Original Recordings 1926-1952
'Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go...'
Sara Josepha Hale, 1790-1879
According to legend, those were the first words uttered byEdison into the tinfoil phonograph of 1877, and although there would be nocommercial application for that new invention for more than a decade, it wassurely more than mere chance that the first records offered for sale werenursery-rhymes aimed at the children's market - flat black shellac Berliner discsissued in 1889, five inches in diameter and to look at and handle not sodifferent from CDs. During the first three decades of the last century themarket expanded significantly, first offering Bransby Williams and AlbertWhelan reciting Rideout's adaptations of Aesop and other children's fables and,with the advent of Children's Hour programmes on radio, Marjorie Montefiore andothers reading nursery rhymes. From the 1950s onwards Children's Favouritesprogrammes breathed life into golden oldies and promoted personality discs fromAmerica which have since become part of everyday vocabulary, forging anostalgic link into the 21st century.
To most people, Children's Favourites are summed up in thepiercing, jaw-cracking tones of The Laughing Policeman. But thismillion-selling No.1 slot evoking a jovial, old-fashioned bobby, howeverirrepressibly delivered by Charles Penrose (1876-1952), was not entirely thatmusic hall comic-turned-songwriter's own effort, although it inspired him toproduce several (less commercially successful) sequels. Only the words were his creation(penned under his nom-de-plume 'Billie Grey'). The tune he purloined, from alaughing-song popularised in England around 1900 by the American comedian BurtShepard (c.1854-1913).
A fair proportion of qualifiers for the Golden OldieChildren's Classics list are American, originating either from vaudeville andCountry & Western, or tailor-made for the kiddies' market in Tin Pan Alley.Among the classier 'arrangements' Frank Crumit's \Granny's Old Armchair" and"The Prune Song" or Spike Jones' hilarious trad-jazz demolitions of "OldMacdonald Had A Farm" or "Mother Goose" are classics which spring immediatelyto mind (and for these and a wealth of other nostalgic children's gems, seeNaxos Audiobooks double-album CD Sparky's Magic Piano, NA 227912).
Typically American-sounding, but of curiously internationalappeal, is the work of Mel Blanc (1892-1989) of "I'm Glad That I'm Bugs Bunny"fame, heard here with his 1951 US No.9 hit I Taut I Taw A Puddy Tat. BornMelvin Jerome Blanc in San Francisco in 1937, ex-NBC radio violinist, bassistand tuba-player Mel joined the Warner Bros. Cartoon department as a voicespecialist. A regular on US radioand TV, he also played cameos in films.
The sardonic, occasionally off-putting humour of Danny Kaye(1913-1987) may be an acquired taste, but as a children's entertainer he ratessecond to none. Still remembered for such films as The Secret Life Of WalterMitty (1947) and Peter Pan (1976), when it came to rapid tongue-twistersBrooklyn-born singing-actor and dancer Kaye (aka David Daniel Kominsky) wasinimitable, a real live-wire. And certainly, whether debunking coloraturasopranos in "The Fairy Pipers", playing the fool in "Woody Woodpecker", tryingto instil fear in "Manic Depressive Presents" or jerking tears with themonumentally sentimental "Tubby The Tuba", his contribution to classicchildren's recordings would be hard to overestimate. Perhaps it was not justthe impeccable timing that did it, but also the subtle, often scary, changes invocal tone. In 1952 Danny produced a clutch of sizeable hits, Frank Loessercompositions from the Oscar-nominated Sam Goldwyn musical Hans ChristianAndersen, notably 'Thumbelina' and the moral tales The Ugly Duckling and TheKing's New Clothes.
Popeye, The Sailorman - that daring, seafaring,spinach-guzzling creation of E. C. Segar who, between 1932 and 1950, was thehero of more than 250 Paramount cartoon shorts realised by Austrian-borncartoonist-producer Max Fleischer (1889-1972) - remains yet another children'sfavourite perennial. Billed'Popeye, the Paramount Filmstar' and incarnated by the gravel-voiced BillyCostello, he may yet delight us on CD, as he did our grandparents on 78, withhis renderings of "The Man On The Flying Trapeze", the sea-shanty "Blow The ManDown" and this rather off-beat version of The Teddy Bears' Picnic. Composed in1907 (by Delaware-born vaudeville singer, actor and music publisher John W.Bratton, 1867-1947) this piece, best known through a million-selling 1932version by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra, was originally a salonminiature for piano.
Surely, no trip down Childhood's Memory Lane would becomplete without hopping aboard The Runaway Train for a short, helter-skelterjaunt with pioneering C & W star 'Vernon Dalhart' (akaopera-singer-turned-entrepreneur Marion Try Slaughter, 1883-1948). Thismillion-selling song was written by Dalhart under his pseudonym 'Guy Massey',in collaboration with guitarist-vocalist and whistler par excellence Carson JayRobison, 1890-1957). Andcontinuing the Dream Western connection exploited on screen and records by GeneAutry and others, we come to Roy Rogers (aka Cincinnati-born singing-cowboyLeonard Slye, 1911-98). The star of almost a hundred Westerns and, on US TVduring the 1950s of his own show, in later years Rogers was a millionaire TVproducer and chain-restaurateur. He succeeded Autry as 'King of the Cowboys' in1942. Here he offers his two Children's 'Faves': Me And My Teddy Bear and AFour-Legged Friend, his paean to Trigger, 'the smartest horse in the movies'.
Children's classics featuring a more typically 'British'kind of daftness have also been many and varied, and in this specific category"Grandfather's Clock", "Ten Green Bottles" and "When Father Papered TheParlour" spring at once to mind. These were featured and recorded by twodistinguished Aussies: the first two by baritone Harold Williams, the third bymusic hall comic Billy Williams, dubbed 'The Man in The Velvet Suit'. Therewere also lullabies, notably "Dicky Bird Hop" and "Christopher Robin" by GracieFields and "Little Man, You've Had A Busy Day", popularised by Paul Robeson.And, also still remembered with affection by many for his endearing silliness,the diminutive, Liverpudlian 'Cheery Chappy' Arthur Askey (aka Arthur Bowden,1900-1982) regales us once again with his famous Bee Song.
And finally we cross the Atlantic again, first for some zanyadvice from 'King of Comedy' Jerry Lewis (aka Newark (NJ)-born actor, directorand producer Joseph Levitch, born 1926) with regard to table manners and "wherenot to spit the bones" in James Copp's hilarious creation The Noisy Eater. Thenwe enter the enchanted world of Sparky, the little boy who meant well but somehownever could do things right. A sequel to Jay Livingston's best-seller 'Sparky'sMagic Piano', in Sparky And The Talking Train we catch another interestingglimpse of late-1940s children's humour as well as contemporary over-dubbingtechniques.
Peter Dempsey, 2003