Children's culture

The Little Ones Sing

Gunnar Nyborg Jensen (1912-1970)

By Lone Nyhuus, journalist, former dancer and choreographer, 2006

Idyll, thrills and horro in the children's room 

When you have a look at the The Little Ones Sing songbook, it all looks very nice and harmless on the surface. A little boy with blond hair decorates the front page. He has his head stuck into an open book and sings - probably repeating the text in an innocent way. 

Sweet thrills 

Bitte Boecher’s illustration signals idyll and an absence of any danger. But when you open the songbook, you find that it pours out the one cruel song after the other. We start with the little black kitten with the white paws. Looking further down the page, the notes appear. Without figurations or bass notes, written in such a way that anyone with the barest minimum of knowledge of music can sit down at the piano - or put a recorder in his or her mouth - and play “Look at the little kitten” (“Se den lille kattekilling”).

So far so good. But come to the bottom of the page and things start to go wrong. Bitte Boecher has drawn a mouse here and in the text the cat asks the mouse to come out and play. So we can all guess what’s going to happen - things are going to go terribly wrong!
Already from the first song onwards, we are presented with double-edged texts. The little child is happily thrilled by the cat’s playing with the mouse, the story about the boy Poul, who let his hens fly around the garden - to the great joy of the fox - and the tale of the 10 little cyclists, nine of whom come to grief. Fortunately the child can turn over to the next page. Here he encounters the monk walking around peaceful meadowlands or the little lamb which bleats bah, bah. 

Popular children’s songs 

It was the schoolmaster Gunnar Nyborg-Jensen who collected these well-known children’s songs and games. From the time of the World War II occupation of Denmark, he was known as studio host for the We sing together (Vi synger sammen) request programme on the radio, and when in 1948 he finally got tired of dragging round heavy songbooks and loose stencilled music sheets all the time, he collected the most popular children’s songs in a little book.
This became the The Little Ones Sing songbook. Down the years, 1.5 million copies of the book have been printed, a special anniversary CD with locally renowned singers interpreting the songs has achieved huge sales, and a few songs have had to be replaced. For instance, “In Niggerland, bananas grow” (“I niggerland bananen gror”) was expunged from the songbook in 1993. Otherwise the songbook that you see today in Danish children’s rooms and institutions is more or less unchanged. As it has been for more than two generations.

Front page for The Little Ones Sing designed by Bitte Böcher. In 2018, the anniversary edition was published with a new node setup with chords and melody voices, prepared by Jan Glæsel. ©Høst & Son.
Children's Culture

Did you know?

Source: Høst & Søn

The little ones still sing and play in one go. The popular songbook from 1948 has since been joined by The Little Ones Sing Psalms and The Little Ones Sing Christmas Songs. The latter is a CD that Gunnar Nyborg-Jensen's son, Søren, has been responsible for. In 2003, Søren Nyborg-Jensen also had a finger in the game at The Little Ones Sing Playfull Songs, which is a newly edited version of his father's book about playfull songs, published in the 1950s.

The Committee's justification

By the Committee for Music, 2006

Several generations of Danes have grown up with Gunnar Nyborg-Jensen’s De små synger, which first appeared in 1948. Along with her four-year-younger successor, this was Henning Elbirk’s Rainbow Book, an innovation in Danish children’s culture: The song book.
The book contains what may still be called the one true song book in Danish children’s song repertoire. These songs have been a part of the childhood and adulthood of countless Danes, also when they have their own children. And when you hear Kai Normann Andersen’s songs, especially from the 1930s, or songs by Kim Larsen, Lars Lilholt and Anne Linnet, you realise that they are often rooted in the simple, almost naive tonal language of these children’s songs. As Kim Larsen formulated it: “It's hard to run from Ole's new car”. An undeniably correct observation. Because once you’ve gotten these children’s songs under your skin as a child, they will last forever.

The repertoire from the book was revived in the 1990s when a large number of rock and pop artists, spurred on by producer Sten Wijksman Kjærsgaard, recreated them in inspired and different versions. The songs were released in the Oh Abe! anthology, of which one million CDs have been sold.
Newer and more contemporary songbooks with related content have since been released, but without the “little singers” losing their status to a significant extent. Contemporary users do not apparently care that the notation looks hopelessly old-fashioned and that the songs are not musically notated. Bitte Böcher’s fine drawings and the book’s strong brand apparently outweigh these shortcomings.

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