As well as their adult material, Stu and Debbie Hanna also regularly play shows for young audiences, introducing them to child friendly traditional folk songs. Now, seven years on from When I Was A Lad, they have come up with a second collection, Little Bird, with an insert guide (illustrated by fellow folkie Jess Morgan) to commonly seen British birds for nascent ornithologists, one side of which the kids can colour in themselves.
Stu on banjo, they get the party started with ‘Red Bird’, an old bluegrass play song number originally collected and recorded in the 1940s by Leadbelly for his own album of children’s songs. The material here is a mix of the very familiar and the more obscure, the former represented by the kiddie shanty ‘Bobby Shaftoe’ set to a shoe shuffling skipalong rhythm with Stu on mandolin and Debbie on lead as is, substituting denin dungarees for red pyjamas, ‘Coming Round The Mountain’, a song that has its origins as ‘When The Chariot Comes’, a 1899 African-American spiritual about the Second Coming that developed into a secular version among the railroad gangs of the late nineteenth century. Then, Stu on vocals, there’s ‘I Saw A Ship A Sailing’, a nursery rhyme about a ship laden with treasure and crewed by mice and a duck.
Another play song with a call and response structure, given a handclap blues stomp treatment ‘All Around The Kitchen’ seems to date from the mid 1940s, published in 1948 by Ruth Crawford Seeger and recorded in the early 50s by her stepson legend Pete. There’s more physical activity required by ‘The Jumping Song’, a nonsense song in the tradition of ‘I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly’,
Stu again taking lead, ‘Ha Ha This A Way’ also featured on the Leadbelly album , though I suspect the fact that the original lyrics concern a young kid abused by his alcoholic dad and ‘frisky’ mother and rescued by school and the church don’t figure in their live introductions.
Built on banjo and drums, the bluegrassy ‘Baby On Board’ is one of two self-penned tunes, bemoaning the trials and tribulations of trying to get a new arrival to go to sleep with a rock that cradle refrain, the other, featuring Stu on fiddle and sung by Debbie, being ‘Marjory Clogs’, the story of a much-travelled lady, her dogs, parrot and monkey, a sort of folk Mary Poppins coming to the aid of children in need of a friend.
The remaining two numbers line up as ‘On The Mountain Medley’, a banjo led hillbilly gathering together of evergreens ‘Old Dan Tucker’, ‘Michael Finnegan’, ‘This Old Man’, ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ and ‘Go In And Out the Window’, and, bringing things back to roost, the title track, a traditional American children’s song, more strictly titled ‘Little Bird, Little Bird’, also known as ‘Fly Through My Window’ and which, as recorded by American folk singer Elizabeth Mitchell, once featured in an episode of Futurama.
With guest appearance by the couple’s daughter Lola and two dogs, this may be children’s folk songs, but in terms of both the hugely appealing performances and folk heritage, there’s much here that warrants a perch in grown up nests too.
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‘Red Bird’ – lyric video: