Learning to Listen in New Ways

(This is part two of two posts on music and parenting – see part one here.)

One of my earliest memories is sitting cross legged on a plywood dance floor, under a big white tent at some music festival, clapping as my uncle played banjo up on stage. This weekend I relived that moment through the eyes of my two year-old son as he sat on the grass clapping along to a band playing under a big white tent at the Greenriver Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The similarities were striking, but there was a fundamental difference.

When I sat at the edge of the stage, looking up at my uncle strumming on that banjo, I thought for sure he was playing just for me. When my son sat in the grass this past weekend, the music actually was really just for him, in a sense. That’s because we were at the “Meltdown Stage,” which featured an entire line-up of two days worth of music just for kids. While lots of festivals have kids areas, no other festival I know of has a full stage set aside for kids.

This signals two things to me: 1) We live in a wonderful area, with a great kids music scene driven mainly by Bill Childs whose weekend radio show, “Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child,” provides a welcome antidote to Saturday morning cartoons, and 2) These days, kids music is much more than lullaby CDs and campfire sing-alongs.

It’s this second point I want to dwell on. In my last post on parenting and music I chronicled my search for better hip hop for my two year-old to listen to. The goal was finding music that combined the energy, rhythm and beats of hip hop with either a positive message or language and experiences that kids can relate to. However, having a child has changed the way I listen to music, well beyond just looking for better lyrics. And it is a great time to go searching for kids music – we are in a kind of renaissance in the genre right now.

When I was growing up, kids’ music mainly consisted of Raffi and a few others, whose music seemed a direct off-shoot of folks singers like Peter, Paul and Mary and Peter Seeger. Not a bad genealogy, but most of it sounded like camp songs and sing-alongs. Today kids’ music – especially the independent artists that Childs plays on his radio show – is as complex and exciting as the best “adult” music. Indeed, many indy bands are cutting kids’ albums or embarking on side projects for kids (see for example The Decemberists front man Colin Meloy’s recent kids’ book deal.)

As I have been immersing myself in kids’ music I have been rediscovering some of my old favorites and hearing them again for the first time. This is most true of They Might Be Giants, whose extensive kids catalogue is a joy to listen to. Listening to the great tracks from their kids’ discs has reminded me of all their excellent old albums – most of which are equally fantastic for kids. Similarly, while I always found Barenaked Ladies’ music and lyrics to be fairly shallow and not terribly interesting (though catchy) – they are perfectly suited to kids’ music and their kids’ albums are fun.

However, while it is great to see musicians who have made their name on the pop charts releasing family albums, the best kids’ music is being made by creative and inspired artists who are dedicated to the form. There are many (and this is yet another sign of the renaissance in kid’s music right now) but I won’t list them here, because that’s not really what this post is about. If you want a good place to start head over to the Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child website for Childs’ best of list.

One of the things I knew when I was young – whether I was listening to Raffi or my uncle’s banjo – was that music can be fun. I have been a music junkie from an early age, but it’s been only recently, as I have been discovering new kids music, that I remembered how much fun music can be. The best family music is full of creativity, whimsy, and joy. It is funny, poignant, and moving. Sometimes I catch myself sitting in my car in our driveway with Toby in the car seat behind me both of us laughing, clapping and singing along.

Sometimes the lyrics tackle simple topics (like the number 8) and other times they focus on the real challenges of childhood and growing up. But the best of them capture the essence of what it means to be a kid in a way that really speaks to children and reminds us adults of what it’s like to be seeing things with fresh eyes. Indeed, as I watch my son grow, learn and discover the world around him, his music is helping me see though his eyes. In this way, good kids music, like good poetry, can help you make sense of our lives in delightful new ways.

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2 comments

  1. Recommended from my friend DG:

    The Bottle Let Me Down (a compilation put out by Bloodshot Records of alt-country acts doing kids songs)
    For the Kids (a various artists compilation of kids songs put out by some indie and alt-rock musicians for charity; there’s also a For the Kids Too and For the Kids Three)

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