Nearly every music fan dreams of the chance to mold a brand-new acolyte from scratch. You have the opportunity to impart your years of accumulated knowledge and perspectives upon someone. So when my newborn arrived in the world (let’s call the kid “Fig”), I decided this was my grand chance to expose her to music on my terms – the good, the bad, and the in-between. In each subsequent installment, we’ll talk about a genre or two and provide a few representative songs as discussion points. With any luck, Fig will someday love music as much as I do — unless it’s Chris Brown or The Eagles, then I think I will have failed as a parent.
Today: Children’s Music
Fine, fine. This first installment doesn’t cover music for grownups; I’m cheating a bit. Whatever. I simply felt it important to tell you that it’s OK to ignore most of the sappy pap passing for kids' music. This is especially true of the Kidz Bop nonsense that waters down grownups' songs to be “acceptable” for kids without giving you meaningful music of your own.
What I consider good children’s music contains a few key elements. The melodies need to be fun, upbeat and primarily written in major keys. The words should be easy to understand, easy to sing, and easily wedged into your psyche like the worst earwig. The concepts should definitely be silly, whimsical, clever and outlandish; perfect for entertaining you and your friends on long car rides. And for my sake, we need to find entire albums the entire family can enjoy, because as any experienced parent knows all too well, once you find something you really love you’ll subject Mom and me to interminable replays of these songs.
So where should we start? I nominate the stuff I listened to as a kid, simply because if we’re using my life as the reference point, this is where it all began. When I listen back to my favorite songs from childhood, I’m struck by the kinda-genius songwriting; it’s a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” situation. Sure, the chord progressions are rather simplistic and rudimentary, but the same can be said of most of the folk and pop music grownups like. And yes, the lyrics are childish and nonsensical, but you don’t have to be a Nobel laureate to write a good pop song. Go listen to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by the Beatles and then tell me that everything has to make sense all the time.
Children’s musicians possess a certain kind of awesome that helps them write music you and your friends will understand and enjoy. Most kids have a fairly distinct “bullshit detector,” and not everyone can be as great as Andy Dwyer’s “Johnny Karate” character on Parks and Recreation. So, let’s look into a few of the standout songs I enjoyed when I was your age.
"BABY BELUGA," RAFFI
This is the quintessential children’s song from the OG children’s musician. Raffi takes keen elements of ‘60s and ‘70s folk, brings in lyrics about baby whales frolicking in the ocean, and turns the whole thing into a family-friendly affair. It’s like Laurel Canyon for kids, minus the cocaine and alcohol. Simply put, the Baby Beluga album powered many a road trip of my youth, and children’s music is all about positive memories.
"I'M TOO FULL FOR BROCCOLI," JOE SCRUGGS
The lyrics talk about wanting only fried chicken and ice cream instead of veggies and other green things that are “good for you,” which resonates with children and parents. And it’s just a fun little ditty in that it shows respect for Mom’s cooking while still turning it down. It’s like a polite “No, thank you” in song form.
SESAME STREET THEME SONG
This is a cultural institution of the highest order. I think there are people who could sing this song having never seen a single episode of Sesame Street. And I loved this song as a kid because I loved this show. Hearing that ascending melody and those kids asking politely, “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” meant it was time to watch one of my favorite shows. And compared to the theme songs of other popular childhood television programs, this is a goddamn symphony.
"PINBALL NUMBER COUNT," SESAME STREET
I loved this song. All 12 installments of it. Every time. I wanted it to be on every episode (which is wasn’t), because I loved counting along as I danced around the room. It helped that the animation was on-point, the grooves were tight, and it was easy to sing. You could bounce to it unlike you could with most kid’s songs, as they were heavily indebted to white folk music. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this tune represented my introduction to ‘70s funk/disco, especially since it was sung by the Pointer Sisters. In short, more DJs should work this track into their sets because it would be a crowd-pleaser for fans of a certain age.
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SHOW ME HOW
"THE MISSISSIPPI SQUIRREL REVIVAL," RAY STEVENS
For the uninitiated, Ray Stevens is basically Weird Al Yankovic meets Jeff Foxworthy — and it’s not necessarily children’s music. It is in that he sang silly songs that occasionally ripped off popular hits, though, or how he penned nonsensical songs that only make sense in the Deep South. As a kid, I was drawn to the mania in his music videos and the slightly tawdry content of his songs (i.e. “It’s Ma Again, Margaret,” “The Streak,” etc.) although it was never truly offensive, or church-goers across the Bible Belt wouldn’t have supported him for decades. This song is about a kid bringing his squirrel to his church (“the First Self Righteous Church”), the animal getting loose, running around the church and crawling into some lady’s undergarments (“Sister Bertha Better-Than-You”), and helping the church experience a revival. Seriously.
"I'M A BELIEVER," THE MONKEES
Technically, this isn’t a children’s song, but it was my first introduction to regular pop music, as it appeared on one of my favorite Nick at Nite programs. It’s bright, shiny, mostly happy, and filled with major-key melodies played on guitars and pianos. And like the aforementioned Ray Stevens, the accompanying music videos were filled with hectic antics and the silly imbroglios in which the four wacky musicians tangled themselves. I could have put “Daydream Believer” here as well, but the point is that the ghost-written songs of four goofy mods from the ‘60s concluded my childhood experiences with music. More importantly, it pushed me forward into pre-adolescence and gave me an idea of what music I might like on my own.
Next: traditional folk music.