Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Did you know that “London Bridge” has something like 14 verses? This is the sort of thing you learn when you are trying to come up with some way to jolly a baby out of a fuss.
All of the songs on this playlist date from before the advent of modern recording technology, meaning they have the type of lyrics that are very memorizable without hearing them on the radio seven million times. Omitted are old-time narrative ballads, because it’s too easy to lose your place in the middle of “Barbara Allen” when trying to change a diaper. (Also, too many of them are about murder and mayhem.) These songs are all easy to learn while sleep deprived and very easy to loop endlessly without much thought, which is why there aren’t that many of them. You only need two or three; pick your favorites.
1. “London Bridge”
Okay, so, this particular track was the best I could do on Spotify, but it is included merely as a refresher regarding the melody in case it’s necessary. But take yourself to Wikipedia for the version included in the 1951 Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes by married folklorists Iona and Peter Opie. Loop this over and over for as many repeats as it takes to get through bath time. Eventually, as you become well acquainted with the deep-cut verses, you will begin to appreciate the pure linguistic pleasure to be had in enthusiastically repeating phrases like “wash away” and “bend and bow.” Much like Dr. Seuss, it’s maybe even more fun as an adult than as a child.
2. “Skip to My Lou”
Apparently this was originally some sort of very popular dance tune—a real club banger of the 1840s. And you can hear the echoes in the song; sing it enough times and you start to feel a little dizzy, like you’ve been whirling around too much too fast in too many petticoats. This particular version is by the blues musician Lead Belly and if that just really works for you, I am happy to report that there is in fact an entire album of his songs for kids.
3. “Froggie Went a Courtin’”
Once upon a time I thought this was the dumbest, hokiest folksong there was and I had no idea why Doc Watson and Bruce Springsteen had both recorded it. Turns out it’s been floating around the English language since the 1600s and there are so many different versions that you can assemble your own custom build out of various parts. Now I have my own version that blends Doc Watson and Tex Ritter with some modifications to account for the fact that I basically cannot sing. If you want you can even use the version from the The Anthology of American Folk Music which involves lots of fighting and has the catchy refrain “King kong kitchie kitchie ki-me-o.” Personally, I prefer the verses dedicated to the couple’s wedding planning, which speculate about the event space (way down yonder in a holler tree) and menu (two burnt beans and a black-eyed pea).
4. “Miss Merry Mack”
Granted, it’s not the same without the clapping, and a two-month old is totally incompetent at clapping games. But eventually you will get tired of “London Bridge,” and this is one where the verses will likely come flooding back with very little prompting.
5. “Pop Goes the Weasel”
This one isn’t as repetitive and therefore a) isn’t as easy to memorize and b) is shorter and therefore doesn’t quite loop as well. But the verses are just so bonkers—“Half a pound of tuppenny rice, Half a pound of treacle. That’s the way the money goes, Pop! goes the weasel,” and it only gets loopier from there—that it earns its spot.
6. “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain When She Comes”
This one is actually about the Rapture, maybe? But popped out of its historical context it just sounds like a really adventurous grandmother is coming to visit. There’s also a related tune about a sailor named Ben Benbow that would do if you’re feeling a little more nautical.
7. “Big Rock Candy Mountain”
This is a song about a hobo paradise, but it’s also a song about candy.
8. “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”
Please, God, don’t let me get so desperate that this one becomes necessary.