In the summer of 1945, musicologist Byron Arnold set out to collect traditional Alabaman folksongs. Armed at first with blank sheet music and, two years later, a portable recording device borrowed from the University of Alabama's speech department (machinery was scarce due to the war), Arnold collected roughly 600 songs, among them a staggering quantity of children's songs. These schoolyard rhymes, chants, and song-games were gathered from 16 singers, all of them women. They were often recorded in the singers' own homes, and because of this the recordings often take on the quality of old snapshots: a bird sings in the background, a train whistle howls. They're glimpses of a then-vanishing America -- a nation that still knew, often first-hand, the folklore, lullabies, and ballads handed down from the previous century. Once he returned to the university with his findings, Arnold tried his best to transfer the fragile recording discs to tape; unfortunately, the project was never completed. The reel-to-reel tapes, remaining discs, and written transcriptions were locked up in the University of Alabama's W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library after Arnold died in 1971.
His recordings have been collected elsewhere, but the children's songs, up until this collection, have never before been gathered up in one fell swoop. Richly annotated, including 70-odd pages of lyrics and biographical notes, Bullfrog Jumped gathers 42 children's songs from the Arnold collection, many of them pulled from the reel-to-reel tapes, quite a few of them extracted from the original discs. These selections can sound more than a little rough; the initial recording conditions were simple at best, and the discs sustained some damage during their stay in the library. But if the production lacks the crispness of similar folk recordings (the startlingly clear Lomax recordings, for example), it in no way diminishes the necessity of this collection. Represented among the vocalists are various schoolteachers, mothers, and grandmothers, including a 45-year-old housekeeper named Vera Hall, who eventually went on to be recorded by Lomax and, in the late '90s, remixed by Moby on Play. Many of these songs, like "All the Pretty Horses," "Frog Went A-Courting," and "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," are immediately recognizable, while other songs, like "Old Shiboots and Leggings," "When I Was a Young Girl," and "Springfield Mountain," are utterly unfamiliar. What's fascinating is they seem familiar. These songs serve as a window into the past, a glimpse of family life in an extinct America. These are deeply human relics.