Thursday, September 15, 2005

Review: Songs to Grow on For Mother and Child - Woody Guthrie

The folksinger Woody Guthrie was a prolific songwriter. Best known as the composer of "This Land is Your Land," Guthrie wrote and wrote and wrote. (Billy Bragg and Wilco combined to make two enjoyable Mermaid Avenue CDs in which they took songs from his large store of unreleased lyrics and added new melodies.) In addition to writing many songs with a more political bent, he also released a couple kids’ albums in the mid-1950s. Both these albums have been released on CD by Smithsonian Folkways records.

Guthrie’s Songs to Grown on For Mother and Child is one of those CDs. It can be a fun CD for singing along with your child(ren). The titles (“Rattle My Rattle,” “I Want My Milk,” “I’ll Write and I’ll Draw”) are pretty indicative of the CD's topical concerns. (No, I could find no references to the labor movement.) The CD says the target audience is kids age 4-6, but I think kids as young as 1 or 2 would enjoy some of the songs.

A warning, though, the production is pretty simple, with many tracks only having Guthrie’s vocals accompanied by a guitar or a shaker. (There's a reason why I prefer Elizabeth Mitchell's or Wilco's versions of Guthrie's songs -- better vocals and/or better melodies.) If you like your productions polished or you dislike folksinging, this isn’t the CD for you. Over time, the CD has received less attention in our household for those reasons. But if you are more interested in folksinging, you may just find this to your taste.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Review: Singable Songs for the Very Young - Raffi

The Elvis of children's music would have to be Raffi. His own "Behind the Music" episode wouldn't be nearly as interesting as, say, Motley Crue's. But the category of "children’s music" didn’t exist in record stores before Raffi -- and this CD -- came along.

Singable Songs for the Very Young was recorded nearly 30 years ago. But it still sounds fresh today. Now, if you’re allergic to folk music, you may not like these CDs. The instrumentation is often simple -- a guitar, perhaps, or Raffi singing with no accompaniment at all. But sometimes there’s a full band playing, such as on "Willoughby Wallaby Woo" or "Old MacDonald Had A Band." The CD sounds great, and that may be due to the work of Daniel Lanois, who recorded the album. Lanois went on to do much more famous work creating a great sonic palette for U2's classic '80s era albums and, in the '90s, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan, among others. (So look at it this way -- even if you dislike Raffi, without him, maybe there's no "Where the Streets Have No Name," unless, of course, you also dislike U2, in which case I can't do anything for you.)

For the most part, Raffi sticks to classics and traditional songs. Raffi's own songs are split between "non-message" songs (e.g., "Going to the Zoo") and "message" songs ("I Wonder If I'm Growing"). With the exception of the "message" songs, kids 2 years old (or younger) through 5 years will enjoy the CD; some of the "message" songs are probably more appropriate for 3 year olds. If there's any drawback to the CD, it's that it's less than 30 minutes long. Then again, a little Raffi can go a long way.

One thing that is striking to me about Raffi's earliest albums is the utter lack of reference to the adult world. If you listen to children's artists recording today such as Ralph's World or Justin Roberts or Laurie Berkner (all very good), they will incorporate references to adult television shows or humorous lines targeted at the adults. No such thing in Raffi's work. It is all aimed at the kids' level. Not that it is ever condescending (the great error in bad kids' recordings). But Raffi is clearly not singing for the kids' parents.

I think there's a tendency to dismiss Raffi as an "annoying" children's artist. It's possible that his later work is the source of this frustration. But his earliest work, especially Singable Songs for the Very Young, are CDs your children will love and you will like a lot more than you expected.