The History of Children's Music - 1940s and 1950s

The Beginnings of a Genre

Pete Seeger in 1955
Pete Seeger in 1955. Wikimedia Commons

As long-playing records and 78s became immensely popular with the general public in the 1930s and 1940s, major record labels began to cash in on the kids' music genre. Decca, Columbia, and RCA Victor all released music for children during these two decades, usually novelty tunes sung by popular actors of the day, light classical music, cowboy ditties, or songs from animated Disney films. A few labels, such as Golden Records and Young People's Records/Children's Record Guild, were established specifically and solely for distributing children's music.

As the 1950s rolled around, the general perception of children's music was about to be changed forever. Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, and Woody Guthrie all released albums during this decade that forever changed the way parents and educators thought of music for children. Seeger's American Folk Songs for Children, Guthrie's Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child, and Jenkins'Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing were all released on the Folkways label in 1953, 1956, and 1957, respectively.

Pete Seeger was a collector of folk music, heavily involved with leftist political movements of his time. His work with the Weavers and his own solo performances had made him a household name by the early '50s, and American Folk Songs catapulted him into the position of Grandfather of Children's Music, beginning a career-long dedication to entertaining and educating children with historic songs and nursery rhymes from our nation's past.

Woody Guthrie's entrance into children's music was almost an afterthought at the time. Guthrie had begun showing signs of Huntington's Disease by the late 1940s, an illness that would eventually take his life in 1967. In 1947, the year Guthrie's son Arlo was born, Woody recorded a set of songs for his infant son in a very casual style that sounded exactly like a dad playfully singing to his baby boy. The results weren't released for another nine years, but the tunes on Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child have been covered by countless artists for adults and children alike.

Ella Jenkins began her career as a program coordinator in Chicago, using her talents as a singer and ukulele player to entertain children at her recreation center. She became most interested in rhythms, rhymes, and call and response songs, and how all those could be used in children's education. She was given the opportunity to record Call and Response, forever casting her in the role of a music educator. Her original compositions collected multicultural songs, and rhythm workouts made each of her albums unique works of art in the world of children's music.