By Fred Koch
I think there was a collective sigh of sadness when people heard about the untimely death of poet/songwriter/illustrator Shel Silverstein in 1999. His children's books, including "The Giving Tree," "Falling Up," "A Light In The Attic," "Where The Sidewalk Ends" and "Who Wants A Cheap Rhinoceros?" (the re-release of this 40 year-old book has just entered the Top 10 of the New York Times Best Seller list for children), are loved by children and adults worldwide and have amassed sales in the tens of millions. So you can imagine my delight when I received word that "Underwater Land," the last children's music project Shel Silverstein completed, was being released.
UNDERWATER LAND, by Pat Dailey and Shel Silverstein, Olympia Records, $17.98, ages 7-10; www.underwaterland.com.
Silverstein wrote all the songs, produced the recording, handpicked his favorite musicians from Nashville and sang on several of the tracks along with primary singer and old pal, Pat Dailey. Kim Llewellyn, Shel's longtime graphic artist, designed the 32-page booklet, which includes all of the lyrics and features many previously unpublished Silverstein illustrations.
Dailey and Silverstein's mutual love of the sea unite in "Underwater Land" where fish, lobsters and other sea characters sing, joke and make some unique underwater music. Brought to life by Dailey's delightfully personable singing, "Underwater Land" is full of the irreverence and easy charm that made Shel Silverstein one of the best-selling and best-loved authors of all time.
The CD starts with the very singable title track, which sets the tone for what is to comelots of fun and imaginative wordplay about the sea and the creatures that live there. "Land Shark" comes next and, like other tracks, is spoken, not sung, with the opening lyric: "Said the shark down in the ocean / I just don't understand why I'm starvin' in the water / when there's fresh kids on the land."
It goes on to remind listeners that "Just ‘cause somethin' ain't been done / don't mean it can't be did" and ends with this cautionary note "And when you're sittin' in your yard / you'd better get up fast / when you see a ziggin'-zaggin' fin / come zippin' through the grass."
As with previous Silverstein poems and songs, some are epic tales and some are short pieces that get right to the point. "Fish Breath" (to be said in one long fish breath) quickly, and with a sense of urgency, goes through a list of fishy verses including one about Juicy-Lucy Fish who says "When I'm hooked / let me get cooked / don't turn me into sushi-fish!" Silverstein's tender and sweet side shines through on "Cuttlefish," the story of a fish that didn't know how to swim. All the other cuttlefish would laugh at him and though it hurt his feelings, he never once complained, he just sat there underneath the water, waiting for a train. His father said he could swim "if he would only try" and his mother tried to soften the situation by saying "he can't swim / the water gets in his eyes." Others ridicule and are baffled by this cuttlefish sitting on a sea shell, in his little hat and cane waiting for a train. Then all of a sudden they hear a voice yell "All aboard!" and there goes the cuttlefish wavin' from the train.
"Bubba Barracuda" features Shel as the voice of Bubba, who is dismayed because Pat has not sung any songs about a barracuda. Pat tries to tell Bubba that his name is not an easy name to sing and that it doesn't rhyme with anything. That's all Bubba needs to hear as he sets off to give Pat lots of suggestions on how to rhyme a story about a "barracuda bikin' through the backwoods of beautiful Bermuda / on a broken scooter in the nuda, bangin' his six-shooter." Fans of the poem "Show Fish" from "Falling Up" will enjoy this recreated version titled "Found Flounder"--the story of the student who was looking for something to take to school for show and tell. But time passes and he forgets to take it to school until a few weeks later when he decides to take it in for "show and smell." Another singable song is the tale of "Fred The Trout" who others try to convince to stay in school, but Fred is the wandering type and soon learns his lesson at the end of a fisherman's hook.
Shel's voice is heard again as Shale in an imaginary commercial for "Dale and Shale's Big Fish Tail Sale." This is another wonderful rhyming excursion that showcases Silverstein's gift as a poet and performer. As always, there's a little twist to the story. This time they caution their customers "when you pick a tail / please don't inhale / ‘cause most of our tails are a little bit stale / a little bit stale and a little bit pale / but don't tell the police or they'll throw us in jail."
The virtues of having an octopus on a Navy ship come to life in "Captain Octopus" when we learn about all the jobs he could do. "Sea Shell" suggests the many varied and zany things you might hear when you put a sea shell up to your ear and the value of teamwork is explored in "The Minnows," with a catchy chorus which reminds us that "Together, all together, not just one by one / if you can't get through it and alone don't do it / together's gonna get it done." The fish jokes and wordplay continue on "Poor Anna" where we once again get to hear Shel, as the voice of underwater reporter Gil Nets, who is interviewing Anna from Havana. Anna is having a hard time because her heart has been broken in two by Swordfish Sam, from squid row. He had the kind of mussels she liked, but he stole her pike and then he sold it to a loan shark. She called a carp, but he was hard of herring, so Anna was ready to scallop that Swordfish Sam. In the end, Gil thanks her for the lesson she tortoise. Another epic tale, "Speedy The Snail" features a cute play on words in the chorus "You should have seen that S-car go," and in "The Clam" we hear a characteristic Silverstein plot where the tables get turned and the clam gets to pour on the Tabasco sauce. It gets a little over the top near the end (which I'm sure some kids will really enjoy) with "Fish Guts" and then the CD ends with the very short "Empty Dolphin Tank" where Pat croons about the sad, empty tank until he decides not to sing a song about an empty dolphin tank. Shel asks why not, and Pat replies "Well, there's just no porpoise in it." What a fitting end to a wonderfully creative and poignant recording.
If you are as big of a Shel Silverstein fan as I am, you may also want to purchase the CD versions of his classic books, "Where The Sidewalk Ends" (which won the Grammy Award for Best Children's Recording in 1984) and "A Light In The Attic" where he performs some, but not all, of the pieces from the books. At the school where I teach, we recently finished a unit on recycling and I played the CD version of "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout," the story of the girl who would not take the garbage out from "Where The Sidewalk Ends." We then had a nice discussion about how when we listen to an author perform a poem he has written, we can get a better understanding of how he imagined and envisioned the poem. And with the expressive qualities of Shel Silverstein, this was a wonderful lesson for my students.
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