Ella's Kids (Reviews of Ella Jenkins, Jazzy Ash, and Shine and the Moonbeams)

I've been thinking some about white guys with guitars.

I've got nothing against white guys with guitars -- I'm a white guy with a guitar (OK, ukulele), and as I think about my own favorite music, much of it is made by, you guessed it, white guys with guitars.  But there are a lot of white guys with guitars making music for kids.

I don't want to speculate on exactly why this is, but it can't be to the advantage of kids music that the lists of artists making kids music on a national level looks -- and, in terms of the musical styles of those artists, sounds -- way less diverse than, say, the Billboard charts, which might feature Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, or Rihanna (not to mention Pitbull or Drake or whomever) near the top.  I'm fully in favor of exposing kids to a wide variety of musical artists and musical genres, and right now that's not as easy as a parent might hope.

It's a little strange, especially because the very first kids music star was (and is) an African-American woman: Ella Jenkins.  In 1957, she released Call-and-Response Rhythmic Group Singing on Folkways Records, and over the next 60 years, she's released more than 30 albums on Folkways, then Smithsonian Folkways.  (Her 1966 album You Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song is Smithsonian Folkways' best-selling album of all time, from any genre.)  And while Jenkins is not one to toot her own horn or make a big deal out of her politics (this is an hour-long interview from a decade ago where she does neither), but it's not hard to review Jenkins' discography and think that she, too, would want to see many different types of kids' musicians making themselves visible.

Jenkins recently released Camp Songs, her first album of new music in six years, and with the recent release of albums from a couple younger artists who've taken inspiration from Ella in different ways, I thought it was a good time to take a look at all three of these albums, all of them definitely recommended.

Camp Songs album cover

Camp Songs album cover

Camp Songs is labeled as being by Ella Jenkins and Friends, and that "and Friends" appendage is definitely important.  It's probably too much to expect an artist who just turned 93 years old to be up for leading a bunch of kids in song with nothing but a guitar and her voice.  Indeed, as Tony Seeger noted in an interview, "her voice was not as strong as she had hoped when the time came to record."  But she was definitely the animating spirit behind the album.  And in some ways, Jenkins receding somewhat to the background allows for a fuller musical experience.  It's not just Jenkins and a guitar, there are many more jumping in to share their voices.

As you'd suspect by the title, there are many camp favorites on the album -- "Kumbaya, "Down by the Riverside," "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," to name but three. It's led in many places by Tony and Kate Seeger, brother and sister, who have lots of experience leading a group of singing kids (read more about that here).  There are also musicians from Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music (including Erin Flynn!) who lead some other songs and a children's chorus.  Ella sings a bit, plays harmonica on a few songs, and generally blesses the entire affair. If Ella isn't exactly front-and-center, I have no doubt that she's very pleased with the playful and communitarian nature of the end result.

Before heading into the next couple reviews, a brief shout-out to Robbi Kumalo, who performs music for kids as Robbi K, and is, as best I can recall, the only African-American woman aside from Ella with any national visibility whose main role was making music for kids in the 2000s (and before).  If you like the sounds of Ella and the next two artists and want more in that vein, I'd recommend check Robbi out.

Ashli Christoval has taken the sounds of New Orleans heritage via her mother and crafted a career making music for kids as Jazzy Ash.  She has spoken about her debt to Ella Jenkins -- seeing Jenkins make an appearance on Mister Rogers:

That moment was very monumental for me. I knew that I wanted to be part of the artist community that used art to preserve the wonderful the stories of culture.
Swing Set album cover

Swing Set album cover

On Swing Set, her fourth album, she comes the closest yet to seamlessly blending the African-American musical heritage, particularly jazz, with the singing together and movement work that Jenkins pioneered on record.  It kicks off with a swinging (pun unintended) version of "Li'l Liza Jane," which features an ebullient group call-and-response.  (Much more Preservation Hall Jazz Band than Elizabeth Mitchell -- to say that I like it as much as Mitchell's version is high praise from me.)

The word I kept writing down as I took notes on the album was "joyful."  This is, friends, the most joyful album of the year.  From Uncle Devin's hand-clapping on "Hambone" to Jazzy's insertion of "Fried! Froglegs!" as something Grandma's going to enjoy in "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain" to her giving her band a kick in the pants in the slow intro to "When the Saints Go Marching In" ("Too slow, let's put a little swing into it!") -- there's so much happiness here.  It very much honors the stories of Christoval's culture, and in songs like "Miss Mary Mack" and the brief call-and-response interludes with a children's chorus, it honors Jenkins' legacy.  It's also a blast -- it's every bit as fun as that cover art above suggests.

Shooting Stars album cover

Shooting Stars album cover

Another artist who is walking in Ella's path, but a less-appreciated one, is Shawana Kemp.  Kemp is best-known in the kids music world as Shine in Shine and the Moonbeams.  On their 2013 self-titled debut album, Kemp's voice was the star, a voice that could literally stun listeners.

