Art + Design

The Littlest Birds Sing the Prettiest Songs

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Folk music means many things to many people—it can be about a connection to nature and the land, about political protest and social justice, about a sort of earthy hippy glamour from a certain era, or about a new wave of musical talent happening today. But one association nearly everyone shares is the connection between folk music and childhood.

It may be you recall off-key music-class renderings of “Home on the Range” complete with rhythm instruments; or learned at camp a bowdlerized version of “The Green Grass Grows All Around” featuring a log in a hole at the bottom of the sea rather than a tree in a hole and the hole in the ground; or fondly remember, as I do, Willa Jean forcing Ramona to play a manic game based on “Froggie Went a Courting” in Beverly Cleary’s masterwork Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

If you grew up in the final third of the Twentieth Century, odds are that folk music crept into your little kid consciousness almost unawares.

One person who has put this fact to absolutely wonderful use is artist Jennie Smith, author of The Littlest Birds Sing the Prettiest Songs. In this lovely little volume she illustrates a baker’s dozen of folk songs, both traditional and modern, in her signature style.

Delicate yet confident, both dreamy in its prettiness and dreamlike in its offbeat narrative quality, Smith’s artwork delights and surprises at every turn. It’s no wonder she’s been featured in the Whitney Biennial and is represented by super cool San Francisco gallery Rena Bransten—she’s a young rising art star of the first order.

Though we made this book for grown-ups, I surmised that—with its lyrical words and its friendly drawings of nature and animals—children might like it as well. We tested this theory out at my house the other afternoon and, indeed, I can now vouch for the fact that at least one nearly-two-year-old is entranced by this book.

Folk songs appeal to children for the same reason they appealed to Smith—because they give the imagination room to play. It’s like folk legend Michael Hurley says in his introduction to the book, “The first stories we hear as children are so very simple, yet…their territory is as vast as all of creation.” It’s fitting, then, that we should conclude with one last image: the “great white whale in the sea” from Michael Hurley’s “Animal Song.”

Bridget Watson Payne

Purchase: The Littlest Birds Sing the Prettiest Songs: Folk Music Illustrated by Jennie Smith.

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Bridget Watson Payne

Bridget Watson Payne

Executive Editor, Art Publishing. You can follow her at @WatsonPayne and read about her latest projects at
Bridget Watson Payne



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