Pass It On!

Pass It On!

The Journal of the Children's Music Network

Ruth Crawford Seeger:
CMN's 2005 Magic Penny Award Recipient

by Sally Rogers

All Around the Kitchen…Billy Barlow…Bought Me a Cat…Old Joe Clark… The Closet Key…By’m Bye…Eency Weency Spider…Hey Betty Martin… Hop, Old Squirrel…Jingle at the Windows…Hoosen Johnny…Old Ground Hog…Oh, Blue…Mister Rabbit…Mole in the Ground…Stewball…It Rained a Mist…Jim Along Josie…Hush Little Baby…Pick a Bale of Cotton…Old Molly Hare…Scrapin’ Up Sand in the Bottom of the Sea…

If any of the aforementioned song titles seem familiar to you, chances are you learned them from someone who learned them from one of composer Ruth Crawford Seeger’s fine collections of folk songs for children. Her children Mike and Peggy Seeger and her stepson Pete Seeger have spent a good part of their own lives passing these songs on to communities from coast to coast through concerts and recordings. From there, the songs have traveled to singing parents and teachers who pass them on to children at home, school, and summer camp. And one of the people they passed them to is probably you. 

This year CMN honors the memory and work of Ruth Crawford Seeger with our 2005 Magic Penny Award. Crawford Seeger’s collections of traditional songs have been staples in the classroom for over fifty years, and her suggestions for their use are as fresh and inspirational today as the day they were written. Many PIO! readers may be completely unfamiliar with the other amazing and vast talents of this woman. While she is revered as a collector, transcriber, and arranger of traditional songs, she was also a composer years ahead of her time. Her sophisticated modernist compositions have brought her recognition as arguably one of twentieth-century America’s most important composers. Her biographer, Judith Tick, says she is “frequently considered the most significant American female composer in this century.” And, like so many women, she struggled with the balance of being a wife, a mother of four children and stepmother to three more, while also trying to nurture her creative passions as an accomplished pianist and composer. She seemed to find that balance through her interest in American traditional music and the people who created it. 

Ruth Crawford Seeger teaching children, 1950
Photo: Peggy Seeger’s Web site, www.pegseeger.com 

Crawford was introduced to American folk music when she was hired by poet Carl Sandburg to give his children piano lessons. Then in 1927, she was hired as one of the arrangers for his collection of folk songs The American Songbag. This relationship kindled a lifelong interest and commitment to traditional song. 

In 1929 Ruth Crawford began to study with noted composer, theorist, and musicologist Charles Seeger. In 1932 they married, and Crawford became the stepmother of his three children from a former marriage, including young Pete Seeger. Her first child, Mike, was born in 1933. 1934 marked a hiatus in her composing that lasted until 1950; but it also marked the beginning of her dedication to transcribing and disseminating folk songs to those who work with children. She died of cancer in 1953 at the age of fifty-two.

The early years of her marriage to Charles Seeger were colored by the Great Depression. Both Ruth and Charles became very active in progressive social groups and were exposed to traditional singers in their travels. Over the next twenty years, while raising her brood of four, Crawford Seeger became a passionate transcriber of traditional songs to which she gave new life. She sang them with her own children at home and at several nursery schools in the Washington, D.C., area. She was keenly interested in seeking out unusual versions of relatively well-known songs. In her introduction to her collection Animal Folk Songs for Children she says, 

It is important that a folksong not be frozen in any one standard variant or version: that there not come to be one “right” way to sing a folksong. It is also important that we be reminded of variation in traditional singing. I have therefore gone to the recordings of these few songs with the purpose of choosing when possible one of the singer’s variants other than that already in print. 

The ninety-plus songs in American Folk Songs for Children (AFSFC) were taken from collections, folklore journals, and phonograph recordings from the Archives of American Folklore in the Library of Congress in Washington. She was meticulous in acknowledging the sources of the songs, their states of origin, and their collectors at a time when others were copyrighting traditional music for financial gain. 

Crawford Seeger’s American Folk Songs for Children has stayed in print for over fifty years since its appearance in 1948. Along with her Animal Folk Songs for Children, it remains at the core of elementary school music libraries across the country. For fifteen years it has also been possible to listen to the songs on the Rounder Records recordings produced by the Seeger children. But it is not just the songs in the books that are useful. Crawford Seeger’s suggestions for using the songs at home, in the classroom, and in the community are indispensable, especially to new teachers who are still finding their way among their charges at circle time or during music classes. I’d like to share some of her thoughts here. 

