A couple of my fellow blogsters also have little ones underfoot, so I’m sure they will appreciate the problem of “toddler music.” (I need to track down Steve’s suggestion of a couple of weeks ago.) I was given a four cd set of toddler tunes, and also own some Rafi and other singers big in the little people set. Yes, I know, there’s no reason toddlers can’t listen to “real” music. Now my son (3) would just as soon listen to “Peter and the Wolf”, which he says he “watches,” because I guess to him it is like a movie, only scarier, perhaps, since the wolf as a sound rather than image on a small, two-dimensional screen seems freer to roam about the room and lurk in the dark corners of the house. But as an ex-pat, I was keen that our son learn all the English children’s songs and rhymes of my own childhood, so out came the toddler tunes.

A lot of things I had simply forgotten—such as how imbued nursery rhymes and playground chants are with sex and violence, those twin mysteries that give the adult world its strange depth and shine. The sheer number of head injuries, for instance—“Jack and Jill.” It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring, he bumped his head and went to bed and couldn’t get up in the morning. For God’s sake, the man is in a coma! “Humpty dumpty.” “Five little monkeys.” The list goes on.
And sex comes in obliquely too, with the doctors and babies and ladies with their alligator bags. Cinderella, dressed in yella, went upstairs to kiss her fella. By mistake she kissed a snake. How many doctors did it take. Hmmm.
But while I was surprised coming back across all this content, I was dismayed when a toddler CD bowdlerized a nursery rhyme. They all ran after the farmer’s wife, who cut them some cheese with a carving knife… What? That makes no sense at all. (Mind you, more of the adult world gets into these rhymes than just sex and violence—the ethnic slur in “Fuzzy Wuzzy” for instance, which was what the British called the native Sudanese warriors—see Kipling.)
Looking around on-line, I happened on a children’s CD by Willie Nelson. Perfect, I thought! Something Jason and I could both listen to. I love Willie Nelson, and how wonderful it would be to hear him covering, well, Muppet songs and children’s favorites. Our children can be excuses to be nostalgic for our own childhood.
Then I got Rainbow Connection, which is indeed a delightful album. But it ain’t toddler tunes. My favorite part of the CD may actually be the liner notes, which I have been known to read aloud at parties (in a bad Willie Nelson imitation). Some excerpts:
"Rainbow Connection was originally planned to be a children’s CD. My daughter Amy had been trying to get me to do a children’s CD for at least 20 years". . . .
"Thanks to Amy’s urging, 'Rainbow Connection' was the first song we did. The Luck Choir joins in on 'I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover,' an old sing-along song from my early life. 'Ol’ Blue' is a song first played to me by my Grandmother when I was about 4 years old. I would sit on the organ bench along side her and every time she played it I would cry. I made her play it everyday.” . . .
“'Little Red Wagon' is a standard that fits the concept CD which by now was becoming more and more of a family CD.”

And so on. Then suddenly:
“'Playin’ Dominoes and Shootin’ Dice' is moving us away from the children’s CD, taking us into the adult world of drinking, gambling and carousing by consenting adults. The moral of the song is just that if you do dumb things you can die. Not a bad thing for even the young people to know”
Well, I encourage you to track the rest down for yourself.
I do find the notes hilarious, but I think there is also something serious in his approach to a children’s CD that failed its original concept. The traditional “Ol’ Blue”, about the death and burial (with a silver spade and a golden chain) of a faithful dog, for instance, sung to him by his grandmother, is not a “children’s song.” It made him weep as a child, but he wanted to hear it again and again. There was a thrill of pleasure in experiencing the dark emotions of the song within the order of art. As children, we are fully equipped to feel such emotions—grief, heartbreak—we do feel them, long before we might encounter the momentous events that are supposed to trigger them.
I think the first verses I responded to as poetry, though they were not a Poem, were a child’s prayer I was to say at night:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
There was a thrill in uttering such “adult” words as “soul” and “die”, a pleasure in the antique inverted syntax (even the sort of middle-voiced “lay me” for “lay myself”), a pleasure in orderly rhythms and rhymes that paradoxically both contained and set free a mysterious world where not all endings were happy—that is, the world.

Originally Published: September 28th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...