Review: We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions) - Bruce Springsteen

We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions) is Bruce Springsteen's children's music album. Or, at least, it's as close as we'll ever get. I have listened to Springsteen's newest album several times since picking it up on Wednesday, inspired by this NPR story. The story led me to believe that the songs, culled from folk musician Pete Seeger's songbook, could be just as appropriate for 4-year-olds as they would be for a 54-year-old. There are plenty of other reviews of the album which approach it from an adult's perspective. My goal here is to talk about the album's appropriateness for kids. Springsteen collects a whole host of musicians (17 in addition to himself) to play a wide variety of folk songs and spirituals in styles ranging from bluegrass to Dixieland. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the entire enterprise is the obvious sense of joy Springsteen and the band takes in playing these songs. The idea that people should get together and just sing and play isn't new to children's music (hello, Dan Zanes!), but it certainly gets a forceful endorsement here. The songs that end up working best, then, are those songs which allow the band to let loose and play. "Old Dan Tucker," even though it's a song about a man who "got drunk and fell / In the fire and kicked up holy hell," is guaranteed to end up in my list of top 10 children's songs in 2006. It's played with bluegrass style and verve and had our entire family dancing. (Well, except for the nine-month-old. It's a great song, but not miraculous.) The Cajun stylings of "Pay Me My Money Down," in a version more umtempo than Zanes' version, give it an extra kick, fun for dancing. It's also the one song where Springsteen allows himself the barest hint of a modern-day reference (if you're using a computer, you'll recognize it). It's a testament to the enthusiasm Springsteen brings to the song that the thought Springsteen is a man who has his "money hauled in, in crates" barely crosses one's mind. Where kids might not like the album as much is in its slower songs such as "Shenandoah" (in which our daughter during the extended intro, said, "Go back to the one with words.") As much as it pains me to say it, the version of "We Shall Overcome" on the album (recorded and released about eight years ago) is not much fun to listen to. And the extended instrumental soloing, even in the uptempo numbers, may or may not interest the kids. Taken as a whole, however, this is a pretty amazing album from a man who is one of the few popular musicians even attempting modern folk music. ("The River" is one of the finest folk songs written in the second half of the twentieth century and The Rising, while not perfect, is still the best musical attempt to talk about the events of 9/11.) Parents will be able to use the songs to talk about a whole host of social issues -- economic justice, war, civil rights. And they may even, like I am now, be inspired to track down the original Seeger recordings. (Or just go to this website.) I think kids age 5 and older may be best positioned to enjoy the lyrics and ideas raised by the songs. (Though, as I said, "Old Dan Tucker" is a stone-cold classic for all ages.) The album is available just about everywhere, of course. (You can listen to samples at Springsteen's site.) The album comes in the DualDisc format which has problems playing in some computer and car CD players (somebody needs to write a protest song about that); the documentary on the DVD side is just OK, but the two bonus tracks on the DVD side, "Buffalo Gals" and "How Can I Keep From Singing," are well worth the time to listen to. Final thoughts: This is a great album. As an album of "old-time" music, it's much more cohesive than the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. (Along those lines, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the album that finally gets Springsteen his Best Album Grammy next year.) Your kids' enthusiasm for the album may flag during its 60-minute runtime, but they're likely to enjoy most of it as well.

Review: Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate - Daddy A Go Go

The list of stand-up comedians who tried their hand at becoming musicians is long -- Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, and Bill Cosby, for starters. The list in the other direction -- musicians becoming stand-up comedians -- is much shorter, if it exists at all. There is, after all, a fine line between stupid and clever. John Boydston, who will release his fifth Daddy-A-Go-Go album, Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate on May 2, 2006, may not be appearing at the Improv next week, but he does have stand-up tendencies. Ad libs, puns, humorous vignettes -- all make an appearance on the album. Boydston's singing approach is somewhere on the tunefulness spectrum between Lou Reed and Craig Finn from The Hold Steady, in which he talks as much as sings. I didn't mind so much, because the it's not too out of sync with the music itself, which is straight-ahead, well-played guitar rock. (Your mileage on his vocal stylings may vary.) Perhaps "For Those About to Walk, We Salute You" doesn't sound quite enough like AC/DC to merit its title, but it's a fun little ditty that encourages walking without any sappiness. "Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate," is a bluesy rocker that isn't much more than a listing of vegetables with ad-libbed jokes ("Okra! I love her show!") liberally sprinkled throughout. The best tracks are those in which the humor is curbed a bit -- the aforementioned songs, the reworked cover of the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" (on which Boydston's 14- and 11-year-old sons play bass and drums), the two instrumentals. Less successful for me were "Hang Up and Drive," in which frustrations with drivers who talk on their cellphone will completely go over most kids' heads, and "Pink Floyd Saves Hugh Manatee," in which the guest singer sounds just like Boydston and the song sounds nothing like Pink Floyd. And I found the earnest cover of "Listen To The Flower People" from the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap to be completely unnecessary, but maybe that's because I've got 20 years of associations with that song. Your child probably won't recognize the "Stonehenge" references you make afterwards, but that's your (or at least my) problem. The album is probably best for kids age 5 through 10. You can hear samples and read lyrics (without Boydston's many ad libs) here. The album is available at the Daddy A Go Go website and at online retailers, and possibly at some retail locations. In sum, maybe the best way to determine whether or not you'd like the album is for you to decide whether you like Jimmy Buffett. Don't misunderstand me, the album doesn't sound anything like Buffett, but it does have a very Buffett-like vibe. If you think Buffett is a joke and can't stand any of his songs, you won't like this. But if you understand where Buffett is coming from and don't mind the occasional Buffett song or album, you and your kids will enjoy listening to this.

