Looking Forward by Looking Back (Dan Zanes' "Lead Belly, Baby!")

Lead Belly, Baby! album cover

Lead Belly, Baby! album cover

When most people think about Smithsonian Folkways' kids' artists, I'd guess that the first names that come to mind are Ella Jenkins and Pete Seeger, with probably Woody Guthrie close behind.  But if I were to make that trio a quartet, I'd add Lead Belly to that list.  Lead Belly (born Huddie William Ledbetter in 1889) was a master of the 12-string guitar, and starting in the mid-1930s until his death in 1949, he recorded for a wide variety of labels.

His outsized influence on blues music generally masks the fact that he only recorded one album specifically for kids for Folkways, and that was an album released more than a decade after his death.  But in 1999, Smithsonian Folkways released Lead Belly Sings for Children, a collection of songs Lead Belly specifically recorded for kids in the 1940s along with other tracks that fit right in.  The liner notes describe it as "essential listening for all ages," and in this case, the hype fits.

Nearly three quarters of a century after Lead Belly started recording for Folkways founder Moses Asch, Dan Zanes has joined in.  As part of the typically detailed and lovingly-produced liner notes to the album, Zanes writes of being seven years old and discovering a Lead Belly record in the basement of his local library just as he was getting interested in the guitar.  In Zanes' telling, Lead Belly's music played no small role in Zanes' path toward becoming a musician.  In other words, this is a labor of love.

Now much of Zanes' all-ages musical path has felt like it came out of love and not any sort of calculated attempt at super-stardom, but this album does feel to me just slightly more personal, as if going back to one of his first inspirations helped Zanes tap into his own inspiration.  In time-honored folk tradition, Zanes adds his own voice and approach.  “Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie” is given a slightly more uptempo, lilting feel.  Zanes has always been willing to make a space for hip-hop on his albums, but he's opened up a lot more room for it now.  There are many reasons that might be appropriate, but probably the most appropriate is that the arrangements breathe new life into these tracks.  The original Lead Belly recordings, after all, were primarily the man and his guitar -- they sound great, but there can be a certain monotony to those tracks.  But the arrangements here are wide open: in addition to the music store's worth of instruments -- concertina, saxophone, cowbell, mandolin -- five of the tracks feature guest raps.  

As with most music Zanes releases, this album features a couple dozen guest artists.  Some are famous -- hey, there’s Billy Bragg on “Rock Island Line!”… Is that really Chuck D offering up a verse on “Skip To My Lou?" to name but a couple such appearances.  But just as important to the overall feel are the guest turns by the musicians we’re probably less familiar with, like Jendog Lonewolf’s rap on “Julie Ann Johnson," while Memphis Jelks, invited onto “Skip To My Lou” by Chuck D., just about steals the show from the elder statesman.

If there’s anything I miss from the album, it’s the voices of kids.  Folkways albums for kids have always had lots of participation by kids -- Lead Belly Sings for Children is no exception, as it includes a number of tracks featuring Lead Belly singing to and with kids.  In contrast, aside from “More Yet,” there’s no chorus of kids on Zanes’ album.  (“Little Goose” makes an appearance on the intro to “Polly Wee” along with Father Goose, but that’s not really what I mean.)

After a series of themed albums that were musically satisfactory but less than fully… party-filled, Lead Belly, Baby! most closely replicates the freewheeling spirit of his early DZAF albums, the ones that propelled him into kids music stardom.  While in many ways this album will sound familiar to those fans of those albums (nearly twenty years old at this point), Dan Zanes is also walking some different musical paths than he was twenty (or thirty or forty) years ago.  If looking back to one of his earliest musical idols helps kick off another series of musical explorations into the future, then by all means bring it on.  Highly recommended.

Radio Playlist: New Music September 2017

Between catching up with stuff I missed last time and the late summer/early fall rush of new music, I've got a whopping 16 songs in this month's new music playlist. (Feel free to check out the August list here if you missed it.)

As always, these Spotify playlists are limited in that if an artist hasn't chosen to post a song on Spotify, I can't put it on the list, nor can I feature songs from as-yet-unreleased albums.  But I'm always keeping stuff in reserve for the next Spotify playlist.

Check out the list here (or right here in you're in Spotify).

**** New Music September 2017 (September 2017 Kindie Playlist) ****

"Ellen Lemon" - Gustafer Yellowgold

"Fiesta De La Brea" - Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band

"Ten Little Piggies" - Caspar Babypants

"Miss Mary Mack" - Jazzy Ash

"Come Gather 'Round" - KB Whirly

"Sway" - Alphabet Rockers

"My Purple Fox" - Purple Fox and the Heebie Jeebies

"That Thing" - Randy & Dave

"Pennies and Forget-Me-Nots" - Steve Pullara and the Cool Beans Band

"Conjunctions" - Big Don

"You Could Be the One" - The Bazillions

"Going for a Drive" - Marjo Wilson (aka Cotton Dandee)

"Beethoven's Horse" - Ralph's World

"Alphabet Tebahpla" - Danny Weinkauf

"Hooray for Spinach" - Val and the Whippersnappers

"I've Got No Strings" - Jess Penner

Interview: Rebecca Sheir (WBUR's Circle Round)


A sign of the health of kids' podcasting is that big names are launching well-produced shows with lots of lead time to generate interest.  Case in point: Boston's NPR station WBUR launched the storytelling podcast Circle Round this summer with a pilot featuring Jason Alexander, with promises of more episodes this fall.  That is a positive development, especially when the story featuring Jason Alexander is every bit as entertaining as you might expect a story featuring Jason Alexander would be.

