CDs for Kids: Ungoofy, Nonphony and Just Plain Fun

I'm the mother of a 4-year-old girl, so I spend a good amount of time in the company of kids' music. And I've become pretty choosy. I don't have a lot of patience for music that panders to what I consider to be misguided notions of what adults think kids must like. Excessive goofiness? Out. Phony silly voices? Out.

But thankfully, there are a bunch of great musicians who have become parents themselves, and who realize it's up to them to make music the rest of us will enjoy. Then there are some classic CDs that still sound fresh to parents and children. Here's a sampling of what's on regular rotation in our house and car.

Rock Roots and Rock Hair

Dan Zanes Cover

Catch That Train by Dan Zanes (Festival Five Records)

My husband and I and our daughter, Chloe, consider Dan Zanes the gold standard in kids' music, and zillions of parents apparently agree. He is playing in bigger and bigger concert venues and — get this — the Dan Zanes limited edition ukulele has sold out! Catch That Train is his latest CD of what he calls "family music": He's a big advocate of everyone jumping in on whatever instrument they can play. The lead singer and guitarist of the 1980s rock band the Del Fuegos, Zanes brings those same rock roots (and rock hair) to his kids' music. You'll hear him here on just about anything with strings as well as harmonica. The songs range from Dan Zanes originals to "Loch Lomond" to the gospel number "Welcome Table." Who else could persuade such varied guests as the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Nick Cave and the Blind Boys of Alabama to play and sing along? Bonus: In the lyric book, Zanes includes the chords for each song, because, as he explains, "these are tremendously social songs, made to be played."

Listen: 'Catch that Train!'

Related NPR Stories: 'Dan Zanes Resurrects Sandburg's 'Songbag,'' 'Music for Kids That Even Parents Might Love'

A Fun Family Trio

Elizabeth Mitchell Cover

You Are My Little Bird by Elizabeth Mitchell (Folkways Records)

We've only recently discovered the charms of Elizabeth Mitchell and her lovely, pure voice. On her latest CD, she is accompanied by her husband, Daniel Littleton, and on some songs they are joined by Storey, their daughter, who is now five. There are traditional songs ("Buckeye Jim," "Down in the Valley"), some Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, some international finds and some surprises, like the Neil Young song "Little Wing" and the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On." Mitchell and her family came in to our studio recently for an interview and to play a song. She talked with me about how important it is for parents to sing with their kids. She said, "Your children come along and suddenly you're singing them lullabies and you're singing through the mundane moments of the day. We need to be sung to, right there in the room. Not just by the television or a piece of plastic, you know? But by a person, right there with you. It's very powerful."

Listen: 'If You Listen'

Related NPR Story: 'Elizabeth Mitchell Re-Interprets Folk, Rock for the Little Ones'

Stomp, Kiss and Saunter

Putumayo Cover

New Orleans Playground by Various Artists (Putumayo Kids)

Putumayo World Music grew out of the Putumayo clothing label, and their Putumayo Kids offshoot has released collections of music that span the globe and musical genres, from African, Latin and French to folk, swing and reggae. The albums are all wonderful, and the recent New Orleans Playground is a special favorite, since I'm a huge fan of Louisiana music. Somehow the producers managed to find 11 songs clean enough to be child-appropriate. There's no way kids can listen to this one sitting down. Clifton Chenier motors through the zydeco stomp of "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," Fats Domino has good fun making kissing sounds on his 1958 recording of "Whole Lotta Lovin'" and Charmaine Neville bounces and saunters down a New Orleans "Second Line." Bonus: The CD booklet has good descriptions (in four languages) of the songs, the artists and the styles of music.

Listen: 'Choo Choo Ch'Boogie,' 'Whole Lotta Lovin',' 'Second Line'

Zesty, Zoomin', Zingy

Steve Weeks Cover

Alphabet Songs (Vol. I, II, III) by Steve Weeks (self-released on steveweeksmusic.com)

Steve Weeks dedicates each song on these CDs to a letter of the alphabet (volume I is A-H, volume II is I-Q, this latest is R-Z). It's up-tempo music, full of catchy beats and with a lot of clever wordplay and fun stories. Some of the songs struggle with the letter they're devoted to and sound a bit labored; with others, you don't notice that many of the words start with the same letter. Here's how Weeks describes his music: "Although my songs have a strong footing in folk music, I just can't resist squeezing that reggae bass line, '50s rock riff, African thumb piano or even a tin can into one of my tunes." Or, as the kids' music blogger Stefan Shepherd at zooglobble.com puts it: "To put the album in adult terms, I'd describe it as Barenaked Ladies meets Phish." I couldn't have said it better myself. (Note: Steve Weeks is a true one-man band. He wrote, recorded and played all the sounds on the album.)

Listen: 'Xavier Xerxes Xenophanes X'

Folsom Preschool Blues

Johnny Cash Cover

The Johnny Cash Children's Album by Johnny Cash (Columbia/Legacy Records)

Even young kids will enjoy the lighter side of the Man in Black, who wrote most of the songs for this reissued 1975 release. In fairness, a few of the tracks (especially the ones with swelling '70s strings) haven't aged terribly well. But it's great fun to hear the words "pteranodon" and "diplodocus" coming from Cash's mouth ("Dinosaur Song"), and his inventive, playful way of teaching the ABCs makes me smile ("Ah Bos Cee Dah," one of four previously unreleased tracks).

Listen: 'Dinosaur Song,' 'Ah Bos Cee Dah'

Tongue Twister, Animal Mimic

Sam Hinton Cover

Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts by Sam Hinton (Smithsonian Folkways)

This album of folk songs is as old as I am: It came out in 1961, and the folks at Folkways have just reissued it. I listened to the LP all the time when I was little, and when I put the CD on for the first time, the songs came back as clearly as if I'd heard them last week. Best of all, now I get to listen to my daughter enjoy them: Chloe and I especially love trying to sing along to the title song, which builds verse by verse to a tongue-twisting, jaw-bending chain of complicated things to eat (try saying "rich red ripe juicy strawberry shortcake with lots of whipped cream on top of it" really fast). These are traditional songs, some hundreds of years old. The production is simple: just Sam Hinton singing and strumming guitar and sometimes making phenomenally realistic animal sounds. I was happy to learn that Hinton is alive and well and living in California at age 89. He is a prodigious collector of traditional songs, and in the CD booklet, he offers detailed descriptions of the history of each tune.

Listen: 'Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts,' 'Little Old Woman All Skin and Bone,' 'The Barnyard Song'

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You Are My Little Bird

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Album
You Are My Little Bird
Artist
Elizabeth Mitchell
Label
Smithsonian Folkways
Released
2006

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Catch That Train!

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Album
Catch That Train!
Artist
Dan Zanes
Label
Festival Five Records
Released
2006

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Putumayo Presents: New Orleans Playground

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Album
Putumayo Presents: New Orleans Playground
Artist
Various Artists
Label
Putumayo World Music
Released
2006

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The Johnny Cash Children's Album

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Album
The Johnny Cash Children's Album
Artist
Johnny Cash
Label
Sony
Released
2006

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Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts

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Album
Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts
Artist
Sam Hinton
Label
Smithsonian Folkways
Released
2006

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