Mixtapes For My Father

I did not fall into reviewing music for kids because of any deep childhood immersion into the genre.  When I was young, my own musical memories are that of Mantovani, Herb Alpert, and other bandleaders you could hear on "Easy Listening" radio stations.

Not only did my parents predate the Baby Boom generation, neither of them came to the United States until adulthood, and so American (and British) rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz weren't part of their musical DNA.  "Light music" wasn't performed and recorded with kids in mind, but as many of the songs lacked vocals and certainly were not harsh in any way, they were perfectly safe for listening with kids, and so I remember tooling around Northern California on weekend drives with my parents, listening to one perfectly orchestrated, slightly swinging tune after another.  All those classic kids' albums from the '60s and '70s -- your Peter, Paul, and Mommy, your The Point!, anything from Pete Seeger or Ella Jenkins -- I never heard them until years after I became a parent, or thirty, forty, or even fifty years after they were released.

And so while music was never hidden our house -- and, indeed, I took all sorts of lessons, from piano to violin to organ -- it was never anything that my parents looked to specifically share with me.  And although I have fond memories of listening to that "light music," I don't revisit it today and doubt I would listen to it for any reason other than nostalgia.

Here seems an appropriate time to mention two new attempts -- from completely different parts of the musical spectrum -- to craft a listening experience to be shared by parent and child.  Neither of these attempts includes anything from Mantovani, though one is slightly Mantovani-adjacent, despite its relative newness.

This Record Belongs To... record and record player

This Record Belongs To... record and record player

Let's start, then, with that slightly retro attempt from Light In The Attic Records.  It's called This Record Belongs To ________, and it's received press attention well beyond any release the kids music world typically receives.  I suspect that much of the attention has to do with the format of the release -- Light In The Attic issued the record on vinyl and partnered with Jack White's Third Man Records to package the album with a miniature record player.  As high-concept ideas go, This Record Belongs To, is a pretty good one -- deliberately push back against the digital tide that's swept the musical world, even the kids' bay I thought would be sheltered for longer than it has been.

I can't comment on the record player or the vinyl record -- hey, what can I say, while I love CDs, I've never had much interest in collecting vinyl.  But the album itself (also available on mp3 if necessary) is essentially a mixtape of classic kid-friendly tracks from the 1960s and 1970s -- Carole King's "One Was Johnny," a couple Harry Nilsson tracks including "Me and My Arrow," the Pointer Sisters' "Pinball Number Count" permanently imprinted upon the brain of countless American youth who've seen more than a handful of Sesame Street episodes.  And there are a number of tracks that weren't created with kids in mind -- Vashti Bunyan's "Diamond Day" and Donovan's "The Mandolin Man and His Secret."  As mixtapes go, this one is excellent.

Now, to the credit of the person who created it, DJ Zach Cowie, hasn't tried to suggest anything like that he's trying to bring "real" music to kids.  (Would that some of the coverage of the album had been as modest in suggesting how much better this selection is.)  Which is a good thing, because leaving aside the issue of the general quality of kids music these days (memo: it's good, better than it's ever been), the idea of mixing "kids music" with kid-friendly music for all has been used for years by DJs like those at Greasy Kid Stuff and Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child, to name a couple.  All I'm suggesting is that, as good as this particular set of tracks is -- it's good, really it is -- it's by no means unique, and it's very much possible to create a similar album with tracks that were recorded in the past quarter-century.

Smiles Ahead record cover

Smiles Ahead record cover

Approaching kids music from the other end of the spectrum is Smiles Ahead, the first release from Kansas City-based Mighty Mo Productions, a label whose specific goal is to raise the visibility of the current crop of musicians making music for kids and families.  This album is a collection of "happy" songs (their next collection, scheduled for release on Valentine's Day, will have more of a love theme), a theme that is pretty flexible and, in a genre that is as generally positive as kids' music, open to a wide variety of tracks.  Particular standouts include Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could's "Jump Up," The Pop Ups' soaring "Box of Crayons," and one of the new tracks, the Verve Pipe's "Get Happy!."

It is not necessarily a mixtape, and unlike the This Record Belongs To _______ and the radio shows I mention above, there's no attempt to mix current "non-kids" music (or older music of any sort).  In a genre that, despite recent attempts, by artists to stitch together a concept of "kids music" as a national thing, is still fairly atomized, Mighty Mo is staking its business model in part on the idea that if a family on the West Coast likes Caspar Babypants (aka Chris Ballew), then they might also like Minnesota's Okee Dokee Brothers.  They're hoping that listening to music in the minivan will lead to jamming to music together in concert.  They're also wanting to make their business dependent on "kids music that parents will like too."  That is definitely not their tagline, but it's a tagline I've heard literally hundreds of times in my 15 or so years of covering this genre.  The fact that the tagline (or its variants) still gets thrown around is an indication that the genre's got a long ways to go.

I don't know whether Mighty Mo's business model will work any better than Light In The Attic's will (though I'm guessing Light In The Attic won't necessarily be looking to develop another vinyl mixtape at quite the same pace that Mighty Mo will be releasing albums).  I obviously have some built-in affinity for Mighty Mo because they're working with artists of today while Light In The Attic's collection features, for the most part, artists it's literally impossible to see perform because they passed away many years ago.

And if there's a more fundamental difference between the two albums it really hinges on the progress of time and the impermanent nature of life.  This Record Belongs To _______ is based on the view of listening at home (preferably with a physical object) as the primary source to developing a musical background, while Smiles Ahead views the album merely as the gateway to the concert experience, where lasting musical memories will be made.  Neither is necessarily correct, nor are they mutually exclusive -- but which one you gravitate to says quite a bit about how you want your kids to approach music.

There is a third way as well.

If there was any musical legacy my parents left me, it probably had its origins in 1984, the year we moved to Texas.  That was the summer I taped a penny to an ad ripped out of who knows where, and I joined the Columbia House Record Club for the first time.  Their legacy was letting their middle schooler agree to a contractual obligation and letting me choose 12 cassettes of my very own.  I can't remember the whole dozen -- there was a Bruce Springsteen album (Born in the USA), something from Slade which featured their hit "Run Runaway," and beyond that, I have no specific memory.

But I'm pretty sure that I spent much of that summer in an apartment, listening to those tapes every day, reading those mailings and scanning the hundreds of album names available to me.  That was probably the summer I became an honest-to-goodness music fan, all because my parents let me do my own thing.

I know that parents want to provide a broad set of experiences for their kids, and giving them musical experiences both recorded and live are important as part of that, particularly if you can give them experiences viewed as high quality.  But eventually you have to let go, and regardless of whether you played Harry Nilsson, Caspar Babypants, or even Mantovani for your kids, they'll find their own set of musical heroes.  It's not so much the stops along the way as it is the journey itself.

Note: I received copies of both albums for possible review.