Well, fall is approaching, and next Tuesday the 19th the Circle Round podcast officially launches, with a parade of well-known names and voices (including Kathryn Hahn, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Sela Ward, among others) set to appear on the show in the weeks ahead.

The two people responsible for getting the show into your families' earbuds are Rebecca Sheir and Eric Shimelonis.  Sheir has been a public radio reporter and host while Shimelonis is a composer and musician.  Together, their talents align quite nicely if you want to put together a podcast featuring richly-produced retellings of folktales from around the world.

In advance of the show's official launch next Tuesday, Sheir answered questions about her own storytelling and radio-producing background, how Circle Round came to be, and what's in the show's future.

Zooglobble: What are your memories of storytelling growing up?  Were there particular storytellers -- either those you knew personally or those you knew only by voice -- that were particularly memorable?

Rebecca Sheir: Eric Shimelonis and I have always been crazy about a good story. We both had the fabulous fortune of growing up in households where the bookcases were full to bursting!

As a youngster, among my favorite storytellers was the gloriumptious Roald Dahl; the phizz-whizzing way he squibbles with language has always made me feel positively hopscotchy. And in terms of particular books by storytellers, my copy of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth racked up a whole lot of mileage during my childhood, as did Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett. Eric and I have been reading the Barretts’ brilliant creation to our toddler since he was a baby - my exact copy from childhood, in fact, which is equal parts dog-eared and well-loved.

How did you get interested in radio production?

I came to it first; Eric serendipitously followed. It all began when I stumbled into the public-radio realm as a graduate student; I was working toward an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. While I’d been listening to NPR since my parents would blast Car Talk and Whad’ya Know? en route to my Saturday morning acting classes, I’d never thought about working in that arena.

But I got friendly with the folks at Iowa Public Radio and began writing radio essays and reporting feature stories. I loved how it combined many of my favorite things. I got to play with language, I got to stretch my acting muscles, and the whole writing/editing process brings in elements from the worlds of music and film: you need to think about things like rhythm, pacing and painting a mental picture for your listeners.

Fast-forward a decade or so, and I met Eric: a composer and sound designer in film and theater. At the time I was hosting a weekly public-affairs program for WAMU (the National Capital Region’s NPR station), and it wasn’t long before we were collaborating. Any time I needed original music for the show, he was my go-to guy!

What was the genesis of Circle Round (i.e., did you pitch the show, or did WBUR come to you with the idea)?

I’ve known Jessica Alpert, a phenomenal producer at WBUR (Boston’s NPR station), for many years now. When she learned that Eric and I had launched our own audio-production company, Sheir and Shim LLC -- and that we’d relocated from Washington, D.C., to the Berkshires, not far from Boston -- she told us about a long-held dream she had. She wanted to make WBUR’s first-ever child-focused program, a storytelling podcast that would take on a kind of radio-play style: i.e. there’d be an engaging host, dramatic scripts, gifted actors, and top-notch sound design and original music. She asked whether we’d produce a pilot episode. We all collaborated on that episode -- nabbing the amazing Jason Alexander to play our lead -- and the rest is history!

How long has it taken to get the show off the ground?

The whole thing has happened blissfully fast! Jessica called us up this past winter. We released the pilot at the start of summer, and will officially launch the show... once the school year is in full swing.

How do you select the stories you’ll use on the show?

There’s an endless number of fantastic folktales out there, so luckily we have plenty to choose from! When selecting which tales we’ll adapt for our listeners, we want to ensure there’s enough of a story arc to sustain a 15-minute podcast; when we go to a break in the middle of the show (what we call “midroll” in the podcast world), we need to leave our listeners teetering at the edge of a dramatic cliff. We also want to make sure our stories come from countries and cultures all over the globe, and that they help our listeners come to some sort of new discovery or realization about the world... and about themselves!

How are you selecting the performers?  Are you finding it easy to get well-known actors like Jason Alexander to participate?

We’re lucky to have Amy Lippens, C.S.A., on our team; she’s the one coordinating our big-name actors from stage and screen. Performers have been very excited about this opportunity; it’s not often that you get to hearken back to the good old days of radio plays and portray a fairy, king, giant or dragon in the process!

Very roughly, how many hours of work does it take to put together a single 15-20-minute episode?

The amount of labor (it’s hard for us to call it “work,” since it’s so much fun!) varies per episode. We spend a lot of time poring through folktale books, to find the ideal stories to turn into Circle Round episodes. Once we’ve selected a tale, we’ll spend a few days adapting it: fleshing out characters, bulking up visual descriptions, considering sound-design possibilities, and punching up the language to make it as attention-grabbing -- and attention-holding -- as possible.