The first topic she tackles is why it is important to teach American folk song to our children. Her larger discussion includes the following: 

  • It belongs to our children—it is an integral part of their cultural heritage. 
  • It is a bearer of history and custom. 
  • It gives early experience of democratic attitudes and values. 
  • It has grown through being needed and used—it has adapted itself frequently to new surroundings. 
  • It is not “finished” or crystallized— it invites improvisation and creative aliveness. 
  • It has rhythmic vitality—it is music of motion. 
  • It is a kind of music which everyone can help make—it invites participation. 
  • It is not just children’s music—it is family music. 

(AFSFC, pp. 21–24) 

Anyone caught up in today’s movement for integrating the arts into the curriculum can read between the above lines and find numerous opportunities for these songs to be included in the reading, writing, history, math, and science curricula at the early elementary level. There is a treasure trove of material here. 

For those who are hesitant to sing with their students, Craw ford Seeger has words of reassurance for the singer: it is not the singer that is important but the song itself. 

Almost a first requisite in singing with small children is the natural and wholehearted pleasure which the singer finds in the song. It is the song which is important, to both singer and listener… So a llow yourself pleasure in the song, and sing it for its own sake. This is music anyone can sing and feel he has the right to be comfortable with.
(AFSFC, p. 25) 

Every page of this book models great respect for children, and honors their intelligence and inherent musical ability. Suggestions for word and movement improvisation, tone play and rhythmic exploration, are found on every page, along with an important caveat to well-meaning adults: 

Let improvisation come from the child as much as possible— from things he happens to do or say or sing. Don’t hesitate to join in the fun—but remember that the adult faces numerous pitfalls when “thinking up” words for children, such as affectation or over-conscientious attention to particular uses for a song, or preconceived notions as to child speech, understanding or enjoyment. 
(AFSFC, p. 27) 

“Make sure that improvisation of new words does not deprive the child of old traditional words.” 

And for all CMN songwriters, Crawford Seeger shares a very simple but useful tip for creating your own melodies, a tip that has been used by composers as great as Bach, Mozart, and Crawford herself. 

The using of pieces of songs you know—small motives, or half phrases or phrases—is an excellent springboard toward making your own songs. 
(AFSFC, p. 30) 

Ruth Crawford Seeger never shies away from the songs that may stir up controversy. Songs like “Juba” (“Juba this and Juba that, Juba killed a yellow cat.”) or “Poor Howard” (“Poor Howard’s dead and gone. Left me here to sing this song.”) that mention death or killing might be avoided in some classrooms. But Crawford Seeger suggests that children do, in fact, need these songs as a place to hang their fears and frustrations in a society of adults that won’t talk about difficult subjects with children. 

Should we try to shield the child from feeling of sadness, of hurting or being hurt, of killing, dying? Can we shield him? Such feelings are not unnatural to him; he has them to a greater or lesser extent, already within himself. It is not unnatural for a child to build fantasies around killing, hurting, destroying even things or people he loves. If he can sing about these things—can take action through the song—the deed is done (in fantasy) and the pressure is relieved. Can we not say, then, that having songs around which sing of these things may be a means of easing such feelings within himself, and of helping to make him more comfortable with himself as well as with what is around him?…If a child’s unexpected hurts can become connected with hurts he has heard about in story or poetry or song—if he can reach back into his experience and tie these individual hurts of his to what one might call group hurts—will he perhaps feel in his own less lonely? 
(AFSFC, pp. 17, 19) 

I don’t remember when I was first introduced to Ruth Crawford Seeger’s book American Folk Songs for Children. It was most likely through my mother, a pianist and music teacher, who may have shared it with me as a child. Or it may have been prominent on the piano at my best friend, Meagan’s, house. Her mother was my fourth grade teacher and a musician as well. And I know that some of the songs she shared with us at school came directly from that book. Wherever the introduction, it was already familiar to me when I bought my own copy while working at Elderly Instruments in East Lansing, Michigan, in 1976. It is among the most worn and dog-eared books on my bookshelves and one of the few I would take with me if I were sent to live on a desert island. And if I could have only one book to use as a reference tool in my early elementary music classroom, it would be this one. Here, let me teach you one of the songs…

Information for this article was gleaned from Peggy Seeger’s Web site, www.pegseeger.com; Judith Tick’s biography Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Ruth Crawford Seeger’s books American Folk Songs for Children and Animal Folk Songs for Children.