Retuned classics, charming originals deserve a spin By Fred KochIf there is one thing I have learned as a music reviewer, it is that I never know where good children’s music is going to come from, so it pays to give it all a listen. This month’s recommendations came to me from very diverse sources: a Nashville songwriter who writes hit songs for the adult market, an Austin singer and songwriter who has found a niche in kids music, an Australian mom with a knack for writing great songs and a compilation CD that benefits a charity. They are all great, so check them out.
INDIAN ELEPHANT TEA, by the Big Kidz Band featuring Skip Ewing, Rounder Records, $14.98, ages 3-7; www.rounder.com.
Skip Ewing already enjoys a very successful career as a singer in his own right and songwriter for country superstars such as Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Reba McIntire and George Strait. He has now ventured into the field of family music with the release of his first children’s music recording, “Indian Elephant Tea.” When I first heard about this recording, I was not taken at all by the press release, which spoke of an attention-grabbing concept:: “Take some of the most popular classic children’s songs, then turn them upside down!” This idea is as old as those Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and has been done so many times before.
But since it is a Skip Ewing project, I had higher hopes. After all, he is a great songsmith. So I gave it a spin. And I am glad I did. Again, even though I don’t usually like the idea of restructuring melodies and lyrics of classic children’s songs, Ewing and his band of merry musicians pull it off with great style and a little humor, too. For instance, after a few strains of “Dueling Banjos” performed the way we usually hear it with the banjo and guitar, they stop and decide it might be fun to have the melody played by a tuba. And “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” climbs aboard a Duke Ellington standard, resulting in “The Itsy Bitsy Spider Took the ‘A’ Train.” There are also funky little versions of “Old MacDonald” and “If You’re Happy.” You are sure to grin when you hear the theme song from the “Andy Griffith Show” come sneaking through the already funny hit popularized by the Muppets, “Mah Na Mah Na.” Another nice medley is “Oh, Susannah” coupled with “Old Joe Clarke.” Tender moments happen in the lovely “Fare Thee Well Fondly” and the title track, “Indian Elephant Tea,” a poem his grandmother wrote many years ago that Ewing set to music.
This is clearly an album meant to be enjoyed by the whole family with its creative reworking of these classic songs, masterfully arranged and superbly presented by Skip Ewing and the Big Kidz Band. No wonder Parents’ Choice has already given the album its seal of approval. Let’s hope for some more great family friendly music from Skip Ewing.
EVERYWHERE YOU GO, by Joe McDermott, True Blue Music, $15, ages 4-8; www.joemcdermottmusic.com.
As a big fan of Joe McDermott’s 2001 children’s release, “Great Big World,” I was really looking forward to his newest recording. When it arrived, I immediately had to give it a listen. Wow! As I suspected, his songwriting remains stellar, but the first thing that jumped out at me was the elaborate, though not excessive, production quality and the creative, meaningful and well-thought-out themes.
I enjoy his storytelling style of singing a song that gently gets important points across to children, as in “Patience and Time,” a song that weaves the importance of our public librarians in with the idea of planting some seeds and waiting for the wonderful results. “Baby Kangaroo” is a bouncy little story about picking out a pet. The craftsmanship with which McDermott arranges the song in this doo-wop vocal extravaganza spotlights his ever-growing creative abilities. And his knack for writing memorable choruses will hook you in and have you singing along the next time “get yourself a baby kangaroo” comes around. The instrumental introduction to “Transportation Vacation,” with its trombone, vibes and muted trumpet, is so cool that I didn’t want it to end. Luckily it led into a fun little journey supported with a soulful Bo Diddley groove.
McDermott’s songwriting shines again on the title track, “Everywhere You Go,” a touching song in which he paints a wonderful picture of his neighborhood full of friends who will help you out when you need it. A big band number follows as McDermott gives a tip of the hat to the importance of being polite, but extols the virtues of sometimes making a lot of “Noise.” And “Thank You Mud,” with its string quartet introduction, is a quirky and silly remedy for those times when the story you are concocting is in need of an ending: Just add a little mud.
This recording is filled with other great child-centered songs, including “Spider Detective,” “Flying Saucer” and the uplifting and danceable “Let Your Light Shine,” where we are reminded, “What you give is what you gain.” Joe McDermott is quickly emerging as one of the most promising artists in children’s music with his imaginative songs, outstanding musical arrangements and sincere approach. He deserves all the attention and national exposure he can get.
THE MAGIC GARDEN, by Diane Tatum and Kidz 4 Kids, $19.95, ages 3-7; www.cdbaby.com.
A few months ago I received this CD from Australia and immediately loved it. I didn’t write about it then because it wasn’t available yet in the United States. Now it is.
It is aptly titled because the songs, the children’s voices and the masterful instrumentation combine to make it sincerely “magical.” What stands out first is the songwriting—fanciful but real. Next is the joy that exudes from the cherub-like children who are often the featured singers.
The eclectic musical arrangements tie this whole wonderful package together. My first-graders were doing their annual farm unit this year and “My Little Rooster” (a true story about the rooster that lives with Diane and her family) became an instant hit with them. There are just so many tender and enchanting moments on this recording—it is truly unique and wonderful. Other songs include “Magic Web,” “Mousie, Mousie,” “Blackberry Suite,” “Follow the Swallow” and another favorite of mine, “Old Joe’s Backhoe,” which is reminiscent of William Warfield’s “Ol’ Man River” from “Showboat.”
All I can say is I hope Diane Tatum is mixing up another batch of magical songs for a new CD, because it is artists like her who keep this genre exciting and promising. You can buy “The Magic Garden” at www.cdbaby.com/cd/kidz4kidz and www.amazon.com. (Go to Amazon.com’s search box, type in “Diane Tatum” and then select “popular music” from the pull down window and press “go.”)
ARTS FOR AUTISM, by Various Artists, Porch Publishing, $9.95, ages 3-7; www.artsforautism.org.
April is National Autism Awareness Month and although I did not get this recording in time for our April issue, I did want to let you know about this charity CD. It is a 10-song compilation of children’s songs from a variety of up-and-coming children’s music artists from across the country. A few of them (Monty Harper, Kevin Kammeraad and Danny Adlerman) have already received reviews in this column. You might know from reading past columns that I enjoy compilations. And in this case not only are you getting a taste of some great kids’ artists who you might not be familiar with, but when you purchase this CD you are also helping to raise money for autism research. For more information, or to buy the CD, visit www.artsforautism.org.Fred Koch lives in Lake Bluff with his wife and son and is an award-winning music educator and children’s musician who gives nationally recognized workshops. His Web site, www.BestChildrensMusic.com, includes information on his CDs, selecting quality children’s music and past reviews. Please e-mail notes and comments to email@example.com.