From there, we go through the character list and consider who might be a strong fit for each role. Casting director Amy Lippens and executive producer Jessica Alpert take care of recording our big-name actors. Because Eric spent so many years composing music and designing sound for theater -- and because I spent so many years covering theater as a public-radio reporter -- he and I have an extensive network of performers, theaters and theater companies we can all upon.

After all the actors have recorded their lines, Eric starts working his magic. He reads each script carefully, and finds ways to add depth and texture to certain moments through sound effects and music. And fun fact: in addition to composing all the music, Eric also plays nearly every instrument you hear on each episode of Circle Round! So for a few days, our home studio is full of the wonderful sound of music.

How many episodes have you already finished, and how many episodes do you have planned for the first season (assuming you’re breaking this up into seasons)?

We have a total of thirty episodes planned for this first season. We’re also planning some live events, where audiences will get to watch a story unfold in front of them - replete with live musicians and actors, right there on stage!

What are your goals for the show?

It’s the mission of public radio to tell stories, so our main goal with Circle Round is to inspire younger listeners to build and develop that same love of storytelling. At the same time, we’re seeking to create an experience that’s entertaining for adults; we often call Circle Round a podcast “for kids and the grown-ups they love.”

At the end of our episodes we invite our audience to take part in some sort of activity -- telling a story, creating a dramatic scene, drawing a picture -- that reflects on the themes in the tale they just heard. We invite them to share their story, scene, picture, etc., with someone they love: a family member, a friend. So another goal is to spark dialogue, and provide a way for children to make connections with others, as they delve into virtues and themes that have been shared around the world, throughout history - from kindness and generosity, to persistence and perspective.

The Best of Gustafer Yellowgold: A Playlist

Brighter Side cover

Brighter Side cover

What am I supposed to do with the new Gustafer Yellowgold album, Gustafer Yellowgold's Brighter Side, since it's the first one that comes without a full DVD to accompany it?  All seven Gustafer prior albums dating back to 2007's Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wild World, were produced as DVD/CD sets with a video for each song, and, to greater or lesser degrees, a unifying story linking the songs together.

But for the new album, musician and illustrator Morgan Taylor, the mastermind behind Gustafer, eschewed a full set of videos.  He'll be doing videos for some songs -- shout-outs to "Hot Nights" and "Baconstein" -- but not all.  Perhaps Taylor is just looking to mix things up.  (And if it means he releases music a little bit more often, even better.)

While I could do the standard review thing, I think I will take a cue from Taylor's decision and mix things up myself.  So I put together a list of the best Gustafer Yellowgold songs from all eight albums (including Brighter Side).  It wasn't a terribly difficult process -- quite enjoyable, actually -- because Taylor is one of kindie's most gifted pop songwriters, with an oblique sense of humor.

I tend to go for the more uptempo Gustafer tracks, so while you could easily make a solid compilation of nothing but the mellow tracks for cooling-down/nighttime purposes -- and Brighter Side tends to lean slightly more towards that softer, mellower side -- this playlist features more of the punchier tracks, either in tempo or arrangement.

So here's a Spotify playlist of my 40 favorite Gustafer Yellowgold tracks, organized chronologically, up to and including music from Brighter Side, out today.  Grab your favorite foods (or least favorite foods, depending on how pugilistic your kids are feeling), tune in, and enjoy!

Video: "Rocketship" - Stacey Peasley (World Premiere!)

Sometimes all your kids -- or you -- need is a simple pop song with a cute video.  If that's you today, might I suggest this video for "Rocketship" from Stacey Peasley?  The song's a catchy and danceable guitar-driven number perfect for the closest kindergartener with a space obsession.  (Evidently there are a number of said kindergarteners, because Peasley reports it's the most popular track off her 2016 Marty Beller-produced album RSVP.)  When the song paired with the suuuuuupercute video from eg design based on illustrations from Jill Howarth, the whole package really, er... takes off.  [Ducks behind curtain to avoid thrown objects.]

Anyway, I'm happy to world-premiere this fun video!

Stacey Peasley - "Rocketship" [YouTube]

Video: "Baconstein" - Gustafer Yellowgold

There are many pleasing things about the word of a new Gustafer Yellowgold album, but the news from a few weeks back that the forthcoming track "Baconstein" would be getting a video was among the most pleasing.  "Baconstein" is a spiritual if not literal sequel to "Cakenstein," which, while not the most typical of Gustafer songs, is one of the funniest tracks in the Gustafer canon.  "Baconstein" tells another story of food run amok, a "Bacon Chucky Norris" with an attitude.  (As technology is for Wallace & Gromit, so food is for Gustafer Yellowgold, apparently.)

And now the video for "Baconstein" is here, so you can hear about (and see) Baconstein's six-pack abs.  And more.  Gustafer Yellowgold's Brighter Side is out Sept. 8.

Gustafer Yellowgold - "Baconstein" [YouTube]