Kemp is back after far too long of an absence with Shooting Stars, an album released this spring that I'm hoping gets a little more notice.

The music of Shine and the Moonbeams has always been fairly complex -- jazz, R&B, and a fair share of funk.  It's not an approach Jenkins has ever been much interested in.  The reason I say that Kemp is also in walking in Ella's path is that the music of Shine and the Moonbeams is emphatically child-centered emotionally.  It's amazing to watch Jenkins with kids, because even though she's not a parent, Jenkins is so present.  It's clear that the kids are her most important audience, and she doesn't care about getting cool points from the adults in the audience.  (She just wants them singing along.)  And while performance-wise Kemp knows how to leave an impression on the entire room, when it comes to songwriting, the kids most definitely come first.  "Shooting Star," which leads off the album, is a glorious song about everyone having their own talent.  "Peekaboo Baby" is blues for the very youngest kid, and "Tough Love" is a funk rocker that explains exactly why the parent is not going to go easy on her kid.

Those songs are mixed into a set that also features some reggae ("Ace Boon Coon"), late '70s (?) funk ("Tell Me Why"), and the empathetic vocal soul of "Any Body Other Than Me."  And to have songs like "Soul Food Holiday" and "These Shoes" (a straight-forward jazz song whose lyrics encourage self-acceptance, especially of body image) that speak most directly to an African-American audience on a mainstream kids music release is awesome to hear.

I know I've combined these three albums into a single review for convenience and to make some overarching points, but I'd hate to see these albums get pigeonholed for a certain audience.  I'd much rather that these albums be the inspiration for future albums, for Ashli's and Shawana's kids... and Ella's grandkids.

Listen To This: "Colander Sun" - Lard Dog & The Band of Shy

"Colander Sun" single cover

"Colander Sun" single cover

So there's song about colanders and... well, that's all I really need to say, because, c'mon, do you really need to hear yet another song about puppies or holidays or friendship when you can hear an ode to colanders?  The number of kids' artists I figure as being up for a song featuring colanders is pretty small, and Lard Dog & The Band of Shy is definitely amongst them.

"Colander Sun" is part of the band's "Song-of-the-Month" project where they're releasing one song each month, given for free for the price of an e-mail address.  The song is, according to the band "in honor of Lard Dog's ancestry and in appreciation for this shiny, often over-looked option for a hat choice."  Yes, that's weird, but that's par for the course for the band, prepping its next full length album, Dreamers, out September 22.  Even ignoring the lyrical subject matter, it's got a nifty, blues riff on the guitar, and some fabulous vocals in the second half of the song from Sharaé Moultrie.  It's good for your spleen, or, at least, will cause no damage whatsoever.

Lard Dog & The Band of Shy - "Colander Sun" [Soundcloud]

Radio Playlist: New Music August 2017

In the midst of summer, and I've nine songs for your family's enjoyment.  (If you want more, why not check out the June list here?  Nope, no July list this time around...)

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 August 2017 (August 2017 Kindie Playlist) ****

"Gonna Be Great" - David Tobocman

"Rock Island Line" - Dan Zanes w/ Billy Bragg

"Hot Nights (with Pat Sansone)" - Gustafer Yellowgold

"Big Backyard" - Michelle Bloom

"Who's Your Favorite Beatle?" - Lard Dog & the Band of Shy

"My Cat's a Cow" - The Battersby Duo

"Firefighters" - Annie Allauzen

"Fantastic" - I Happy Am

"Just Dance" - twinkle

Here's To The Dreamers (Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band's "Made in L.A.")

Made in L.A. album cover

Made in L.A. album cover

There's always been a touch of fantasy in Lucky Diaz's music for families.  From Diaz's first kids' EP's very first single, the strutting blues "Blue Bear," Diaz has often trafficked in a milieu that's familiar but not quite this world.  Filled with no small amount of anthropomorphic animals, Diaz's world is saturated with color and tastes like cotton candy.

The dream-like nature doesn't just apply to the animals, it applies to Diaz's thematic touchpoints.  Throughout his discography, Diaz returns repeatedly to the idea of dreams and aspirations.  This is a band who dreamt of creating a TV show, made an album that gave voice to the show whose heart was the songs about dreamers and hard workers like Jackie Robinson and Amelia Earhart, and then produced the show (and won an Emmy Award for it to boot).

It is this second meaning of "dreams" that Diaz and the Family Jam Band explore to tremendous effect on their latest album, the just-released Made in L.A..  As the center of film and TV production in the United States (and, arguably, the world), not to mention a major locus of music production Los Angeles holds a place in the imagination of artists and dreamers looking for their big shot.  La La Land is but the most recent fantasia on Los Angeles as the locus for dreams writ large.  Yes, as you can guess by the title, the album is an ode to the city of dreams, but it's also an ode to the dreamers that flock there.