I Found It! (The Website, That Is)

Welcome to readers of Brady Rymer's newsletter, which mentioned this site and my recent NPR appearance in its most recent edition. (Thanks, Brady!) Please take a look around, check out the links and reviews there on the right, and stop by anytime. We add new stuff on a regular basis. Glad you're here!

Song of the Day: Wake Up - The Ditty Bops

Last night I went to an open house at the school where our daughter will be attending kindergarten in the fall. The youngster was a bundle of nerves -- so hyper that a brownie and ice cream calmed her down. I was trying to encourage her to say hello to her (prospective) teachers, to look around, but she just bounced off the walls with her friends. I can tell she's really going to enjoy kindergarten (she went nuts -- or more so -- in the music room with all the instruments out), but there is also the realization that she's reaching another milestone. Let's start the "Song of the Day" with the "adult" song -- "Wake Up," off the Ditty Bops' eponymous debut album. The Ditty Bops write wry folk-rock songs -- think Suzanne Vega perhaps, but somehow "Wake Up" got played on XM Kids one day. Perhaps this is why: "Don't cause a scene / Mind your manners / Speak only if spoken to / You know what you are not do / Watch and learn What if you never were short for time / All meetings cancelled clocks stopped at nine / Without alarms the silence beams / Watch and learn" Yeah, OK. Kinda makes me wonder about all those boundaries we're setting. Would it really be so bad if the kids ran around outside until late at night? (Please don't answer that.) The lyrics are written to get adults to look at their own lives, but it's raising questions for the parents out there, no? For a similar perspective, but targeted much more at the parents, check out Brady Rymer's "Dilly Dally Daisy," which, in the midst of a song about a cute but perhaps frustrating-to-the-parent daughter, includes these lines: "Oh man, I wanna let her go And see the world her own way, ya know? 'Cause pretty soon they're gonna get her in line They'll say, 'Stand up straight! Tuck in your shirt! Know where you're going and get there on time!' " Those lines will go right over the head of the 4-year-old and right to the heart of the parent. There aren't a lot of songs about how one chooses to be a parent. Those two, one accidentally, one on purpose, are two of the few. Listen to "Wake Up" here. Listen to a clip of "Dilly Dally Daisy" here.

Baseball Songs

I don't like to change posting dates, but I'm adding so many songs here, and this predates the time a lot of people started visiting the site, so I'm making an exception here. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, or something like that. Originally posted April 2, 2006. Last revised May 16, 2006 I'm ignoring the fact that the baseball season is one game old. Baseball starts Monday, during the day, and nobody can tell me otherwise. There are very few sports-related children's songs that come to mind. I can understand why, as sports like football and hockey require a lot of equipment and are typically for older kids (this is especially the case for football). Basketball and baseball are easier to play, perhaps -- less equipment, introduced at an earlier age. Since the major sports typically become mostly a spectator sport as we grow up, perhaps it's good that there isn't much children's music about sports since a song about watching other people do something is kinda depressing as a kids' song. (It does make me think that the genre of children's soccer songs is a niche waiting to be filled.) In any case, the list of songs about baseball for all ages is reeeeeeaaaaalllllllly short. (OK, not so short anymore) Here goes: -- "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" (well, duh) -- try Wiggleworms Love You, from the Old Town School of Folk Music (nicely bipartisan, cheering for both the Cubs and White Sox) -- "Baseball Dreams" -- off At the Bottom of the Sea, by Ralph's World (Cubs all the way in this one) -- "I'm Gonna Catch You" -- off Under a Shady Tree, by Laurie Berkner (it has one relevant line -- "So I jumped into Saturday / And I had a baseball batter-day" -- yeah, I'm really reachin' here) -- "Centerfield" -- off Centerfield, by John Fogerty (not kids' music, but a great song anyway) -- "Talkin' Baseball -- off countless albums by Steve Cashman, who just re-records and updates his song -- baseball history lesson in 3 minutes -- "Big Train" -- off the RTT's Turn It Up Mommy!, as noted in the comments. About Walter "Big Train" Johnson. I'd probably disagree that he's the best pitcher ever, but that's another blog. Good song. -- "Right Field" -- Peter, Paul and Mary. Again, see the comments. -- "Cryin' in the Dugout" -- off Daddy-A-Go-Go's upcoming Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate album. A humorous song -- "Baseball Dreams" played for laughs instead of nostalgia. -- "The Greatest" -- Kenny Rogers. See the comments. -- "Roll Around" -- Peter Himmelman, off of his My Lemonade Stand CD. A fun, rollicking song about a baseball who retires, then comes back to his calling. And finally, an artist reviewed here on this very site wrote me to suggest four more songs, including at least one I'm miffed I forgot... the comments in quotes are the artist's, not mine. -- "Catfish" -- off Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series. I am unfamiliar with this one. But it's Dylan. -- "Joe DiMaggio’s Done it Again" -– Wilco and Billy Bragg, from their Mermaid Ave Vol. 2 -- "A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request" –- Steve Goodman – "Classic, and very funny." See "Talkin' Baseball," above. -- "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" -- Brave Combo - "two very cool versions... wacky and fun." It's Brave Combo, how could it not be fun? If any of you have more suggestions (or can point me to a family-friendly soccer song), leave me a comment.