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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?