Friday, April 27, 2007

Barry Louis Polisar

A while ago, Melissa Block from NPR wrote an article about kids' music (click here and scroll down the page to read the article) that made me pause and wonder... The first paragraph said: "I'm the mother of a 4-year-old girl, so I spend a good amount of time in the company of kids' music. And I've become pretty choosy. I don't have a lot of patience for music that panders to what I consider to be misguided notions of what adults think kids must like. Excessive goofiness? Out. Phony silly voices? Out." I read that and thought, kids don't like goofiness or silly voices? Huh?? Having two young girls myself (ages 4 and 2), and having played shows for thousands of kids, one thing that I continue to observe on a daily basis is that kids love to be silly and goofy, even excessively so, and they also love that in their entertainment. In fact, if they love something silly and goofy, then they'll often love it again and again and again and again. If anybody likes goofy and silly things excessively, it's kids. I'll readily agree that goofiness and silly voices do not necessarily make for good kids' music; there still has to be some quality and charm to the "goofiness". And silly voices need to have character to them and be "cast" well to fit with the content of the song. And certainly there is a lot of room in kids' musical palettes for all kinds of other kids' music that is more straightforward or even serious... But to imply that it is a misguided notion that kids like goofiness or silly voices? Well, that's a very misguided notion to me.

The timing of that article was good, though, as it coincided with my receiving some CDs by longstanding children's music artist, Barry Louis Polisar. Barry has been creating and performing kids' music longer and more consistently than anybody else I am aware of (his first kids' music album came out in 1975), and he has been more successful doing that than just about everybody else in the field (over 350,000 units in print), and a lot of his music definitely falls into the goofiness/silly voices category.

Barry sings about and celebrates the way that kids are, not the idealized way that grown-ups want them to be. And a really great thing is that he lets you know up front what he's all about. His albums have titles like: Naughty Songs for Boys and Girls, Off-Color Songs for Kids, Stanley Stole My Shoelace and Rubbed it in His Armpit and Other Songs My Parents Won't Let Me Sing and Old Enough to Know Better: The Worst of Barry Louis Polisar. If you're a parent and you see a title like Naughty Songs for Boys and Girls, you should know the kind of music that's on there. Barry's music will not be every parent's cup of tea, and there are probably some kids who won't take to it, either, especially if they're used to less provocative kinds of kids' music. And I wouldn't play his songs yet for my girls... they're too young to appreciate it. But I think that most elementary school kids will find a lot to love and laugh at in Barry's songs, and Barry speaks to that audience like no other.

Sure, some of Barry's songs may seem kind of obnoxious on the surface, but a lot of them work on a level that is more than just obnoxious. For example, "Don't Put Your Finger Up Your Nose" is some darn good advice. And there are quite a lot of his songs that might seem to be a little unsettling at first until you hear how they resolve. A good example of that is "When Suzie Sneezed" from the Old Enough to Know Better CD, where the first verse goes: A friend of mine came by last night / Said, "Come on out and join the fight / Between Robert and Richard and Susan and Jimmy / 'Cause they just started beating up Timmy / 'Cause Timmy hit Billy who just hit Steve / When Steve hit Laura after Jack and Johnny / Hit Tommy and Richard hit Emily / Who accidentally pushed Debbie when Suzie Sneezed." The first time I heard that, I was thinking, is this really a kids' song about a fight club?? And it builds up in the second verse, escalating to tanks and guns. But it starts to change in the third verse: So I said, "What would happen if you tell Jimmy / You're sorry you hit him and that he hit Timmy. / Maybe Timmy would go and shake Billy's hand / Hopefully some day, they'll understand. And it continues on from there with the one kid trying to convince the other not to keep fighting, so it ends up being a great message about how misunderstandings can escalate into all kinds of craziness, but how at some point you can turn things around with an apology or a kind gesture.

"I Don't Brush My Teeth" may initially seem to glorify slovenliness, but it becomes clear that the protagonist suffers socially from his habits. I can imagine sensitive parents thinking that "Never Cook Your Sister in a Frying Pan" is giving kids all kinds of terrible ideas for how to hurt their siblings, but the final verse reveals its skewed take on the Golden Rule. And a song like "I Don't Wanna Go to School" seems rebellious until you get to the great punch line at the end. Barry's work is loaded with that kind of thing... He's really quite brilliant at playing with expectations, and kids definitely like to have their expectations played with when they're being entertained. Heck, probably 80-90% of all comedy is merely setting up an expectation and doing a twist on it. Not that it's easy to do well, though, and Barry is definitely a master in the vein of Shel Silverstein when it comes to that. And like Shel, Barry has the ability to turn some very clever phrases, such as the "stereotype" line from "That's What Makes the World Go Around": Some folks jog, some smoke pipes / Some are mono-toned, some are stereotypes / Right side up or upside down / That's what makes the world go 'round.

