Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken recently joined with a few friends—Ellie Holcomb, Flo Paris, and Katy Bowser—to record an album called Rain for Roots: Big Stories for Little Ones. Putting the words of children's author Sally Lloyd-Jones to music for kids, this stellar new project raises the bar for the genre. We asked McCracken to write an op-ed about the importance of children's music done well.
With two young children, we've made a point of exposing our kids to as much W.A. Mozart, Woody Guthrie, Paul Simon, and the Beatles as we possibly can. We want them to know about good music before they are old enough to pop in the earbuds on their own. We often check out music CDs from the library, and have discovered some great children's music in the style of bluegrass, rockabilly, and of course the family kids' jazz favorite, Coal Train Railroad. But I must confess that, on the whole, I am disheartened with the selection of what is out there, and I cannot stomach most of the packaged children's music "product."
Some friends and I were remembering and laughing about which childhood songs we could remember. We especially remember the Sunday school songs like "Seek Ye First," the camp/scout tunes like "Rise and Shine," or the hymns our grandmothers sang to us in the rocking chair like "I Love to Tell the Story." This conversation got me thinking about what a significant moment that is in a child's life when he or she can absorb art and beauty by way of these clever little soul vehicles called melodies.
This tender moment in a young life reveals something else about us adults, too. What we believe about a child, and the person who that child is becoming, is significant. As Charlotte Mason says "A child is a person." Children are not just babies becoming people, they are already people. In this way, we hold and relate to them with honor and respect. On one hand, we don't need to idolize them in preciousness. Nor do we need to belittle them for their weakness.
This reality is a great equalizer, and it makes me want to consider that honor even in the hope that the simple songs they sing and memorize should also be great songs. Strong, singable melodies. Rich, meaningful truths. Beauty for its own sake. Joy for its own sake. And by all means, we hold in view that the songs honor the great truth of God that shapes their character as they sing. The same thinking pertains to those of us who write music intended for children, or to those who teach music to kids in schools or churches—the same high standards of excellence still apply. As C. S. Lewis wrote, "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." The same is true for music.
It's been a great test of my craft as a songwriter to have two bubbling young critics at my heels all day long in the kitchen. Not only has it forced me to be more efficient when I have a window to write, but children have great, natural instincts for a melody. If I catch one of them singing something I have written, it's an affirmation that I'm on the right track. This has helped me greatly in thinking about melodies of new hymns for the church to sing. And if I set out to specifically write a children's song, I think also about what it might be like for that child to want to sing that same song decades from now. Melodies like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" (otherwise known in the McCracken home as the "Bye-O-Baby" song) and "Peace Like a River" have survived across several generations in our family already.