Raising Hip Kids:
A Children's Music Primer
First Appeared at The Music Box, January 2003, Volume 10, #1
Written by T.J. Simon
Earlier this year, I went to an all-ages show to see a band called Superdrag whom I had never seen before. The crowd was full of teens, and the 18 year-old girl standing in front of me was going on and on about how great Superdrag was. I asked her who they sounded like, and — I swear to God — she said, "I think they sound like The Beatles. I mean, I’ve never actually heard the Beatles before, but they sound like what I imagine The Beatles sound like."
At that moment, I suddenly felt very old, and I wondered how an American kid who was clearly into music could go a lifetime uncertain what, exactly, the Beatles sounded like. I wondered what type of music was played around the girl’s home when she was a baby and a toddler. And, I wondered how I could ensure that my kid would never, ever confess to not being familiar with the pop music canon when she starts going to all-ages shows in eighteen years. (By the way, Superdrag was very good, but they sounded nothing like The Beatles.)
In addition to playing your children the music of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys, you’re probably going to be pressured into playing some actual kids’ music to your children. As such, there has been a recent trend in kids’ music that is quite encouraging: adult artists releasing music albums for children. Presumably many of these releases coincide with the birth of the artists’ own children. The idea is that there is a happy medium where youngsters can enjoy some decent tunes that won’t leave Mom and Dad begging for deafness. Moreover, this stripped down (not dumbed down) rock, pop, roots, and alt-country could set the stage for good musical tastes into adolescence and adulthood far better than any purple dinosaur could.
In an effort to gauge the children’s music landscape, I recently sampled some albums aimed at the next generation of music fans. When evaluating the quality of children’s music, the parent’s opinion is substantially less important than the child’s rating. So in order to devise fair assessments, I called upon the assistance of my three-month-old daughter, the World’s Cutest Baby (WCB). The experts say that Mozart may make your kid smarter, but some of the CDs profiled below will certainly make your kid hipper.
Great Big Sun
Justin Roberts is a Chicago singer-songwriter with one foot firmly planted in the adult singer-songwriter world and a larger, more successful foot planted in the world of children’s entertainment. He wrote the songs on Great Big Sun while he was doing time as a Montessori teacher trying to make it as an adult recording artist and performer at night. Frisbie’s Liam Davis produced the album and assisted with instrumentation and some harmony vocals. The music is extremely likable, mature singer-songwriter fare that is appealing to youngsters without ever sounding condescending or stupid, and his voice is a pleasant mixture of James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Paul Simon. On Everything Else Starts with "E", Roberts hides a letters lesson inside the Trojan Horse of a memorable tune. Kids can learn the joy of words in his alliteration-heavy Bouncin’ Baby, and they can rest easy with the help of the closing lullaby Goodnight, which features a lovely violin interlude from Tracy Spuehler. This album is the benchmark for what children’s music should aspire to be.
(WCB stared transfixed at the stereo speaker until the last note played)
Purchase Great Big Sun: Barnes & Noble
Justin Roberts’ follow up to Great Big Sun is the more expansive and better-produced Yellow Bus. It captures many of the likable moments from the debut while ultimately falling short of its predecessor’s simple brilliance. His love of words is on full display on the tongue-twisting Willy Was a Whale, a Jackson Browne-ish number featuring a full band and Nora O’Connor (from Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire) on background vocals. Tie Your Shoe is a useful lesson displayed over Roberts’ artful guitar picking. However, Roberts lost me on the opening track In the Car, where he becomes a victim of the kids’ artist pitfall of letting actual kids sing (or in this case shout) along to an otherwise decent song. The other low point is the well-intentioned Mama Is Sad which begins with the lyric "Mama is sad / And I know that she’s taken off her ring…" This is kind of heavy stuff for a children’s album, particularly if Mama isn’t having troubles with Daddy. And if a marriage is in trouble, I can’t fathom this song giving the poor child any solace. God bless Roberts for trying to help, but he should stick to the witty, fun stuff that he mastered on his debut.
Parent Rating: ½
(WCB listened contently while trying to grab the cat’s tail)
Purchase Yellow Bus: Barnes & Noble
Before I began delving into the world of kid’s music, Raffi was a bit of a punch line for me — a symbol of the moronic musical pabulum that parents are forced to endure. Of course, I had never heard his music, but that never stopped me from lumping him in with the purple dinosaur and the unnerving lady with the sock puppet on her hand. Actually, 54 year-old Raffi Cavoukian is a pretty interesting guy. An Armenian from Egypt whose family moved to Canada when he was 10, Raffi is a fervent environmentalist and children’s advocate. Since his first recording in 1976, the guy has sold an insane amount of music making him the most popular human children’s musical artist ever. How is the music? Pretty annoying, actually. His most praised album is Baby Beluga, and while Raffi’s heart is clearly in the right place, his condescending vocals and dumbed-down versions of Day O and Kumbaya (songs with a head start in the dumb department) have earned him a lifetime ban from the Hip Baby CD Club.
