Add these two CDs to the shortlist of children’s music that parents will be happy to have in heavy (and it can be really heavy) rotation in the car or living room. The soft, soothing voice singing on You Are My Flower and You Are My Sunshine belongs to Elizabeth Mitchell, once of the Brown duo Liz and Lisa (as in Lisa Loeb ’90) and more recently of the New York City pop-folk band Ida. Along the way Mitchell became a nursery school teacher and then a mom—hence her interest in simple, tuneful songs that engage kids and encourage them to pipe up.
On both CDs, Mitchell draws from the American roots-music canon: especially songs by or associated with Woody Guthrie (“Little Sack of Sugar,” “Car Car”), Lead Belly (“Sylvie,” “Goodnight Irene”), the Carter Family (both title tracks), and Elizabeth Cotten (“Freight Train,” “Goin Down the Road”). You Are My Sunshine also ventures into early rock, with “Hey Bo Diddley” and Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby,” and even reggae, grafting the A-B-C song onto the rhythm parts from the Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad” (from the Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come).
Most of the tracks, though, are simple arrangements with Mitchell singing and picking guitar, unobtrusively backed by her husband (and Ida bandmate), Daniel Littleton, on harmony vocals and sundry instruments. Mitchell takes an exceptionally laid back approach to the songs, singing as if she doesn’t want to wake up the baby in the next room (which may have been the case on You Are My Sunshine—their daughter, Storey, arrived during the album’s two-year gestation). Even normally zippy songs like “Crawdad” and “Froggy Went A Courtin’” are hushed and meditative. Lots of musicians, past and present, have played this repertoire more dynamically—Mitchell and Littleton themselves suggest many classic recordings in the song notes on youaremyflower.org. But Mitchell’s voice is so disarmingly sweet, and all the tracks have such an appealing sing-along vibe, that these CDs are hard to resist. They passed muster with both my three-year-old and my eight-year-old, though I’d say the prime audience is preschoolers. Like all good kids’ music, these CDs are more for participation than passive entertainment, and we quickly found ourselves singing these durable old songs.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is the author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, coming this fall from Backbeat Books.