I will admit that when I first heard about Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie, the latest album from Los Angeles-based (usually) Randy Kaplan, I was somewhat skeptical. There was so much that could have gone wrong with this project - a troubadour recasting famous blues songs into kid-friendly complaints. ("Randy-ized," it was called.) And with a centuries old blues man offering sandpapery-voiced commentary? Oh, so much could have gone wrong.
But I was willing to give it a shot because Kaplan is one of kids music's top storytellers with significant depth in musical sources of inspiration, and I figured that if anyone could make these re-done stories worth listening to, it would be he.
Luckily, I was proven correct.
OK, I can't say that I found the overarching narrative conceit -- the century-plus-year-old bluesman "Lightnin' Bodkins" introduces many of the songs and tries to find Kaplan his own "blues name" -- very interesting. In fact, when I listened to the album, I pretty much always skipped forward to the next track. Parents in control of the car's CD player or the iPod may do the same.
But that's only because the songs in between those interstitials are so much more interesting. Yes, the songs are "Randy-ized," which ironically means they've tamed down, not made more inappropriate. So "Timeout Blues," which turns the classic chorus "In the Jailhouse Now" into "In the Timeout Now," is all about a rabble-rousing kid. Kaplan is one of the top 2 or 3 kids music storytellers working today, and like other talented storytellers, he draws from a deep well of pint-sized frustration and pique. And what better channel for expressing frustration and pique than the blues, such as in "Ice Cream Man Rag," which bemoans an ice cream truck that never stops at the narrator's house. There are other more straight-ahead songs whose double-entendres (if Kaplan cracked a knowing smile while encouraging kids to shake their things -- eggshakers -- in "Shake Your Thing," I couldn't hear it). And near the end of the album, more pensive songs like "Move to Kansas City" don't really sound jokey or silly at all, with songs like "Way Down in Arkansas" and "So Different Blues" remarkably tender and sweet.
Kids ages 3 through 8 will most appreciate the album, which is available at all the usual suspects (and on Spotify as well). I'd also highlight the understated musical accompaniment, most notably the gentle finger-picking guitar work of Kaplan (assisted by his producer Mike West).
Yes, Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie has its origins in a somewhat jokey concept, but the final result transcends that limitation. Ignore Lightnin' Bodkins, ignore the idea that your kids might get a basic education in the forefathers of the blues (unlikely), and just enjoy with your kids a solid collection of bluesy stories from one of the best storytellers around. Definitely recommended.
Disclosure: I was given a copy of the album for possible review.