(WCB filled diaper in protest)
Purchase Baby Beluga: Barnes & Noble
This Land Is Your Land: Songs of Unity
(Music for Little People/Rhino)
This Land Is Your Land: Songs of Unity is a compilation of poems, spoken word pieces, and songs for children all centered on the themes of diversity and civil rights. Proceeds from the sale of this disc benefit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Tolerance Program, and for the most part, the music on the album is right on the money. The version of Sly and The Family Stone’s Everyday People performed by the great Taj Mahal has a message on target with the album’s central theme. The Neville Brothers sing a harmony-rich ditty called Sister Rosa (referring to Rosa Parks), and Sweet Honey in the Rock belts out a fun number in the gospel-inspired Calypso Freedom. The absolute highlight of the disc is probably the most brilliant and bizarre moment in children’s music history: Brian Johnson of AC/DC (sounding curiously like a Muppet) singing along with a chorus of children singing on If I Had a Hammer. This song alone is worth the price of admission. And, for once, the producers actually found some very talented kids to sing along with the stars. The worst moment comes from (you guessed it) Raffi, who reaches new lows of his brain- dead music on Like Me and You. For all of its good intentions, This Land Is Your Land: Songs of Unity, falls a bit flat during the spoken word pieces from Ted Danson, Danny Glover, and others. The lessons from the civil rights movement will largely be lost on all but the oldest of the kids, but the whole family can certainly enjoy the music on this well-produced album.
Parent Rating: ½
(WCB wanted to explore the AC/DC catalog further)
Purchase This Land Is Your Land: Songs of Unity: Barnes & Noble
Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys
Creole for Kidz
Terrance Simien’s group is perhaps the best bar band in America. His mix of rock, groove, and soul wrapped in a Zydeco package is a surefire recipe for a good time. In a tavern or festival setting, it is simply impossible not to dance like a fool when Simien and his band launch into their signature medley of Jambalaya and Iko Iko. On his children’s release Creole for Kidz, Simien tones it down to an appropriate level without sacrificing any of the party inherent in his music. In the process, he produced an interesting lesson illustrating the lifestyle and culture of the French-speaking Creoles of southern Louisiana. The songs are linked by narration from Louisiana State Senator and Zydeco radio show host Donald Cravins. The Cajun party music on the album introduces children to the accordion and rubboard (or frottoir) as played by Simien and his Creole percussionist Ralph Fontenot on Oldest Living Tree and Creole Mardi Gras Run. The guitar of Glenn LeBlanc and the funky keyboard of Danny Williams also steal the show on Simien’s original compositions as well as a cover of the King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier’s Oh My Lucille. For my buck, I would have preferred a little less narration and a little more music, but overall Simien and his band have produced a wonderful little cultural nugget that will go a long way towards raising a well-rounded little music fan.
(WCB wants a frottoir to call her own.)
Purchase Creole for Kidz: Barnes & Noble
The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs For Bumpy Wagon Rides
Bloodshot Records is the flagship label for the insurgent country music movement that spawned such talented artists as Kelly Hogan, Robbie Fulks, Waco Brothers, and Devil in a Woodpile. These artists, among others, gathered together to record an alt-country children’s music compilation cleverly titled The Bottle Let Me Down. Standards such as It’s Not Easy Being Green (performed here by Rex Hobart & The Misery Boys) and Rubber Duckie (performed by Kelly Hogan) share space with bizarre — and somewhat creepy — originals such as Robbie Fulks’ Godfrey and The Cornell Hurd Band’s Don’t Wipe Your Face on Your Shirt. Some of the songs are clearly geared toward the enjoyment of Mom and Dad, particularly Alejandro Escovedo’s original ballad Sad and Dreamy. While Carolyn Mark’s spoken word (with musical accompaniment) version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff is a treat aimed at the little ones. Dozens of hip Americana artists collaborated on the 26 tracks, and while a few of the moments fall flat, there’s certainly enough quality content to justify the purchase.
WCB Rating: ½
(WCB gurgled and stared at fingers as if seeing them for the first time.)
Purchase The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides: Barnes & Noble
Return to Pooh Corner
Wow, is this album bad. Kenny Loggins manages to do nothing right on this truly dreadful disc. Have you ever noticed that the singer’s voice is usually mixed louder on a kid’s album, so the child can hear the words better? Not on Kenny’s latest effort. He manages to bury his poor diction under overproduced and badly performed new-age string arrangements. Even inherently good songs (such as the Muppets’ Rainbow Connection) on this ego-driven project are ruined by Loggins’ smarmy delivery. He covers the great Paul Simon lullaby St. Judy’s Comet begging the question: Why would I pay for this garbage when my daughter can enjoy the vastly-superior original? Don’t even get me started on the fey cover art. This album will do a better job teaching your baby how to throw a small, silver frisbee than it will teach it about good music. Consider yourself warned.
