By Fred KochTwo of my favorite songwriters who write songs for slightly older children have released terrific new albums. Each uses storytelling effectively to get their message across without ever talking down to their audience and each knows the importance of offering a variety of musical styles in their presentation.
MY FABULOUS PLUM, by Peter Himmelman, Finny Records, $15, ages 6-10; www.peterhimmelman.com. Chicago rock music fans may recognize the name Peter Himmelman from his numerous concerts and WXRT-FM radio airplay. Lauded by many for his imaginative songwriting, Himmelman has now released his second children’s CD, “My Fabulous Plum.” His first release for children, “My Best Friend Is A Salamander,” was released in 1997 and remains a favorite of mine for its originality and childlike splendor. Plum takes up where Salamander left off with another set of great songs kids and parents can enjoy together. And isn’t that really the standard by which we gauge children’s music? The best children’s music engages our kids in a meaningful way and not only appeals to us, but is also music we want our children to hear.
Himmelman starts his journey with the title track, “My Fabulous Plum,” which turns out to be a flying machine. It is a welcoming song that invites listeners to come along for the ride. And he has planned quite a trip. Himmelman’s songwriting is sparkling with imagery and memorable melodies. There is a lot to listen to as spacey sound effects set the mood and other voices weave their way in and around Himmelman’s vocals. And by the second time around you’ll be singing: “So blow your bassoon and beat on your drum / whatever your name is, you’re welcome to come and ride on my fabulous plum.”
The next song, with a rock ballad feel, invites kids to imagine “A World Where You Only Eat Candy.” Following meal after meal of sweets, kids long for some treats that include brussel sprouts, string beans, okra, potatoes and assorted other healthy foods. Instead of hitting his listeners over the head with a message or being preachy, Himmelman chooses to pose the ridiculous in order to get his listeners to think about nutritional needs. And the use of kids’ voices clamoring in the background creates an enjoyable soundscape. My favorite sequence occurs at the end when you hear a young boy say, “Mom, if I clean my room, do you promise to give me a bowl of arugula?”
The funk kicks in with the story of “Sherm The Worm,” complete with a very tight and soulful horn section. Sherm and his buddy Bert need a plan of escape because some boys have picked them up on their way to the fishing hole. This song is filled with lots of imaginative wordplay and great rhyming fun.
“Ain’t Nothin’ To It” is probably my favorite of all these great songs. This positive message song, set to a reggae-type groove, tells the story of a young boy who overcomes some of his fears and the confidence he develops as a result of the process: “I guess I was afraid to do it / well now that it’s done, well there ain’t nothin’ to it.”
And in “I Don’t Like To Share,” our young friend confesses that, even though he has a box full of toys, “You’ll have to play with nothing if you want to be my friend / yes I know it ain’t fair, but I don’t care.” As expected, the boy comes around, but it is this honest look at these honest feelings that is important. In both these songs, Himmelman wisely and effectively chooses a storytelling format to get his point across in a thoughtful and often humorous manner that will be enjoyed by children and appreciated by parents.
I could go on and on about the strong points of each song because this recording is so strong from beginning to end. So I invite you to climb aboard and enjoy a ride on “My Fabulous Plum.”
TAKE ME TO YOUR LIBRARY, by Monty Harper, Monty Harper Productions, $15, ages 7 and up; www.montyharper.com. Monty Harper is a singer-songwriter who writes and performs original songs in libraries and elementary schools throughout Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. I have been a fan of his for a few years now and have anxiously been awaiting this new recording. “Take Me to Your Library” includes songs that promote the joy of reading with themes of adventure by space, land and sea travel. Many of these songs were written for Harper’s yearly tours of the Oklahoma public libraries and are finally available on one CD. Books, reading and libraries are celebrated throughout this recording.
The title track, “Take Me To Your Library,” is the story of an alien who visits Harper. Speaking in “alien,” he lets Harper know he wants to go to the library. Harper gets snatched up into the spaceship and, after being zapped by the alien’s translator, finds out his alien friend only wants to study the earth’s science and culture at the local library. As with Himmelman’s writing, Harper gets his message across using the storytelling style of songwriting, fun sound effects and lots of great metaphors that kids and adults will enjoy.
Imagine David Bowie writing a children’s song and you have an idea of “Blast Into Books,” with its 80s rock feel. It makes the point that even though you may have seen the movie version of “Star Wars,” the book will take you to another place just as exciting. The work of Copernicus is presented in the very singable “Roundy Round,” introducing children to the scientific effects of our solar system.
Other standouts on “Take Me To Your Library” include “Howdy Song,” a very cute around-the-world trip with a great group of kids singing hello in lots of different languages; “Big World After All,” which speaks to diversity, and “Tropeo The Pirate,” about a girl and boy who are captured after running away from home (actually sailing away on a garbage can lid). Fans of Monty Harper and those of you just discovering his music will probably find one of his most requested songs, “Grandma’s House Tonight,” becomes a favorite of yours, too.
And an added bonus is that “Take Me To Your Library” is an enhanced CD. When you place it in your computer you can access nine bonus songs, including “Trick or Treat Smell My Feet,” a “Grandma’s House Tonight” video, alternate versions of six songs, printable lyrics, guitar chords and more.
So if you are looking for some great new music to share with your children, take the time to find Peter Himmelman’s “My Fabulous Plum” and Monty Harper’s “Take Me To Your Library”—you won’t be disappointed.
Grammy update On another note, each year in my March column, I try to predict the winner of the Grammy Award from the children’s music finalists. Last month I said, “I’m going to go out on a limb again and go with the record that I feel is the most creative and most child-centered recording of the five finalists. I hope that ‘Beethoven’s Wig’ receives the Grammy award this year because I think it is the best musical album for children.” I also said, “But I kind of expect ‘Monsters Inc.—Scream Factory Favorites’ to walk away with the award. After all, how can you compete with Walt Disney Records?”
Guess what? “Monsters Inc.” won.