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2012-07-05 20:22:29

Vintage Children's Records

In response to many requests, our show for July 7 includes over an hour of vintage children's records. This show spotlights stories from 1947-1950; we will move into the 1950s on our show for August 4. I plan several more such features in the future; let me know what you want to hear!

Children's records have been part of the Dr Demento Show almost since the beginning…I'd drop one or two in for a little ping of nostalgia now and then, in between the grown-up songs. The Disney song "Minnie's Yoo-Hoo" was on our very first year-end countdown, in 1972, along with the Three Stooges "Alphabet Song," "Laugh And Be Happy" by the local Los Angeles kiddie TV show host Sheriff John, and of course "The Purple People Eater." When I was with Westwood One and other radio networks I was sometimes asked to cut back on the kiddie records, since they were constantly telling radio stations and sponsors that my audience was young adults, people with buying power…and besides kids didn't count in the ratings. What they didn't realize is that certain kids' records appeal to adults of all ages…because they bring back memories of their own younger days, or simply because they appreciate the artistry and imagination that went into the best kids' records.

Children's records date back to the earliest days of the phonograph industry. Records of nursery rhymes are known to have been issued in Germany in the early 1890s. Children's records appeared sporadically in the years before World War Two but didn't really catch on at first. Records were expensive, of course, and in those days they were very fragile, and kids were always breaking them. Also, most of the early ones weren't terribly imaginative or exciting, just nursery rhymes and familiar stories for the most part.

That began to change at the end of the 1930s. Major labels began putting more effort into their children's releases, with original songs and stories and better production including more realistic sound effects. Another key was the increasing use of vinyl and other plastics that were not as breakable.

The end of World War II brought on the "Golden Age" of children's records. By the late 1940s all the major labels had extensive lines of such records (often called "kiddie records" or "kidiscs" in the trade). RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca and especially Capitol all regularly put out wonderful records, often featuring well known film and radio stars. Along with singles there were many story sets, with two, three or four 78 rpm records released in colorful albums with marvelous illustrations. Meanwhile, a maverick label called Young Peoples' Records offered subcriptions to their monthly releases, which were carefully designed to be educational as well as entertaining; they were always among my favorites as a kid. The 1940s were also the peak of the music appreciation movement, which sought to educate kids about classical music. That turned records like Tubby the Tuba and Rusty in Orchestraville into best-sellers.

The 1950s brought two enormous changes to the kiddie record industry, one very good, one not so good. The good one was the introduction of long-playing 12" albums and 45 rpm singles. You could now have an entire extended story on one disc, enough to keep a kid contented for half an hour or more. For those with shorter attention spans, 45s were handy and inexpensive…and both were relatively unbreakable.
The not-so-good change, for the kiddie record industry anyway, was television…much more fascinating for practically any kid (somehow I was an exception), and once you bought the set it was free. That did not kill off the kiddie record industry, any more than television killed off radio, but by 1953 the days of elaborately produced, truly imaginative original kiddie records were pretty much finished. Children's records were still made, in large quantities, but most of the best ones were spinoffs from TV, especially Disney, which became a major player in kiddie records in the late 1950s, and a little later Hanna-Barbera and Sesame Street. Young People's Records bit the dust, dogged by accusations of Communist ties, but Folkways Records persevered with artists like Pete Seeger and Ella Jenkins who were heard in many a classroom. Meanwhile, one of YPR's most prolific artists, folksinger Tom Glazer, broke into the Top 20 with "On Top of Spaghetti" in 1963 while continuing to make educational LP's for a variety of labels.