Barry also has a number of regular songs, without any twists or turns or controversial subjects or titles, and they can range from being quite sweet to very funny, such as "I Need You Like a Donut Needs a Hole", "I Miss Grandma" and "I Wanna Be a Dog" (which has been covered by several other kids' musicians... and should not be confused with Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog"). There are also some terrifically poignant songs like "Mom and Dad Are Always Right", which shows a kids perspective on parents who are always critical: Dad says he was stronger when he was half my age. / Mom never got dirty when she went out to play. / I guess they both were perfect kids when they were young like me; / They always did what they were told and that's how I should be.

Barry does a lot of silly character voices throughout his work, but even his usual singing voice might be considered kind of cartoonish as it is. It's definitely not the most polished voice, and yet it has an exuberance that works great for his material. You get the sense that he really is the kid whose point of view he's often singing from, who eats a bit too much sugar cereal and is trying to make the best of understanding his world. Fans of the Violent Femmes should like Barry's voice, as it's very similar in tone and phrasing to Gordon Gano, and Barry's music is often somewhere in the neighborhood of the Violent Femmes and John Prine.

I asked Barry if kids' tastes have changed over the last thirty years. He said that adult sensibilities change over time, and he's been around long enough to watch the styles of kids music go left, then right, then left, then right again, but that is probably more about the adults' tastes than anything... Kids have remained constant—laughing and giggling at the same things they did years ago. So it's no wonder to me that kids have made Barry so popular for so long. Barry speaks with their voice, and sometimes that voice is a very silly and goofy one, and kids love it. As opposed to advocating bad or obnoxious behavior in his songs, Barry is really making fun of it and trusts that kids can tell the difference. On his website, he says, "I have used my writing to hold a mirror up to kids, bringing things out in the open where they can be laughed at rather than swept under the rug." Elementary school is often the last chance for kids to really be kids and laugh at themselves and allow themselves to be goofy and silly without being so self-conscious, before things start getting a lot more mixed up and tense in middle school and high school. So I say, and I'm sure that Barry would agree... until that time... Excessive seriousness? Out.

Barry Louis Polisar website

Monday, April 23, 2007

Little Nashville

I should probably say up front that country music is not my forte, in any sense. It's not that I don't like country music... in fact, I like a lot of country music that I hear, but the thing is... I just don't hear a lot of country music. And I suppose that although I like a lot of the country music that I hear, I typically don't like it enough to really want to hear much more than I do, or to actively seek it out. Then again, there's a lot of sort-of-country-music that I've really been into over the years, including The Allman Bros., Johnny Cash, BR5-49, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, Lyle Lovett, Chris Isaak, John Mellencamp and others. I also went to a Garth Brooks concert once in Buffalo when I was offered free tickets, and had to admit that I had a really great time and gained a much better appreciation of Garth as a performer and songwriter, and also for country music as a genre. I've also been caught inadvertantly singing along to country-ish songs like "Man, I Feel Like a Woman" (hey, it's super catchy... what can I say? Um... I trust that everyone who reads this will keep that to themselves...) But regardless, I still don't think I would typically choose to buy a ticket for a country music concert, or buy the latest Dwight/Toby/Keith/Alan/Kenny/Carrie album.

I guess what I'm trying to do here is to paint a picture that country music isn't really my thang, and I probably should have just said that to begin with and left it at that... But I also wanted to temper that by saying that once in a while I can appreciate it. And that's the setup I'm trying to give here, because I want it to have as much impact as possible when I say that the Little Nashville CD really blew me away. This is one terrific album of music, and I think it even transcends its genre. Like when you hear Bob Marley, it's great music, as opposed to just being great reggae.

I'm going to have some difficulty comparing things on this CD with other country artists or sounds, without having a great knowledge of the difference between
Dwight, Toby, Keith, Alan, Kenny and Carrie (well, the difference between the guys and Carrie, yes...), so I may not even try. I can imagine a country music fan reading this and thinking, "He said that song sounds like Kenny Chesney, but it's totally an Alan Jackson thing." But I'll do my best to paint the picture.

The album kicks off in fine style with the upbeat "Welcome to Little Nashville", which immediately lets you know what you're in for. The production is great, and the guitar playing and singing by J. Juliano (or Sheriff Jay Hawke) is top notch. Again, a real country fan might know better, but from what country music I've heard, Jay's singing and guitar-playing is as good as anything I've ever heard in the country genre. I know Vince Gill is an amazing guitarist, and Jay's playing sounds as sharp and confident as Vince's.

