Mr. Greg and Cass McCombsSing and Play New Folk Songs for Children, released as part of Smithsonian Folkways’ ongoing 75th anniversary celebration, is an ambitious entry in the label’s rich history of children’s music. The lifelong friends have written a set of new songs that attempt to cover the entire Folkways kids’ curriculum in one go: civil rights, flora and fauna, language, conservation, self-image. In the liner notes, each song is accompanied by suggested lesson plans; these ideas usually involve listening to one or more records from Folkways’ sprawling (and never out of print) catalog. In turn, the catalog folds itself back into the record: There are spoken cameos from folk lifers Peggy Seeger and Michael Hurley, as well as samples of children’s recordings from Woody Guthrie and Ella Jenkins, who made her Folkways debut in 1957 and celebrated her 99th birthday this month.

With all those canonical references, this album could have easily ended up as a glorified syllabus. But McCombs and Mr. Greg (aka Greg Gardner, a preschool teacher in San Francisco whose students make frequent appearances here, along with his own kids and even the family cat) generally know when to honor the past and when to break from it. For every “A Builder’s Got a Hammer and Nails,” with its cheery light-industrial percussion and a melody cribbed from “The Wheels on the Bus,” there’s a “Roll Around Downtown,” a jaunty tribute to skateboarding backed by drum machine and a guitar that coughs up chalk dust. It sounds like McCombs building a Tinkertoy model of George Thorogood. On “The Sounds That the Letters Make,” McCombs opts for beatnik jazz, content to scratch some feedback against Ben Sigelman’s tense, crabbed cello. “We Build a Lot of Muscle When We Exercise” is surprisingly glum, with a title that’s practically longer than the song; at the last moment, keyboardist Sean Trott pulls the arrangement out of an indie-twee death spiral.

I admit: If I were a kid with computer privileges, that description might make me shut the laptop. Children’s music is the rare genre that’s not defined by formal characteristics or place of origin, but by its audience. Which means, in theory, that it can take pretty much any form: the chirpy, rhyme-free dada of the Pinkfong empire, the emotional-regulation ditties of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, or Pierce Freelon’s Grammy-nominated forays into psychedelic R&B and chamber soul. Still, its intended listeners are more or less captive to parental preferences. For a certain cohort of grown-ups, that means folk that’s lightly didactic, of antique provenance, and performed solo. (“A lot of those old Folkways records are like that: just a banjo and a vocal or something,” McCombs notes, approvingly, in the press material.)

Thankfully, his genre infidelity wins out. The more avant arrangements stand like secret passageways to possible futures, while the strummy pop tunes—such as the chooglin’ opener “Little Wilma Wiggly Worm”—are as comfy as a library nook. Of the strummers, “Things That Go in the Recycling Bin” is the highlight. The two artists harmonize over a lurching country-folk backing, sorting the recyclables (“cardboard scraps, outdated maps”) from the compostables (“apple core, cold soup du jour”). Wilma shows up, eats the compost, worm poop becomes dirt. It’s a commendably blunt choice, as is the matter-of-fact depiction of an owl’s mealtime—from prey to pellet—on “I’m a Nocturnal Animal.”

In style and subject matter, Sing and Play New Folk Songs for Children achieves the dual aims of folk music: to depict the world both as it is and as it could be. Incidentally, these are also the tasks of a parent. You spend years hammering together an impossible armor, trying to build something that can deflect any pain while admitting all joys. And you may never know how the work ends. In high folkie style, this album includes tributes to two bygone political figures: “Wave a Flag for Harvey Milk” and “Requiem for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” The tension in these songs, between tenuous present and triumphant progress—what is and what might be, in other words—could snap you in half. But the folkies and the parents agree: You gotta keep it together for the kids.

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Mr. Greg & Cass McCombs: Mr. Greg & Cass McCombs Sing and Play New Folk Songs for Children