In the early 1980s the Armenian-Canadian singer Raffi heralded a new wave of enlightened kids' records with such songs as "Bananaphone" and "Baby Beluga." Peter Alsop (whose adult songs have been heard on our show) and Dan Zane also sang original songs which sought to nurture and educate kids while entertaining them. Meanwhile, Barry Louis Polisar spoke to modern-day kids in their own language with such songs as "I'm a Slug" and "Never Cook Your Sister In a Frying Pan." More recently, They Might Be Giants, whose brainy New Wave music always had a certain childlike quality, has made several successful albums specifically intended for kids, along with a delightful cover of Tom Glazer's 1960 educational song "Why Does the Sun Shine" ("The sun is a mass of incandescent gas…"). TMBG carries on the trend of mixing education with entertainment, going so far as to record "Why Does The Sun Really Shine" after becoming aware that new scientific discoveries had rendered the original song's scenario somewhat outdated.

That about brings us up to date. Meanwhile, people continue to enjoy and collect kids' records from the past, especially the "golden age" of the 1940s and early 1950s. Only a fraction of the thousands of kiddie records released during the "golden age" are available today through normal commercial channels. They do of course show up from time to time on eBay, and quite a few have been posted to YouTube by collectors and fans.

We are very fortunate to be able to access an extensive and excellent web site called KiddieRecordsWeekly. The proprietors have made hundreds of vintage records available for free downloads, including most of the top-drawer productions of the major labels in the 1940s and early 1950s, but including oddball rarities as well. (You can even download "Little Black Sambo," a lively story about a kid growing up in the jungles of India, very popular in the 1940s but politically incorrect today).

Another site worth checking out is, run by collector Peter Muldavin. This site offers a nice capsule history of the genre from its beginnings to the end of the 78 rpm era in the 1950s. Muldavin has also written a book, The Complete Guide to Vintage Children's Records, available from his site.

Another book of interest is Revolutionizing Children's Records by David L. Bonner (Scarecrow Press, 2008). This is a thorough, scholarly history of Young Peoples' Records and its successor, Children's Record Guild. The origins of YPR, and its extensive connections to "progressive" politics which landed it in hot water on many occasions, are described in great detail, but there is also a lot of information on the artists and on the children's record industry in general, along with a complete discography.

Finally, a just-released book presents a highly detailed discography of the most brilliant of all the golden-age major label kiddie record series, The Capitol Records Childrens' Series, 1944 to 1956. The compiler is Jack Mirtle, who has previously produced the definitive discography of Spike Jones among other milestones. You can find recording dates and complete personnel for hundreds of records by Pinto Colvig (Bozo the Clown), Mel Blanc, Tex Ritter, Stan Freberg and countless others. Privately printed in Canada, the book is not generally available in the USA at this time, but can be procured by sending a money order for $26 (that includes shipping) to Walt Mitchell, PO Box 201, Oriskany, NY 13424-0201.

Previous Replies:
2012-07-13 09:45:38
From: Scott
Children's records
Hi,Doc-Loved the segment on children's records last weekend-As a child,I remember receiving the Groucho Marx album "The Funniest Song In The World" as a Christmas gift-That was fun to listen to-I look forward to hearing more kiddie discs on the August 4th show.
2012-07-09 03:12:37
From: Gary
"Bozo on the Farm" with visuals on YouTube
If you want the full experience of the Capitol Record Readers, You can see as well as hear them online. I found on YouTube "Bozo on the Farm" complete with the illustrations that came with the Record Readers. Yes, the old Capitol Record Readers have entered the 21st Century.
2012-07-07 15:58:14
From: Kevin J
Kiddie records
Hey Doctor
It is good to hear yo sunding better, I hope that you feel better too
There you go again, educating us on the sly, you trickster!
The Children's record show was very good and I cannot wait for the next installment.
You did a great job of giving us the background and the facts surrounding the topic.
Great job and great show.
Thnaks for all you do to keep us dementedly sane
2012-07-06 08:03:43
From: john
Vintage Children's Record
The Capitol Records (Barnyard Concert would certainly be near the top of most peoples list) were able to appeal to everyone. Raffi has a much more narrow bandwidth. I'm looking forward to a Children's Records seminar with tomorrows show!

Any chance of a compilation of Vintage Children's Records (the CD isn't what it was, but a collection of the best material with liner notes still makes a difference)