Little Songs on Big Subjects

Most Americans in their thirties and forties are familiar with "Schoolhouse Rock", the short cartoons on educational subjects that appeared in between commercials during weekend kids programming in the seventies.  Who among us, of that age, doesn’t know the words that come after "Conjunction junction…" or "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly…"?

What I never knew until recently is that there is a similar series of songs that are equally familiar to an older generation!

It’s called "Little Songs on Big Subjects" and it consists of 11 jingles about tolerance released in 1947.  

I first learned of the series when a woman wrote me asking if anyone else remembered a song she knew from her childhood with the lyric ‘with a big bow-wow and a little meow‘.  I posted her question and was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response.

The song, I now know, is "Ol’ Commodore Gray", performed by The Jesters and Roy Ross’s Orchestra. Below you can read the lyrics and listen to a recording.

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MP3 of Ol’ Commodore Gray

Ol’ Commodore Gray

Old commodore Gray had a dog and a cat
With a big bow-wow and a little meow.
They all lived together with never a spat!
Now how in the world did they ever do that,
With a big bow-wow, and a little meow. Meow, bow-wow,
Meow, bow-wow, meow.

The cat and the dog had a barrel of fun
With a big bow-wow and a little meow
Although they were different they fooled everyone
Commodore Gray proved a lot can be done
With a big bow-wow and a little meow
Meow, bow-wow,
Meow, bow-wow, meow.

Old Commodore Gray often said to the crew
With a big bow-wow and a little meow
Though each man among us is different, it’s true
My cat and my dog get along, so can you
With a big bow-wow and a little meow
Meow, bow-wow,
Meow, bow-wow, meow
With a big bow-wow, and a little meow.

After my blog post talking about it had been up for a while, I was very happy to begin a correspondence with Frances Hayward and Barbara Black, two sisters whose father was Lou Singer.  Mr. Singer wrote the music to the series and his partner, Hy Zaret, wrote the lyrics.

Barbara writes:

This song, “Ol’ Commodore Gray,” was written and published in 1947 by Argosy Music Corp. It was one of the songs in the series “Little Songs on Big Subjects,” their earliest group of songs. The songs started as Radio jingles and then TV spots and then were recorded by VOX records. The team of Hy Zaret and Lou Singer continued to write educational songs (which they grouped together into series) throughout the 50s and into the 60s. They went from the ‘tolerance’ songs such as Ol’ Commodore Gray (and “It Could Be a Wonderful World,” “I’m Proud to be Me,” others) into the “Now We Know” series of weather, science, etc. songs intended as learning tools for school children. The albums were recorded a few times as the various series continued to develop and eventually every LP had an accompanying songbook so that they could provide a total learning experience to children. The “Ballads from the Age of Science” were very popular and it is within this vast group that “Why Does the Sun Shine?” comes from. Let me know if you need any further information..Barbara

Barbara mentions "Why Does the Sun Shine" because it has recently experienced something of a revival.  It was covered by one of my family’s favorite rock groups, They Might Be Giants, on their recent educational record "Here Comes Science". You can watch their video below.

Like "Ol’ Commodore Gray", many of the "Little Songs on Big Subjects" promoted racial tolerance.  I can’t prove it, but I suspect, based on the strong impression I know they made on many people, that the songs contributed to the civil rights revolution. 

For that we all owe Mr. Singer and Mr. Zaret a tremendous dept of gratitude!

UPDATE (3/18/11) – After she read our post, Barbara Black sent us the following letter with additional information:

…While the ‘tolerance’ songs were first heard in 1947, they continued to be greatly successful throughout the 1950’s and into the early 1960’s along with the other numerous educational series of songs that Mr. Zaret and Mr. Singer wrote together.
What started as public service spots on WNEW Radio, New York, the Little Songs moved onto TV spots and then became LPs, initially recorded on VOX Records by The Jesters. Then, Mr. Zaret’s own company, Argosy Music Corp. produced more recordings of the Little Songs with new artists, among them Leon Bibb and Ronnie Gilbert, who sang “Ol’ Commodore Gray” and the other songs in that series. “It Could Be a Wonderful World,” from the same album, was subsequently performed at Town Hall by Pete Seeger and an audience of children. The concert became a hit record, titled “Pete Seeger: Children’s Concert at Town Hall,” produced in 1962. As for “Why Does the Sun Shine,” They Might Be Giants loved the Science and Space songs of the 50’s and in particular they loved “Why Does the Sun Shine,” so much so that they recorded a successful CD in 1993 with “Why Does the Sun Shine” as the title song. The group included “Why Does the Sun Shine” in another album during their career and just recently it was featured on their Grammy-nominated children’s educational CD, “Here Comes Science.”

Thanks Barbara!