Next up is the rollicking fiddle standard, "Turkey in the Straw", which is bound to elicit laughter on the "running down the street with a bear behind" line. The CD also covers several kid classics including "You Are My Sunshine", "I've Been Working on the Railroad", "The Hokey Pokey" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider", all done in a uniquely vibrant country style, and each with a different feel to it. "The Hokey Pokey" for example, is in the style of "Achy Breaky Heart", and in fact, it would seem that Billy Ray sort of ripped off "Hokey Pokey"... the chords are exactly the same and there's the similar hokey/pokey, achy/breaky wording. "I've Been Working on the Railroad" has a fast paddleball kind of sound and really cooks. I also like the vocal phrasing on "Dinah blow your horn". These songs retain the essential feel and qualities of the original, but deliver them in fresh and exciting ways.

There are some originals, too, and two of them in particular are really terrific. "A Little Different" is a whistling acoustic ballad that reminds me of the Motel 6 "we'll leave the light on" music. The song is very memorable, with some unexpected but perfect chord changes, and there's a cool message about accepting others for whoever or whatever they are. A square said to his Momma, "I saw a circle in town. You know how we've got these four sides? Well, he's just big and round." Momma Square said, "Let me explain... You're a shape, and he is, too. Hey hey hey, it's okay if he's just a little different than you." It's a simple, cute story and brilliant for the picture it paints.

The other original standout is "Like Mommy and Daddy", which is a really sweet country pop duet between Jay and Rosanna Spencer (aka Miss Laura Lee Goodheart). The voices complement each other beautifully and the song is both very catchy and very touching as kids describe how they want to do things just like their parents. It reminds me of a quote I read recently by James Baldwin: "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."

The Little Nashville folks sent me a CD with a few songs previewing their upcoming album, and there are more great things in store. "Green Light" is another Red Light/Green Light game song, but is totally different than Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang's "Red Means Stop", and goes to show how the same idea can yield many different variations. "That's My Dog" is a very catchy pop song that could be a big hit on the country stations, at least musically speaking... I'm not sure if kid-themed lyrics are ready to break through on the pop or country charts just yet.

I wonder if people who are into the new era of kids' music but who have no taste for country music are going to give this a chance with their kids. I certainly hope so, because it's such a standout in the kids' music field, its particular genre notwithstanding.
There should be no question that Little Nashville will be a hit among kids and families that already have a big appreciation for country music, but it should really transcend that label, and I hope it is embraced by others like me who aren't really into country music all that much. I still have no real desire to turn on a country music station or to go and buy a Toby Keith record, and yet I liked this so much that I immediately wanted to listen to it again after it was over, and have done so several times since. It's kind of like the old Life cereal commercials, where they didn't expect Mikey to like it so much... Well, go ahead and call me Mikey, 'cause this is some really tasty stuff. And if Mikey likes it, then you might, too.

Little Nashville website

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Updates? What updates??

So I said in my last post that I was going to get caught up on all of the CDs I've been sent during the last few weeks while I was on the road. Well, you've heard about what happens to the best laid plans, right? A few days into the trip, my 4 year-old daughter put a CD (Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang, one of her current favorites other than the usual "daddy songs") into the CD player. No problem with that, right? There wouldn't have been, except that there was already another CD in the player at the time... and it's not a multiple disc player. So we ended up being without tunes for a while there, and I was too busy with shows to stop anywhere to get it fixed until a few days ago.

But in the first few days of the trip and over the last few days I was able to listen to some discs, so there will be some new updates arriving shortly, including features on John Hadfield, Mr. Billy,
Little Nashville and Barry Louis Polisar. And I still have a big stack of CDs to get to, so there should be more coming soon, though I'm not going to make any promises this time!

As for the Colorado trip, it was a really great time. There were so many incredibly enthusiastic audiences, and I can't wait to go back as soon as I can. I will be sure not to schedule so many shows together like that, though. It had been a few years since I've been to Colorado and I forgot how the altitude can affect your energy. I was halfway through my first song on the first day when I thought to myself, "Uh oh." But thankfully, I was well stocked with Powerbars and made it through okay.

I think that there is some kind of magical "show must go on" power that invigorates performers. There have been times in the past when I've been really sick or exhausted and felt like I could barely move, and I had to really force myself to make it to the show at all, but once I got out to actually perform, I felt fine, or at least, fine enough to do the show alright. And then, once the show is over, the tired sickness comes right back, but there's some kind of adrenalin thing that makes it work out for the show itself. I know other performers have told me the same thing. Knock on wood, but I can only recall one time in my life when I had to cancel a show for being sick, when my voice was completely lost from laryngitis and hadn't come back at all the day before the show. I hated to cancel, but I felt like I needed to give the venue enough warning to find someone else. And as it turned out, there was a rockslide on the interstate the next morning when I would have driven out there, so I probably wouldn't have made it anyway. Perhaps my body somehow knew that and said, "Ah, forget the show-must-go-on thing... you're staying in bed, dude."

Anyway, stay tuned for some new posts, and also Part 2 of The Idea Tree, which I've been working on here and there.