Are you old enough, or young enough, to remember “Free to Be … You and Me”? This best-selling recording (book and television special) created by Marlo Thomas was originally released in 1972. It was a huge hit with parents, teachers and kids. Then in 1988 Thomas released “Free to Be … a Family,” again to critical acclaim for its sensitive, child-centered songs and stories.
In each project, Thomas enlists marquee stars from the film, television and music industries. Now there is “Thanks & Giving: All Year Long,” released late last year. This month, I take a peek at all three.
THANKS & GIVING: ALL YEAR LONG, by Marlo Thomas and friends, Atlantic Records/Kid Rhino, $15; ages 5-10.
The press release states it well: “ ‘Thanks & Giving: All Year Long’ celebrates family, friendship, giving, thankfulness and love (and just for fun, a few of their opposites—stinginess, bullying, ingratitude and the occasional urge to stamp your feet and throw a fit).”
Thomas has a knack for knowing exactly what will be meaningful and engaging for children and get adults’ attention, too. This CD has been in heavy rotation at our house for a few months now because there are so many great pieces on it. We take turns programming our favorites and using them for pre- and post-dinner music. Everything is recorded and produced with great detail. The songs rock, and every story has perfectly orchestrated sound tracks that support the story lines.
Sheryl Crow kicks it off with the rockin’ “All Kinds of People,” which sums up Thomas’ attitude about the importance of getting along. Next is the hilarious (but thought-provoking) story “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage.”
This story, which my fourth-graders presented in their annual spring music program, is an adaptation of a not-often-told Grimm’s tale in which, because of their lack of appreciation for each other, the three title characters end up dying. But it’s not morbid. It appeals to children. They get the point. The moral is: “Give thanks for what you have and what your friends give to you.”
I was happy to see “I Want It,” a Laurie Berkner song, included on this recording. Its chorus of “Give it to me/give it to me/give it to me now!” is a universal refrain for young kids, but in this song friendship and sharing win in the end. Next comes “Teeny Meany,” the fabulous story of Jeannie Meany, who just happens to be the meanest girl in the neighborhood. It spotlights the unmistakable voice of James Earl Jones as narrator. (Beware: The story includes a kid nicknamed Farty Arty. You’ve been warned.) It has been so long since anyone was nice to Jeannie that when the new kid in town, Fatty McCaddy, offers to buy her some ice cream, she is speechless. But only momentarily.
Jimmy Buffett is next with “An Attitude of Gratitude,” followed by Billy Crystal telling the story of “A Different Aladdin,” who gains some perspective after getting everything he wants.
Then comes Kermit the Frog singing “A Smile Connects Us.” Ever since Jim Henson (Kermit’s original voice) died, I can’t relate to Kermit. I wish they had found a replacement voice more like Henson’s. Because they didn’t, and because this song is a little too sappy, it doesn’t work for me.
Other outstanding stories include “Josie’s First Allowance Day,” told by Rosie Perez, and “The Nothingest Girl in the World,” featuring Sarah Jessica Parker. “(I’ll Give”) Anything But Up,” written and performed by Hilary Duff, is another favorite around our house and with my students. More standouts include: “Point of View,” a Shel Silverstein poem interpreted by Robin Williams; “You Know My Brother (He’s So Heavy),” by the Bacon Brothers; and the very tender poem “Snow, Aldo” (written by Kate DiCamillo, author of Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux), performed here by Jennifer Aniston.
This should be part of every family’s listening library. Proceeds from the sale of “Thanks & Giving” benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, founded in 1962 by Thomas’ father, Danny Thomas. Find the CD at www.stjude.org/thanksandgiving.
FREE TO BE … YOU AND ME, by Marlo Thomas and friends, Arista Records, $11.99; ages 5-10.
This is Thomas’ first children’s music project (1972). It came at a time when the market consisted of little more than educational recordings. Even today, with all the choices in children’s music, this recording is relevant and important. I can still hear former NFL player Rosie Greer singing the tender and intimate ballad “It’s All Right to Cry,” Harry Belafonte reminding children that “Parents Are People” and Mel Brooks’ uproarious tale of “Boy Meets Girl.” There are other gems, too, so if this CD is not in your music library, add it.
FREE TO BE … A FAMILY, by Marlo Thomas and friends, A&M Records, price varies; ages 5-10.
This is hard to find; I located it on eBay, www.ebay.com. If I didn’t already own a copy, I would have paid the listed price of $29.99. This, Thomas’ second release (1988), follows the same format as “Free to Be … You and Me” with more great songs and stories that are wonderfully produced and tastefully presented. Some of my favorites include the stories “Doris Knows Everything” (Whoopi Goldberg) and “The Day Dad Made Toast” (Robin Williams). Terrific songs feature Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers (“Free to Be … A Family”), Ladysmith Black Mambazo (“The Stupid Song”), the original Kermit the Frog (“On My Pond”) and the duo of Amy Grant and John Hiatt singing “Thank Someone” (also included on “Thanks & Giving”).
Fred Koch lives in Lake Bluff with his wife and son and is an award-winning music educator, children’s musician and producer. His Web site, www.BestChildrensMusic.com, helps parents, teachers and librarians select quality children’s music. The Web site also includes an archive of all Koch’s past reviews published in Chicago Parent. Please e-mail notes and comments to email@example.com.