & Mary’s ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ (1963) and The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ (1966), both of which remain classroom favourites on both sides of the Atlantic. But, partly because pre-teens make up a small fraction of listening audiences and wield relatively little purchasing power, there have been few successful specialist children’s musicians in the pop era.

The Dominance Of The Screen

Most new children’s songs have come to prominence via movies and musicals, whether it is Julie Andrews’ rendition of the nonsense classic ‘Supercalifragilisticexpiali-docious’ in Mary Poppins (1964) or the sentimentality of Elton John’s ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ in The Lion King (1994).

But, since television schedules began to increasingly target youthful audiences in the 1950s, the small screen has been the most important arbiter of juvenile musical tastes. Once children have become attached to a TV programme’s characters, they will inevitably be attracted to any musical spin-off. A string of shows, from The Chipmunks (late-1950s and 1960s) and The Banana Splits (1968–72) in America, to Pinky And Perky (late-1950s to 1970s), Barney (1992–present) and Bob The Builder (1999–present) in the UK, spawned popular songs. The latter’s effort, ‘Can We Fix It?’, became the UK’s best-selling single of 2000.

The Muppets

The most popular children’s entertainer on television in the twentieth century was Jim Henson, whose menagerie of Muppets was the focus for both Sesame Street (1969–present) and The Muppet Show (1976–81). But his most high-profile musical venture was a surprisingly poignant ballad performed by his best-loved Muppet, Kermit the Frog. ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’ had kids blubbing from Seattle to Sheffield; its anti-racist subtext made it that rarest of things: a children’s song with a socio-political message.

Listen With Mother

But television was not the answer for all parents. Unhappy with the quality of music available for her children in the 1980s, Linda Arnold, a New Yorker with a background in folk and documentary music, started a record label named Ariel (after her daughter) and wrote, recorded and released Make Believe, in 1986. Six more albums followed, and she gained a fan base of mothers and children, making live appearances at zoos and museums. Dubbed ‘the Mary Poppins of Children’s Music’, her finest moment, 1994’s Lullaby Land, which included original lullabies such as ‘Teddy Bear King’s Waltz’ and perennials like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, proved there was still life in the human race’s most venerable musical form.

‘I’ve got a dream too, but it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy.’
Kermit the Frog...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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