Nerdy With Children did a folktastic interview with Red Yarn, aka Andy Furgeson, the Portland, OR, based folk musician and puppeteer with a family-friendly disposition. If you missed last week’s Part One, you’re going to want to click here. This week Furgeson gets more specific about kid stuff, and how you can catch his shows.
Nerdy With Children: We left off talking about death as a major theme in kid’s folk music. In fact, “children’s folk music” is a term you’ve used several times. Are you referring to certain songs that were specifically for kids?
Furgeson: That’s a great question. To answer part of it, I think all folk music is for kids. I won’t necessarily do it at one of my preschool puppet shows, but I’ll sing “Tom Dooley”—a murder ballad—in a family-friendly setting, and encourage people to sing along with it. That’s the music kids have grown up with for generations and generations … if it’s folk music. And when I say that I mean music of the folk, older music, not new music that supposed to sound folky. Older, oral tradition music.
But I guess when I specify folk music for kids, I do think there’s a strain and it’s really been the strain that I’ve focused on, and it’s songs about animals. On one end of the spectrum there’re songs that are Americanized versions of old English/Anglo nursery rhymes, like “Froggy Went A-Courtin,” and “Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night.” Those are two great, prominent examples of songs that came from, or in part came from, English nursery rhymes. And if you look at old books of English nursery rhymes, or English songs for kids, versions of those songs are in there. But you look at both of those songs: “Froggy Went A-Courtin’” is this bizarre wedding between a frog and a mouse and then all the wedding guests get eaten at the end of the song. You look at the fox, it’s a fox that kills a goose and a bunch of ducks. He takes them home and his family devours them. In both of those songs, there’s death staring you right in the face.
NWC: What’s the other end of the spectrum?
Furgeson: Another strain is the animal rhymes from the African American tradition. Specifically from the Southern United States, like the Brer Rabbit characters. That really grew out of the context of slavery in the United States. And there’re a lot of associated songs about rabbit and possum and raccoon and squirrel and all these little furry woodland creatures. And the trickster rabbit, the Brer Rabbit, plays prominently in those. So those animal rhymes, a lot of those were created or developed by adults, not necessarily only for kids, but they’re ones that kids have latched onto.
My focus as Red Yarn is American folk songs about animals, and in my mind that’s kind of what has been viewed for many years as folk songs for kids.
NWC: Where can people who live in Portland see Red Yarn?
Furgeson: I perform about five to eight times a week in town. I’ve got five shows right now that are either weekly or every other week. They’re at different community cafes and co-ops, and stuff like that. I send out a monthly newsletter and I post it on my blog.
NWC: How can people who don’t live in Portland hear or see your work?
Furgeson: If you go back to my blog 2010, you can link to my Lomax a Day project. And starting in January, I’m going to do a “Sandberg SongBag” a day. Carl Sandberg was another incredible folk music collector and he put out a pretty seminal volume called “The American Songbag.” It’s also got a bunch of these classic kids and otherwise folk songs. I’ll be posting those on my blog and Facebook. I’ve got a YouTube page with a few videos of live performances and one puppet video.
NWC: You had mentioned The Deep Woods. What’s that?
Furgeson: The Deep Woods is … like the imaginary universe that contains all of these characters in all of these songs. With each song, no matter its cultural roots, I imagine that — in the way every American folk song sort of inhabits the collective consciousness of our nation, if you believe in or think about things that way — I imagine that the characters from all of these animal folk songs inhabit the same wonderful magical forest. That’s my ongoing work with Red Yarn: developing the Deep Woods. Just like we need to protect the plants and the animals of the real world, we need to protect the stories and songs of the Deep Woods.
If I can put these songs in the hands of other people who can help share them, that’s the most important thing. Red Yarn is hopefully one among many modern bards sharing these songs for the future generations.
You can also stay up to date on Red Yarn’s events and news by checking out his Facebook page.