Frogs Were Everywhere. But Where Was Shirley?

by | in Passover
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Illustration: Ann D. Koffsky

One morning King Pharaoh woke in his bed / There were frogs in his bed and frogs on his head / Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes / Frogs here, frogs there, frogs just jumping everywhere!

If you’ve been to any Seder with children in attendance in the past twenty-five years, you’ve heard that song. It’s so common that it’s practically a part of the Haggadah.

So when I was searching for a topic for my next children’s book, the frogs were calling to me, “Ribbit!”

Of course, I knew if I wanted to write a book based on the song, I needed to find the song’s author and obtain permission to use it. No problem. There had to be documentation . . . right? I dug around and found a nursery school song sheet. On top it read, “Song written by: Shirley Cohen.”

Guess how many hits you get when you Google “Shirley Cohen”?

6,500,000. Really. And so began my quest for Shirley.

I pursued every lead. I discovered the original records she made for a company called Kinor Records. Unfortunately, it was out of business. I found the song in the Florida State University Archive, which led me to the Brooklyn company that had bought Kinor Records. The man from Brooklyn with a thick—was it a Chassidic?—accent assured me that he had the master recording (AHA!), but not the rights to the song. Dead end.

One Jewish music authority speculated that Shirley had moved to Florida. Other experts shrugged their shoulders. They all knew the song, but they didn’t know Shirley. After many more false starts and dead ends, Ina Cohen, reference librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, discovered an article on the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s web site about Shirley’s upcoming performance at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, where Shirley is a member.

Unbeknownst to me, Shirley was no longer Shirley Cohen. Somewhere along the way, Shirley had become Shirley Cohen-Steinberg.

Today, Shirley lives in Ottawa, and is eighty-seven years young. She wrote “The Frog Song,” and many other children’s songs in the 1950s for her Hebrew school students.

Back then, there were virtually no Jewish songs targeted toward children. “There was very little that had any whimsy or fun—nothing playful,” Shirley later told me. She wrote three records worth of songs to fill that gap, and recorded them for the grand sum of $100 per record.

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The rest is history. Today, her songs are used in Sedarim around the world. “For a long time I wasn’t aware of how far they had spread,” says Shirley. “But about three years ago I went to a Seder in Calgary, and a few guests from Australia were there. When they requested that we all sing ‘The Frog Song’—that’s when I realized.”

While her songs have spread across the globe, Shirley rarely recieves credit. Song sheets appear, without attribution, and are copied and shared. Musicians record the song and assume it is in the public domain, like “Chad Gadya.” However, Shirley wrote the song in 1951, and the rights remain with her.

I needed those rights. I had to make that first phone call to Shirley. I was nervous: would she let me use her song? What kind of fee would she demand for the license?

But the phone call went surprisingly well. Shirley actually thanked me! For finding her. For offering to use her song in a book. No, I don’t have to give her a cent, she said. Could I please just make sure her name is on it? Could I make sure her grandkids get copies of the book when it comes out? She was thrilled that children would be able to enjoy her song.

I was shocked.

That’s all she wants? An attribution and a couple of books for her grandkids? That’s it for the song that has traveled the globe?

Shirley could have been bitter and angry at the world for using her song without compensating her. But she isn’t. Instead, she is a creative woman who continues to write, is active in her JCC and is a loving mother and grandmother. She derives nachas from the fact that people are using her song to make children happy.

This was an important mussar lesson for me. As a children’s author, I can get caught up in negotiations and asserting my rights. Sometimes I forget to step back and say, “Oh yeah, I’m in this for the kids.”

May the joy and frogs continue to multiply across all our Seder tables this year and in years to come. Have a happy—and hoppy—Passover.
(And don’t worry, Shirley is getting royalties for this books, as she well deserves.)

Listen to Shirley’s original recordings here:
http://faujsa.fau.edu/jsa/music_album.php?jsa_num=401021&queryWhere=jsa_num&queryValue=401021&select=artist_LN_FN&fetch=25&pagenum=2&return=findalbums

Ann D. Koffsky is the author/illustrator of more than thirty books for children. See more of her work, including her newest book, Frogs in the Bed (Behrman House, New Jersey, 2014), at www.annkoffsky.com.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2014.

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