I just had a little email conversation with Bill Harley, about a comment he received after a recent concert. The person told him "You're too good to sing for kids."
Well, that's a nice compliment in its way. I suppose one way to interpret it is "most music for kids is pretty bad, but your music is good." And that's nice. Somewhat true, even.But, TOO good for kids? It's not like "Well, I got pretty good at writing music for kids. So good in fact that I moved on to writing for teenagers, then I got super good and started writing for college age kids. But I'm SO past that now - I've been writing fantastic music for middle age people, and now my agent says I'm ready to launch into music for the silver set..."
The goal is good music - for whatever age. I was a kid. I still have many thriving inner children, and every one of those inner children inside me wants good stuff. I suppose I have inner teenagers, inner middle aged men...So I write for me, or, uh, them, or, uh...you know. For all of me.
In a recent review of "I'm Growing", the author has a witty interchange with his wife about the 'appropriateness' of the song "Pumpkin Hair" for kids. She maintains that lyrics like "If she will let me be her guy, I'll never go free-rangin" aren't right for young kids. He counters with "But he's talking about marrying a woman and committing himself to her. Isn't that what Mom and Dad have done?" The review (on Thingamababy) has sparked a lot of comments. What is appropriate? Opinions vary,obviously.
Dan Zanes writes that one of his most-requested songs is an old sea shanty called "Pay Me My Money Down", which sings about jail, a bar, money; the usual concerns of sailors of yore (perhaps of sailors of now, too). He apparently didn't think twice about putting it on his CD "Night Time".
Lately I've been teaching choir to grades 4-6 at my son's montessori school. It's a cool challenge to find songs that will capture them and inspire them. I mean, my childhood experience singing choir was generally snooze-ville. I wanted rock and roll, please. But rock and roll and 60 voices don't really work (except for the intro to "You Can't Always Get What you Want"). Sea Shanties survive the choir treatment well, so we're doing "Drunken Sailor". A song that cannot be done in public schools (see "drunken"). The kids LOVE it, and it's inspired some great discussion. One kid knew of other verses, including one about doing something with the captain's daughter - Why didn't I include that verse? he asked. Because, I said, that verse was inappropriate. We went on to talk about why sailors (of yore) felt the need to get drunk, and how a "dose of salt and water" was to make the sailor throw up and get sober faster ("eww, yuch!").
Kids know a lot about life. Sheltering them from inappropriate things is, well, appropriate, but they're bound to learn of things outside of your control, and then they're going to have questions about that stuff. Are you just going to pretend not to hear? Why not let sea shanties about drunken sailors and jail be a starting point for talking about these real issues? Songs offer a 'safe' way for kids to explore and approach issues that are all around them and can feel overwhelming.
It's not like I have any songs about jail or drunkeness on "I'm Growing", but still the review on Commonsense Media has a kind of disclaimer, saying that the cd "might require just a bit of discussion or explanation". I would hope! What a wonderful thing to fill a child (or a grown-up) with questions, with a yearning to find out more? That's why I don't dumb-down the words in my songwriting. I want kids running to the dictionary (or the computer) to figure out what "obfuscate" means. I want them to challenge their teacher to use it in a sentence!
I want music that a family can enjoy together. When I was young my family laughed together when we put on the Smothers Brothers. Much of it was over my head, but because my parents were laughing, I wanted to know MORE. And this was something we could share together. My dad didn't like the Beatles, I didn't like my mom's LP of the soundtrack to "Vertigo", but we could all get behind the Limelighters and the Smothers Brothers. (Okay, I'm beginning to carbon-date myself...)
So it is today. I'm writing music for families to enjoy together. That's what Dan Zanes is doing. That's what Bill Harley is doing. Making music that's too good to be JUST kids music.