The album kicks off with "The Magic Believers," specifically with Diaz singing, "I've got a voice in my heart / For some it's not much / But for me it's a start / But I will / Dream it out loud..." and fellow Los Angeles artist Mista Cookie Jar rapping "We come from the city by the sea called L.A. / Where people live to share their dreams on the center stage..."  It doesn't sound like anything Diaz has recorded before, dreamy and AutoTuned six ways from Sunday, and it's absolutely wonderful.

That's followed by "Silver Lake Stairs," another dream-like song.   This one, co-written by and featuring another L.A. musician, Todd McHatton, has more of a mellow chamber-pop feel and is capped by Alisha Gaddis expressing wonder at the top of the titular stairs and seeing all of Los Angeles spread out before her.  Lest the album get too ponderous, that's followed up by the summer anthem "Paletero Man" and the silliness of "Traffic," both of whom feature yet another well-known SoCal kindie act, Andrew and Polly.  Other highlights include Lucky's NorCal friend Frances England on "Echo Park," the guitar showcase on "Pato Loco," and the rave-up album closer "Fiesta De La Brea," which needs to be used by the La Brea Tar Pits for promotional purposes, like, yesterday.

If you haven't gathered by now, much like how movies might be the vision of a single person but require a cast of dozens (or thousands) to pull off, this album features a large team of Los Angeles-based musicians -- it really feels like a team effort, with each artist putting their own imprint on Diaz's guitar pop.   This isn't an album celebrating the city in name only -- with maybe only the exception of "Jelly," all of the songs on the 36-minute album provide a different angle on life in Los Angeles.  (The album's probably most appropriate for kids age 5 and up.)

Made in L.A. is the best album yet from Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band, based on themes Diaz has used from the start of his kindie career, but with an even sharper pop sensibility and a very specific sense of place.  Filled with dreamy songs and humorous takes on life in Los Angeles, with pop hook upon pop hook, it's a celebration of a particular city that's got a universal appeal.  One of my favorite albums of the year and highly recommended.  Thanks, dreamers.

Top Kids and Family Podcasts (July 2017)

It's been a month since the last time I looked at ranking podcasts for kids, and the increased visibility of such podcasts, if not increasing, has maintained its momentum.  (For those of you interested, here is June's list of top-ranked kids and family podcasts.)  If you're looking for a podcast for kids, you could of course look at my list of podcasts for kids (now above 100!), but if that's a bit overwhelming, try the podcasts listed below.   Popularity isn't always synonymous with quality, but you could do much worse than dipping into the shows ranked below to start out.

In terms of big developments on the content side, I'm going to go with the debut of In Sight Junior, a kid-friendly spinoff of the popular In Sight podcast.  For those of you wondering when the burgeoning true crime genre would come to kids podcasting, the answer is "July."  (Note: it's not so much true crime as it is mysteries and legends.  Really, I've listened -- totally fine for listeners age 8 or so on up.)

July's list is ever-so-slightly smaller than June's record-busting list -- there are 18 ranked shows below, as opposed to 19 in June.  (That means 18 shows that appeared in the top 100 of both the iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts.)  The total number of podcasts listed below is 35, tied with June.  A total of 3 podcasts below hit the overall iTunes Top 200 (down from 4 in July), while in the Top 200 Kids & Family chart on iTunes, the total there (39) fell short of June by 3 shows.  The Stitcher total of 27 is a new record, however.

As always: this is a blunt instrument, combining pure rankings from two fairly opaque charts, and for a variety of reasons has only marginal value as a measure of quality.  (Results compiled from Top 100 podcasts on United States iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts on Thursday, July 27, 2017.  Podcasts that appear on both charts are listed with numbers; remaining podcasts only appeared on one list.  Of special note: Dream Big appeared on iTunes' overall Top 200, but not at all on Stitcher's family list, so for that podcast at least, this list certainly underplays its popularity.)  Anyway: grain of salt noted.

Two other reminders:

1.  If you're looking for a list that has most (or all) of these podcasts, check out my comprehensive list of podcasts for kids.

2. If you're interested in the future of podcasts for kids, you might be interested in Kids Listen, a grassroots organization of podcasters and folks like me interested in helping high-quality audio for children thrive.  We're looking for other interested folks -- producers or otherwise -- to join in!

With that out of the way, let's get to the chart.

1. Wow in the World

2. Stories Podcast

3.  Brains On!

4. Storynory

5. (tie)  The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel

5.  (tie)  The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian

7. Story Pirates

8. Tumble

9. Story Time

10 . Eleanor Amplified

11. Peace Out

12. Ear Snacks

13.  Little Stories for Tiny People

14.  What If World

15.  But Why?

16. Short and Curly

17. Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child

18.  The Cramazingly Incredifun Sugarcrash Kids

Others (listed alphabetically): Activated Stories, Bedtime Stories, Biddy the Duck's Bedtime Stories, Book Club for Kids, Children's Fun Storytime Podcast, Circle Round, Disney Story Central, Dream Big, Family Folk Tales, Goop Tales Stories, In Sight Junior, Official Adventures in Odyssey, Road Trip Radio, The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd, Saturday Morning Theatre, Sparkle Stories, The Story Home