Screen Time (Kids Music and TV Shows)

I have had in my list of potential posts for the site an item I called "kids music TV shows" for at least a couple years.  I'd probably been thinking about the idea for long before that.  The general idea was to survey the landscape of kids music and broadly cover the wide variety of kids musicians who were making television of some sort in the consumer guide fashion to which, for better and worse, I default.

But in between the time the idea first took hold in my mind and now, something has shifted, and we're in a far more uncertain time for the creation of visual entertainment.

Think back, if you will, to a decade or so ago, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth.  No, that's not right.  What I meant to say, back when Jack's Big Music Show and Imagination Movers aired on Noggin/Nick Jr and Disney Junior/Playhouse Disney.  While their premieres didn't literally overlap (Jack's last show premiered in April 2008, while the Movers' first show didn't air until September that year), in my mind they are lumped together in the golden age of kids music on television.

While Laurie Berkner had already released four albums by the time Jack's Big Music Show premiered in 2005 and had achieved some level of popularity, there's no doubt that her appearance on every episode catapulted her into kids music superstardom.  (It was the release of a Laurie Berkner DVD in 2006 that was one of the precipitating events leading to my first NPR piece.)  And the show gave guest spots to about a dozen other kids' musicians as well.  While I don't think the bump for individual artists besides Berkner was meaningful, I think the idea that there was a modern take on kids music broadly was.

The Imagination Movers' show was very different stylistically from Jack's, but it, too, had a dramatic impact on the Movers' career.  While they had achieved a fair amount of success, especially in their New Orleans hometown region, the Disney show significantly increased their reach.  I went to their Phoenix-area concert in 2009, and at least a thousand people showed up, outdrawing Dan Zanes.  They were a big deal.  (They're still popular, but I'm guessing they would be even more so were the show still on the air.)

Certainly the success of those two shows could have led to more shows that drafted kids musicians into leading roles.  And my memory going back to the 2010-ish era was that a lot of musicians wanted to be drafted.  But almost at the same time that Berkner and the Movers were having success, a couple of other shows laid down an alternative path that I think proved to be the downfall of kids music on TV: Yo Gabba Gabba and The Fresh Beat Band.

YGG debuted in 2007, even before the Movers' show, and Fresh Beat Band debuted in 2009.  In each of their own ways, their approaches likely diminished the allure of kids music to both television executives and audiences.  With Gabba, the guest musical artists didn't come from kids music -- they came from the world of music for adults.  The first season guest stars were very indie -- The Shins were probably the biggest "get" -- and lent the show a certain sheen of "cool" that kids musicians are unlikely to ever provide, certainly not on a kids' show.  And as the show became more popular, the guest stars did, too.  (When The Roots, The Flaming Lips, Solange, and Weezer are willing to do your show, there's no need to check out Zooglobble for the hot new kids music star.)

The Fresh Beat Band took a different approach, but one that also excluded kids' musicians.  By recruiting singers and actors for the band, the producers of the show essentially created the Monkees for preschoolers.  (Not a slam.)  It was an approach that also proved popular (the show toured live, as did YGG), but one that didn't require any current kids' musicians.  And even if you think, hey, a band of kids' musicians created out of whole cloth, that's better than nothing, well, the show was eventually sunsetted, with Fresh Beat Band of Spies, an animated show, taking its place in a way starting in 2015.

In the wake of Jack's and the Imagination Movers shows, and while YGG and Fresh Beat Band were on the air, there was a lot of interest by kids' musicians about getting their own series off the ground.  A TV series was held up as the holy grail, the brass ring folks sought.  I don't want to suggest that it was the only thing people cared about, or that they were obsessed by it, but... there was no small amount of interest.

It's not like there was no success -- Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band got their live-action series Lishy Lou and Lucky Too on the air on several Indiana PBS stations starting in around 2013.  Billy Kelly put together four interstitials called I'm Thinking of an Animal for Rochester, New York PBS station WXXI in 2012.  But the successes for Lucky and Alisha and Billy were more regional in nature.  And Laurie Berkner's return to kids' TV in Sprout's animated interstitial series Sing It, Laurie! never really achieved the visibility of her first show.