(WCB spit up and screamed like a banshee)
Purchase Return to Pooh Corner: Barnes & Noble
At the Bottom of the Sea
Parents may be familiar with Ralph Covert as a respected and prolific solo artist or as the front man for the raucous Chicago bar band The Bad Examples that scored a local favorite with Not Dead Yet. Covert (recording as Ralph’s World) is also the hottest property in kids’ music these days — at least locally — and his three titles have probably outsold his entire adult catalog combined. At the Bottom of the Sea was the first of his two releases this year, and it is the same wonderful stuff that has made him so popular with parents who, a few short years ago, were getting beer spilled on them seeing him perform in crowded bars. His brand of genre-hopping kids’ fare ranges from California surf music in the tradition of Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys (Surfin’ in My Imagination) to funny singer-songwriter numbers such as Malcom McGillikitty. The brilliance in this release lies in the number of "inside jokes" geared at making Mom and Dad laugh while the kids get woozy with enjoyment. Covert resurrects Robert Johnson’s blues standard Dust My Broom as the kiddie wailer Clean My Room. If Bill Kirchen and Commander Cody made children’s music, it would probably sound like Covert’s Eighteen Wheels on a Big Rig, a song with a hilarious punch line that I won’t give away. Every newborn’s parent will be able to relate to the fun spelling song, Mommy Needs Coffee. Covert doesn’t sacrifice quality musical arrangements in the name of childish fun, and his music, which features expansive tunesmithing, touches the bases in the rock, folk, and country genres. He’s the wacky favorite uncle who is popular with the kids at the family reunions, and he has made a record with enough content for Mom and Dad that they might even play this album when the little ones aren’t around.
(WCB tried in vain to sing along)
The most recent outing from Ralph’s World is Happy Lemons, a quality collection of fifteen songs with lots to enjoy for every generation. Covert creates strong original material, such as the baby dance Belly Button, and the catchy Things That I Like, a song that will stick in your head long after bedtime. He also performs some unlikely covers including Bruce Springsteen’s Pony Boy and Burt Bacharach’s What’s New Pussycat — a song that is decidedly less lecherous in the wholesome hands of Ralph’s World as compared to Tom Jones. Covert even covers himself by resurrecting the Bad Examples’ fan favorite, Dixieland stomper Sammy the Dog. For all of its inherent joy, Happy Lemons has its annoying moments including Barnyard Blues and The Muffin Man that, in all fairness, your kids will probably enjoy just fine. While less jaw-droppingly clever than his previous release, Happy Lemons goes a long way toward making your youngster the coolest pre-schooler on the block.
Parent Rating: ½
(WCB flailed arms and squealed with delight)
Purchase Happy Lemons: Barnes & Noble
Dan Zanes and Friends
Rocket Ship Beach
During the 1980s, Dan Zanes made a name for himself as the leader of the Boston rockers The Del Fuegos. Recently, he’s resurrected his career as an innovative and clever children’s music artist with the admirable goal of not driving parents insane. On his kid’s debut Rocketship Beach, Zanes gets by with a little help from his friends including Sheryl Crow (Polly Wolly Doodle), Suzanne Vega (Erie Canal), and G.E. Smith (Brown Girl in the Ring). Zanes’ brand of children’s music is a multi-cultural affair with a bent towards the islands, including the Caribbean folk song Go Down Emanuel Road. The undisputed highlights of the disc are the Jamaican dancehall reggae gems Father Goose and On the Sunnyside of the Street. The latter features the show-stealing vocalist Rankin’ Don — who deserves his own solo album. Zanes also excels at American campfire sing-alongs such as King Kong Kitchie and Keep on the Sunnyside. The kindergarten chorus singing along and chatting over the intros were a bit much at times, but the good-natured charm of this release will certainly win you over.
Parent Rating: ½
(WCB tried to clap along, but lacked the necessary dexterity)
Purchase Rocket Ship Beach: Barnes & Noble
Dan Zanes and Friends
Dan Zanes’ second children’s album Family Dance, is a quaint, but less inspired, follow-up to his debut Rocketship Beach. The great moments include a version of Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line and a Spanish/English a cappella number called Yo-Yo Sweet Yo-Yo, complete with beat box rhythms and raps by the Rubi Theater Company. Jamaican dance-hall reggae maestro Rankin’ Don reprises his Father Goose role on The Hokey Pokey and Skip to My Lou. On this release, Zanes’ famous friends actually detract from the total package. Rosanne Cash sings on the unremarkable Fooba Wooba, Loudon Wainwright III annoys on All Around the Kitchen, and the woman famous for being famous (Sandra Bernhard) proves that she can’t sing a note on Thrift Shop. Parents will surely enjoy the ballad Wonder Wheel as well as the Scottish instrumental Flowers of Edinburgh, but I can’t imagine the kids taking to these songs immediately. Overall, Family Dance isn’t a bad disc, but it does not rise to the levels of Zanes’ debut.
(WCB smiled a gummy grin)
Purchase Family Dance
Barnes & Noble
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2002 The Music Box