This article was posted on Thursday, March 17th, 2011 at 6:21 pm and is filed under Cartoons, Government Sponsored Commercials, Little Songs on Big Subjects, Movies, TV & The Internet, Music, Teaching, They Might Be Giants, Tolerance, YouTube. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

14 Responses to “Little Songs on Big Subjects”

  1. Mitzy German Says:

    Thank you so much!!! I am the woman who was asking about the song (back in 2007). You have no idea how thrilled I was to read your response and to finally have all the words. Thank you again and again.

  2. Lisa Says:

    Hi Mitzy – Were you able to hear the songs too?

  3. Mitzy German Says:

    Yes, I was. I have an identical twin sister, and we both enjoyed hearing it again (and several agains!) Thank you so much. By the way, there was another childhood song that we can only remember the chorus. Perhaps you can find it as well (seeing how you work miracles). It goes: “And every little wavelet had it’s white cap on. It’s white cap, night cap, white cap on….”
    Thank you again. You really put some sparkle in our day.
    Mitzy

  4. Mitzy German Says:

    Oh, I forgot the last phrase of that was “And every little wavelett had it’s whitecap on so very, very early in the morning.”
    Hope you have a really great day.

    Mitzy

  5. Lisa Says:

    Hi Mitzy,

    Is this the song …

    Once I got into a boat,
    Such a pretty, pretty boat,
    Just as the day was dawning;
    And I took a little oar,
    And I pushed out from the shore
    So very, very early in the morning:
    And every little wavelet had its white cap on,
    Its night cap, white cap, night cap on;
    And every little wavelet had its white cap on
    So very, very early in the morning.

  6. Mitzy German Says:

    You are amazing!!!!! You bring us to tears. My sister says there is at least one more verse, something with ………pray do excuse me for yawning……… Anyway, what a treat to see this. Thank you again, Lisa. You are so sweet to do this kind of thing for perfect strangers. Hope you and yours are well and happy.

    Wishing you the best always,
    Mitzy

  7. Jonathan Hoffman Says:

    My sister and I used to listen to these songs at Unitarian Sunday School in Pullman, Washington, in the early 1950s. We STILL sing these songs, and love them. Is there a way to get the record (or download MP3s of the songs) for our children and grandchildren?

  8. Mary Krimmel Says:

    In grade school in the mid nineteen-twenties we sang “Every little wavelet had its nightcap on, its nightcap, whitecap, nightcap on. . .

    I remember the tune. How can I put it here? It goes up, up, up, down, down, down, down, down, up . . . I’m no singer, but I could try. The tune is clear in my head. I don’t remember all the words.

  9. Jeff Says:

    I’ve bugged relatives and others – do you remember the Big Bow Wow and The little Meow from about 50 years ago and no one remembered it but me. I found it here today and was able to prove to my sister, wife and others there was such a song but not on a dog or cat food commercial like I thought. Thank you for finding it and putting it on here.

  10. karen Says:

    It was so great and funny to hear Big Bow Wow and Little Meow again. I’m so glad Mitzy asked about it. They used to play it along with other PSAs on the Captain Video show on TV in the early 1950s and my little brother and I used to sing it to our pets.

  11. Argosy Music Corp Says:

    I am very pleased and pleased to say that “It Could be a Wonderful World” and “Ballads for the Age of Science” are legally available through iTunes, Amazon, and other sources of digital music. These are meticulous restorations of the original recordings. For more information, please see our web site: http://www.argosymusiccorp.com. Thank you very much for the enthusiastic comments; they helped motivate me to bring these songs back into circulation.

  12. Lynn De Grave Says:

    Hello (again),
    I am not sure that my mail got sent, so I am sending again.
    I am looking for the melody and /or source of the song you mention, “once I got into a boat, such a pretty, pretty boat.”

    Can you help me?
    Thank you and amazing blog,
    Lynn De Grave

  13. Ingrid Says:

    Hi! I love all this info and the old songs, very cool. I wanted to reply to the woman looking for the melody and words to the nightcap/whitecap song; I was also searching it out because my grandma was singing it to our baby daughter earlier and I remembered her singing it to me so I was very excited and wanted to look it up. I found this darling woman singing it on YouTube and it has all the words as well. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=PwPqK33CvM4

    My grandma sings a slightly different melody but this gives you the idea! We love this song. :)

  14. Lisa Says:

    The chorus to this song can be found in The Fireside Annual: 1883.

    Here are the lyrics as shown on the video at the link above…

    Once I got into a boat, such a pretty little boat,
    Just as the day was dawning.
    And I took a little oar and I pushed away from shore
    So very, very early in the morning.

    (Chorus)
    And every little wave had its nightcap on
    Its nightcap, whitecap, nightcap on.
    And every little wave had its nightcap on
    So very, very early in the morning.

    In their cave so still and deep all the fishes were asleep
    When a ripple gave them warning.
    Said the minnow to the skate, don’t you lie in bed so late.
    Said he this very early in the morning.

    (Chorus)

    Said the sturgeon to the eel, just imagine how I feel
    Excuse me dear for yawning.
    People ought to let us know when sailing they will go
    So very, very early in the morning.

    (Chorus)

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