If you want to think of the cup as half-full, though, let's not forget Steve Roslonek, AKA SteveSongs, who as "Mr. Steve" served as a co-host and musician on PBS Kids' preschool morning block.  And perhaps the biggest success was that of Tim Kubart, who after years playing with the Jimmies and creating Tim and the Space Cadets, made it onto Sprout through co-hosting the Sunny Side Up show.  And just this week the Sunny Side Up show became Sprout House, a new morning show on which Kubart -- and other kindie artists -- will now play music.  This seems like a positive turn of events, though the expected bump for any artist besides Kubart in terms of visibility should probably be small.  As with Jack's Big Music Show, the important part is in the overall visibility, though Sprout's viewership, compared to that of Disney Channel and Nick Jr. of the pre-2010 years, is likely small.  Big, in the world of kids music, but small(er) culturally speaking.

Of course, kids haven't stopped watching video, they've just moved to other places -- Amazon and Netflix, and YouTube, for example.  But that switch hasn't meant kids music getting featured there.  Sure, Amazon includes full-length episodes from Lisa Loeb and Amy Lee, but those are just one-off on-demand productions.  (Also note that those aren't kindie-first artists.)   Other networks like Ameba and BatteryPOP will offer kids music channels (generally compilations featuring a single artist), but there's less of a sense of kids music as a genre.  It's great that that avenue exists for artists, but if you're a parent, you're unlikely to stumble across kids music serendipitously -- you have to seek it out, and most likely, seek out an artist you're already familiar with.  And unfortunately for musicians, the amount that YouTube pays per stream is waaaaaay less than even places like Spotify, which many artists already feel pays too little.  (If the numbers in the linked article are accurate, a YouTube creator would have to get 150,000 views on a video just to earn $300.)

So after all this hand-wringing, I am going to end with a list of TV shows/channels on the internet that feature kids musicians.  If you are one of those dedicated parents looking for serialized shows, or at least a channel that isn't merely videos, this list is for you.  Note that I'm deliberately excluding YouTube artist channels such as those from Laurie Berkner, Caspar Babypants, and Patty Shukla that are very popular (Shukla has 385 million views), but aren't featuring shows.

If you're a kids musician whose show has been left off this list, drop me a line!

Ralph's World - Time Machine Guitar [YouTube]

A couple notes: 1) This show is well done -- it features Ralph and a group of puppets learning about music and (eventually) time travel adventures.  It is in many ways reminiscent of Jack's Big Music Show.  Ralph's been working on the show for a loooong time (his daughter Fiona is now also working on it), so I'm glad to see it finally reach public eyes and ears.  2) Ralph, update the playlist for episode #2!

Miss NinaMiss Nina's Weekly Video Show [YouTube]

This is a simple show -- every Tuesday morning, Miss Nina posts a simple live-action singalong song.  But it's probably that simplicity that's helped her attract more than 14,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel, which makes her a star among YouTube kindie musicians.

Lloyd H. Miller - Ursa Major / Ursa Minor [Vimeo]

This is a serialized spy show for kids written and directed by Miller himself.  It's low-tech, and there wasn't too much music in the episodes I saw, but fans of Miller (solo or in the Deedle Deedle Dees) may want to check it out.

Dan Zanes - Dan Zanes and Friends [YouTube]

A short-lived series from 2014 featuring, well, a day (a week? a month?) in the life of Dan Zanes, musician.

How Do We Sing? [YouTube]

Finally, How Do We Sing? is a wordless meditation on weighty topics -- dreams, motherhood, death -- as told through the eyes of three puppet characters.  One of the co-creators (and puppeteer) is Chicago's Erin Flynn, thought of fondly 'round here for her Dreamer of Dreams album more than a decade ago and who also performed on the most recent Ella Jenkins album.  How Do We Sing? is definitely not a bright, shiny, poppy piece -- it's meditative and doesn't feature "kids music" at all -- but may strike some viewers as beautiful.  (If you're one such viewer, pitch in on their Kickstarter to make a full-length movie!)

