My journey through 'Spinning the Child', plus some inspirational books and music
Being asked to do talks and interviews around the book, I find myself explaining the contents, my motivations, and my journey through the writing process in different ways to different audiences. Here is a short piece I wrote for my upcoming talk (December 2020) to post-grad students in the Cultures in Education Research, and Music in Education Research Groups at Birmingham City University.
My new book, ‘Spinning the Child: ‘Musical Constructions of Childhood through Records, Radio and Television’ examines music made for children.
Throughout, I’m interested in exposing the attitudes, morals and desires that adults communicate both to and about the child through music. I attempt to explain how recordings of music both reflect and shape transformations in a range of discourses of childhood.
The first chapter covers the theories and conceptual ideas that arise when adults make music for both ‘the child’ and ‘the family’. By analysing the musical, lyrical and sonic attributes of thousands of recordings of music in specific social and historical contexts, I describe and discuss how adult gatekeepers conceived of their child and family audiences over the years, and how they created their musical products to meet particular ideological, educational and practical needs.
There is a chapter on the ideological and practical links between childhood and folk music. As well as the Romantic and religious links, I write about children’s song books, summer camps, schools, record labels and radio shows, mostly from the first half of the 20th century.
I was awarded a Fellowship with the BMI/Woody Guthrie Centre which allowed me to visit Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA for three weeks to study the folk singer Woody Guthrie’s letters, diaries, notebooks, lyric sheets, artwork and personal record collection. I found 400+ of his songs for children; the vast majority had not been located or written about before.
I also visited the BBC’s Written Archives in Caversham, Reading, UK to look closely at the corporation’s radio broadcasting for children and families in the 1940s (Children’s Hour) and in the 1950s and 1960s (Junior Choice). I managed to find all of the original lists of songs that were broadcast as well as lots of internal memos and communications that gave me a good idea of how the BBC thought about their child audience, and how these views changed over the 30 years of Junior Choice.
Producer George Martin made many records for families in his pre-Beatles days that were broadcast on the BBC and made the Top 40 charts. His, and many of the other songs in the book, contain ‘adult’ themes such as violence, suicide, sex, sexuality, death, anger and isolation - themes that are often absent from a protectionist ‘innocent’ childhood. I designed a ‘Music Hall’ formula that helped me describe how both the child and adult may be targeted by and engaged with the same piece of music.
As well as radio, I also look at music that has been created for specific television programmes, Sesame Street, Bagpuss, and the British music hall songs on The Muppet Show. For the final chapter, I interviewed dozens of people who work in the children’s music industry, mostly in the USA, as songwriters, performers, recording artists, managers, event organisers, and radio producers.
The book is a rewrite of my late-in-life PhD which took eight years part-time alongside my other work as a music teacher. I had to suspend my studies at one point. It all just got too much. I made a decision early on to choose a research method that I could do mostly at home by listening to lots of records and TV music made for children and families. As a musician, I was able to analyse the music and bring a level of attention to music for children that has often been ignored by many academics working in music.
Equally, I learned how to ‘read’ music on TV by looking at how music and visuals work together. I also read hundreds of academic books and journal papers about topics such as childhood, children’s media, humour, nostalgia, innocence, education, folk music and music hall. This included some critical theory to help me think about the power relationships that arise between the adult creator and the child listener.
The books that were most useful and inspiring were:
· Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein. 2011. New York and London: New York University Press.
· The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century by Kathryn Bond Stockton. 2009. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
· Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson’s Muppets. Edited by Garlen, J. and Graham, A. 2009. Jefferson: McFarland & Co Inc.
· Signs of Childness in Children’s Books by Peter Hollindale. 1997. Stroud, Glos.: Thimble Press.
Here are links to a few songs that give you a sense of the scope of the book:
· ‘The Princess Suite’ from the UK TV show Bagpuss. Bodily change. Assertive fending off of male aggression.
· ‘Little Seed’ by Woody Guthrie. Growth. Persistence. Hope.
· ‘Hole in the Ground’ by Bernard Cribbins, prod. by George Martin. A Junior Choice favourite. Murder & burial!
· ‘The Skin I’m In’ from Sesame Street. Pro-Black anti-racism song.
· ‘Any Old Iron’ from The Muppet Show. A provocative homosexual call-to-arms song of British Music Hall.
· ‘All Around the Kitchen’ by Dan Zanes. Originally an African-American children's circle game song.
· ‘Party in My Tummy’ from TV show Yo Gabba Gabba. Electro-disco poppin' healthy eating song.
Spinning the Child: Musical Constructions of Childhood through Records, Radio and Television is published by Routledge (2020). It is recommended for scholars in the sociology of childhood, the sociology of music, ethnomusicology, music education, popular musicology, children’s media and related fields.