July 23, 2010

A Music Lover’s Guide to Children’s Tunes.

I grew up a music nerd.

Just like the worn cliche, I was a member of the family that sang every folk song known to man in our beater station wagon on long, sticky car trips, and belted out Christmas carols by candlelight around our small-town tree. More unusually, we also sang grace in five part harmony around the dining room table. I even had a barbershop quartet practicing in my den. By the time I went to college, I had graduated to stiff, aching acapella harmonies every night of the week. Even today, I find myself peeved at the religious right for humiliating my experience of the Christian church as a place to sing sacred music for its own sake.

Nerd or not, I loved music. It only took a few minutes out west for my musical tastes to evolve toward the freedom and heart of the independent musician. Under countless influences including the Boulder Theater, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and my own experiences on the Boulder singer-songwriter scene that defined the 90’s for me, I tuned my guitar, and showed up for Open Mike Night at Penny Lane more often than my friends wanted to come.

When children are steeped in music, it enters the bones, the skin, the breath, and the memory. It lifts, soothes, explains, and comforts. Honest music spreads the stories of life before us like a book. Love, absurdity, loss and joy ask children to connect in an authentic way with the musician, the music and each other.

The power of music was transforming to me as a child. After my grandfather’s stroke, we found he could no longer speak, but amazingly, he could still sing. We all experienced a blessed moment of relief from the excruciating loss of communication with only a few lines of music. Just last weekend, it only took a single bar of song, a sampling from the Barbershoppers Harmony Festival on the Pearl Street Mall, for tears to spring to my eyes for my late, barbershopping papa.

Music runs deep.

I am always on the lookout for music with meaning. With integrity. With a soul. For children, these qualifications are especially important, and even harder to come by. I believe that the makers of music for children underestimate them; underestimate their ability to sense complex rhythms, word play, and real feelings. I like my children’s music to be real, and sweet, and important to them.

Here are just a few of my favorites:

1. Woody Guthrie: Songs to Grow On. This album is simple, rhythmic, percussive and funny. The songs are just plain sweet, and about as stripped down and under-produced as you can get.

2. Elizabeth Mitchell: Catch the Moon. I love her style. It’s soothing, playful, and multicultural in an effortless way. Her voice is like honey. I could listen all day. An added bonus: Lisa Loeb is a guest artist.

3. Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas. I’ve heard tell that the executives assigned to updating ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ wanted to pull off the classic jazz soundtrack and substitute something more ‘child appropriate’. I’m glad someone talked them out of it.

4. Jerry Garcia and David Grisman: Not for Kids Only. Drawn from their vast knowledge of roots and folk music, the friendship, humor and genius musicianship in this album is unmistakeable.

5. Various Artists: Daddies Sing Goodnight: A Father’s Collection of Sleepytime Songs. A charming collection of world class bluegrass and folk musicians (who also happen to be daddies) like Townes Van Zandt and James Taylor (performed by the Seldom Scene) makes for a heartbreaking, lovely collection of almost all original tunes.

5. Dan Zanes: Rocket Ship Beach. A former member of the Del Fuegos, Dan Zanes and Friends perform family music with humor, energy, respect and groove. He mixes children’s songs with traditional folk, bluegrass and world music.

7. Bev Bos and Michael Leeman: Come on and Sing. These two are the king and queen of the teacher’s conference musical workshop (more nerdiness, I know), but they are responsible for making tens of thousands of teachers sing, laugh, cry, and learn songs to sing with children. That’s pretty cool.

I’m sure we’d all love to hear about what music you’ve enjoyed listening to with your children, what music was important to you as a child, and what makes you want to dance, so leave a comment and join the conversation.

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