When I was 7 years old, my dad used to listen to a CD with me called For Our Children, which was a compilation of kids music performed by Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen and many other rock stars. I loved this music at 7. I loved hearing Bob Dylan sing “knick knack paddy whack give a dog a bone.” So did my dad. And in a way, it might have prepped me for a deep love of good music. But when I say good music, I’m talking about the music that nobody has to cover their ears for.
Some kids music is so annoying that parents have to walk around with earplugs, and some “adult music” is so inappropriate that it requires a parent to cover their kids’ ears, but there exists a happy medium that the young and old can enjoy together. Songwriters can tone down their seriousness and get kids to sing. But how do these adults relate to people in kindergarten? How can a 35-year old write a song that a 6-year old will get up and dance around to without feeling like Raffi?
In the documentary film, The Power of Song, Pete Seeger plays concerts exclusively for children, cute little catchy tunes like “Little Boxes” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” This is a musician who influenced millions of Americans to stand up for peace even when their government seemed deaf to protests. Seeger says “the best music I’ve made in my life was when I could get the folks young and old, conservative, liberal and radical, all singing one chorus.” He was one of the most culturally and politically impacting musicians in American history, yet Seeger says that “kids are the future, and I guess that’s why I like to sing for them. I look at those little faces and I can’t say that there’s no hope.” Indeed, children are without prejudice, without cynicism, without agenda (except for fun and candy).
With banjo in hand, Seeger not only paved the way for other strong voices in political music, he pushed for a childlike faith within all people. He was a man of action, but never too busy to take time with his own family, or with the kids who wanted to sing.
In recent years, a host of indie artists have taken treks into the sugary world of kids music. These people aren’t interested in making music that will get played on Sesame Street (though Feist and Norah Jones are more than happy to bring their tunes to the PBS kids). They bring a fun and educational perspective to simple, catchy music. The Get Up Kids, Moldy Peaches and Mirah have recently taken time to write music for the children.
Mirah, an acclaimed indie-folk songstress, played her songs from “Share This Place: Stories and Observations” at the Children’s Humanities Festival (ages 6 and up) with the Spectratone International. These educational songs of hers are all about insects, and they hold the same sort of quirky qualities that her typical albums possess. The only difference in this case is conceptual; there are no songs about sex or politics, just witty little songs about various bugs. Some of the song names: “Gestation of the Sacred Beetle,” “Emergence of the Primary Larva” and “Love Song of the Fly.”
The Moldy Peaches are most recently remembered as the band from the Juno soundtrack. Kimya Dawson is the woman who lends vocals to the Moldy Peaches, but has recently released an album of silly songs called Alphabutt. It sounds like it could have been written by a six year old, but there is an undoubted cleverness that can only be delivered from the capacity of a grown-up.
Matt Pryor, front-man of the now defunct Get Up Kids has traversed from an indie rock star to a humble father. But his passion as a music-maker has not quelled. His latest project is called The Terrible Twos, and he says it is “music purely to entertain my kids and to get them interested in music.” With a love for a child comes the desire to give them things that will bring them happiness. Pryor has found a way to balance his life-passion with fatherhood. Being a dad does not conflict with songwriting in his experience. “I don’t know if there is a technical difference. For me, I tend to write the same sorts of songs for adults as I do for kids but I make the songs for the kids have more child friendly lyrics. Songs about dinosaurs and bugs as opposed to death and heartbreak.”
Pryor still plays solo shows, and his New Amsterdams project is still going strong. But The Terrible Twos brings out a whole other crowd, a (very) new audience. At Terrible Twos shows, toddlers stomp around while Pryor strums happily on his guitar and sings about animals.
Of course, these kids are supervised. Some parents dance around with their kids, some stand back and smile as they bop around, but ears are never covered. The music isn’t annoying. The beautiful part of these indie artists versions of kids music is its universal appeal, adults can listen to kids music too. “In fact, once you have kids you are forced to listen to kids music whether like it or not,” remarks Pryor. But there is that danger of “Kidz Bop” and “the Wiggles.” There is a high probability that parents cover their ears due to the aggravating sing-songy fluff. Pryor hopes that this won’t be necessary when the Terrible Twos come on.
Pryor says, “In our house we don’t differentiate between adult and kids music. There are two types of songs in our house “papa’s songs” and everything else.”
Indie artists make ‘kids music’ that isn’t just for little kids, but for everybody. It’s the music that doesn’t require any ear-covering.