Why oh Why: Sharing Folk Music with my Granddaughter

Grandma Alice with Baby -- and Papa too!

Grandma Alice with Baby — and Papa too!

A guest column by Grandma Alice

One of the presents I bought for my granddaughter this Christmas was a CD of children’s folk songs published by Smithsonian (Smithsonian Folkways Children’s Music Collection). I was particularly interested in acquiring a recording of Woody Guthrie singing his classic “Why Oh Why Oh Why,” which I had entertained Marie with on the way to Portland one sunny October day when I was helping the family prepare to move. Spencer drove and Ursula sat in the front passenger seat while I took the job of keeping Marie happy in the backseat. Singing was my choice, and one of the first tunes that surfaced from my labyrinthine store of folk songs was the Guthrie ditty, his effort to explain the world to his children. Picture little Arlo asking, “Daddy, why does an elephant have a long nose?”

As Woody Guthrie put it to Arlo, “Because because because because, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”

I’m not sure what brought the song back into my memory. I don’t remember ever singing it to Ursula when she was a child.  Perhaps Marie had already begun to ask that eternal toddler question, “Why?”  and that day, the song just reappeared from out of nowhere. “Why does Marie like to sing,” I sang, “Why oh why oh why?”

Marie began to sing along with me in a gentle, lovely soprano, a remarkable clear tone, and altogether in tune. I was impressed and rather astounded, as she was then but barely 18 months old.

We went on together, with me making up new verses, for a good 45 minutes before Spencer and Ursula began to show signs of annoyance. It’s not so much that they complained. They simply turned on the car radio, at a fairly high decibel level, in an apparently mutual decision to drown me out.

Oblivious, I kept going with it. “Why oh why oh why?” So did Marie.

Call it the grandmother-granddaughter conspiracy.

Now, when I call on the telephone and speak to Ursula, I often hear Marie in the near background singing in that gentle, clear soprano: “Why oh why oh why?”

She’s been listening so much to the new CD that she’s found a new favorite, which is beginning to replace the “why.” Maybe you know it? “Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack, all dressed in black, black, black.”

I’m enough inspired by having a young granddaughter to get out my guitar again on a regular basis. I’m beginning to remember more oldies but goodies. Did you ever hear Odetta sing, “Froggy Went a-Courtin’”?

Do you have any favorite folk songs from your childhood? Or favorites to share with children?

  1. This is beautiful. I have to buy this CD – it sounds wonderful, and I’m running out of songs. I sing Edith to sleep every night, and my favorite is Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight my angel).” It helps me from going insane after the 15th rendition of the ABC song (Edith’s favorite).

  2. ursulamarie said:

    It is a great CD for little ones, although it does include the ABC song — which I discovered has the same tune as “Twinkle twinkle.” Who knew?

  3. And Bah Bah Black Sheep! I have to sing a song with a different tune between those three so my brain doesn’t explode.

  4. twoOregonians said:

    Ursula (and Alice!) – I read this on my phone ages ago and kept meaning to come back and leave a comment… The day before Lucie was born, I went to listen to Laura Veirs perform at the OPB studios here in Portland. That performance reminded me that she had an album of folk songs for kiddos, so I bought it and ended up listening to it on repeat for the whole of this past autumn. She has a great version of Why Oh Why and a bunch of other lovely tracks, too. Have you heard it?

    • ursulamarie said:


      Someday Marie and Lucie will have to get together and do a duet of “Why oh why.” Haven’t heard the Laura Veirs version, but my mom will probably buy it now that you’ve brought it up 🙂

  5. Alice said:

    Dear two Oregonians. I have never heard it but will see about getting a copy. I’ve ordered at least six new CDs to share with Marie since writing the guest column for Mother Bear. One is a Pete Seeger album — of course! I’m going to share them gradually so as not to overwhelm Marie or any of the adults who are also listening to these songs. Thanks for your recommendation. Grandma Alice

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