Video: "Mundo Verde/Green World" - Mister G (World Premiere and Interview!)

Mundo Verde / Green World album cover

Mundo Verde / Green World album cover

One of the kids musicians who most successfully employs a bilingual approach in his music is the Massachusetts-based (most of the time) Ben Gundersheimer, or as lots of kids know him, Mister G.  Over the course of seven albums, his music's become more complex, taking on the flavor of Latin American sounds and rhythms.  Lyrically, he easily moves between English and Spanish (and back... and back again).

On his forthcoming eighth album for kids, Mundo Verde / Green World, Mister G takes those multicultural rhythms and lyrics in service of environmental concerns.  All of which could be dull, but watch this new video for the album's title track, filled with a bunch of skilled instrumentalists who happen to be animals and slick kinetic typography, and I'm pretty sure your mood will lift as you bop along.  (The illustrator in charge? Marcos Almada Rivero.)

After you watch the video, make sure you scroll down further for a quick, bonus interview with Mister G about the motivation for the album, memories from recording it, and more about his upcoming book series with Penguin Random House!

Mundo Verde / Green World (the album) is out September 15, 2017.

Mister G - "Mundo Verde/Green World" [YouTube]

Zooglobble: What motivated you to make a “green”-themed album now?

Mister G: Mundo Verde/Green World is my eighth album for children and families, but I've been writing about nature and eco-activism from the beginning. My first CD actually had several songs with explicit environmental themes ("Don't Waste Stuff" "Mister Chubby Pants" "Squirrels"). To me, there is no issue more important than working together to protect this one and only planet we share. Now more than ever, I think it's important that we inspire kids and families to enjoy the beauty of nature, but also to do all we can to insure a healthy green world for future generations.

Any favorite memories from the recording process?

That's a tough one! I was incredibly fortunate to record with so many phenomenal Latin musicians all over the world on this project. If I had to pick one experience, it would be recording the song "Gozar/Enjoy" in the Dominican Republic with the great merengue band, 440. It was an unforgettable experience to work with these great artists (and wonderful people) in their studio in Santo Domingo.

How do you pick animators for your videos?

We love working with our talented friends from different parts of the world. Many of our videos ("The Bossy E", "Cocodrilo", "Siete Elefantes") have been done by a great husband/wife team of Argentinians who are based in Barcelona. The "Mundo Verde/Green World" video was made by our friends in Oaxaca, Mexico. The illustrator, Marcos Almada Rivero, created the beautiful art for our last two albums, "Los Animales" and "Mundo Verde/Green World."

What can we expect from the books you’re creating?

The books we have coming out through Penguin Random House are based on my songs. In each case, I adapted the original song and created more of a narrative. The first book, "Señorita Mariposa," is about a monarch butterfly who is flying from the US to her winter home in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico. Happy to announce that Marcos Almada Rivero is illustrating the book!

Mister G with preschoolers in Mexico

Mister G with preschoolers in Mexico

Listen To This: "Skip To My Lou" - Dan Zanes feat. Chuck D & Memphis Jelks

Lead Belly, Baby! album cover

Lead Belly, Baby! album cover

If the sound of Dan Zanes singing "Skip To My Lou" with Chuck D and Memphis Jelks throwing in some (new) lyrics doesn't put a smile on your face (and whet your appetite for Lead Belly, Baby!, Zanes' upcoming Smithsonian Folkways album featuring his takes on the family-friendly music the blues musician recorded for the label decades ago), then... listen again.  Really good stuff, reminiscent of Zanes' best work.  Lead Belly, Baby! is out August 25.

Dan Zanes feat. Chuck D & Memphis Jelks - "Skip To My Lou" [YouTube]

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