The recently concluded holidays are probably what got me to thinking about children's songs, what with the powerful emotional pull of the carols and more modern songs that flooded radio airwaves and shopping mall muzak machines for the last couple of months (really, way too long, but that's another story). Celebrating holidays is, after all, about maintaining traditions, and the music is more than merely a background for those - it is, coupled with the scents of holiday cooking permeating one's home, the absolutely most emotionally evocative of all the elements of our winter festivals.
When Art Podell (formerly of Art and Paul and the New Christy Minstrels) and I did a program of Christmas music for Mary Katherine Aldin's KPFK-FM "Alive And Picking" radio show (of happy memory) a month ago, Art noted that all Christmas songs are in one way or another folk songs - they are all meant to be sung and remembered and sung again, year in and year out, even those most recently composed as well as centuries-old carols. "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (which I included on our radio playlist), for example, were popularized by Gene Autry only in the 1940s, but it is hard to find anyone in the U.S. who has not at least heard those songs, and most of us under 80 probably sang them as well. Art was spot-on correct: if that doesn't make a tune a folk song, I am not sure the term has any meaning worth paying attention to.
The primary means of oral transmission of folk music through the most of the last century was through group singing, especially in primary schools. It was a poor school indeed that did not make at least some provision for children, especially younger ones, to sing together on a weekly basis. That's how most of us learned "Skip To My Lou" or "Camptown Races" or "Oh, Susanna!" and many more - and as I noted last summer in my post about "The Hunter", those music programs have been chopped dramatically through the last several decades, leaving an ever-growing number of children to develop emotional bonds with the music of the Disney animations that they see that rather than with the meat-and-potatoes folk-ish songs of our own childhoods.
That's a pity, because those children may well be missing the delights of songs just such as "The Fox Went Out On A Chilly Night," a bit of nonsense that posits a very homey-looking family of anthropomorphic foxes, with a daddy fox going to town to provide for his ten little fox kits. It is a very old song, even by English folk song standards, with versions in print as long ago as 1500, a mere fifteen or twenty years after printing came to England. The Oxford Book Of Nursery Rhymes lists the first verse as
It fell ageyns the next nyght
the fox yede to with all his myghte,
with-outen cole or candlelight,
whan that he cam vnto the toowne.
That's pre-Shakespeare Middle English, though only "yede" (meaning "go") is completely archaic, and you can see that the opening is very close to the version sung most widely today. The near-uniformity of the lyric that we hear in this week's versions results in all likelihood from the 1810 miscellany of fairy tales and songs printed in the UK called Gammer Gurton's Garland - a book used routinely by schoolmarms on both sides of the pond throughout the 19th century for the edification of the minds of the young.
The song came across the Atlantic with the English colonists and embedded itself firmly in America's folkways, and it is no surprise that one of the most popular versions of the era of recorded music was done by Burl Ives, who actually had a number of folk hits in the 1930s:
Ives' version contrasts interestingly with that of his one-time friend Pete Seeger:
Seeger and Ives were both fine singers, but the instrumental laurels here clearly go to Pete, who could really make that banjo blaze.
Odetta brings a greater dramatic flair to her interpretation, and you can practically see her entrancing a room full of children with this:
Such a fine voice, and so sad that she is gone.
But Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio is still very much with us, and in 2008 after fifty years of recording with groups finally released a solo album. Shane thought enough of "The Fox" to include it with a number of other gems on that recording, and in the liner notes he writes that he used to sing it in the early 50s with fellow KT founder Dave Guard when both were school kids - "We felt it was a cute song and fun to sing. I still think it's cute song and fun to sing.":
Shane's recollection of this goes back 60 years, and I'd wager a modest sum that singing it brings back more than a few memories for him.
Harry Belafonte is a contemporary of Odetta and Shane and was in fact something of an inspiration to them both. But there's no mistaking Harry B's inimitable calypso-flavored take on the number:
Like nearly everything else Belafonte did, this works wonderfully in his own idiom.
Finally, the pride of San Diego's roots music scene, Nickel Creek with a more modern inflection, in a very early performance of theirs from the 90s on Austin City Limits:
There you have a half dozen of the major folk artists of the last half century or more bringing their talents to bear on a centuries-old ditty designed to delight children. The why of that may be quite simple. There is also a video on YouTube of actor Jake Gyllenhaal singing a fragment of it, saying that his father used to sing it to his siblings and him - and there are at least half a dozen comments on the video versions out there which identify dad or mom as singing the song better than the pros themselves. I'd guess that sentiment would sit just fine with our artists, because that's what folk music is supposed to be about.
Late Addition, 1/12/12
Just found this version by pop/rockabilly star Jimmy Rodgers, of 1950s vintage. It was hiding under the title of "The Fox and the Goose":