Video: "Froggie Went a Courtin'" - Caspar Babypants

It's a little hard to hear because of his history with the pop-punk Presidents of the United States of America, and because his Caspar Babypants project has such a whimsical pop sensibility, but Chris Ballew's work as Caspar Babypants is very, very folk.  His originals generally have a simple core, easily replicable as sung work by the novice.  And he's very committed to reworking folk song classics and giving them new life.

Jump for Joy album cover

Jump for Joy album cover

For "Froggie Went a Courtin'," perhaps the hoariest of folk song chestnuts, Ballew ditches the amphibian's sword and pistol, and replaces them with a ring and bouquet -- because Froggie's asking to get married, duh.  It's not that this new version is any better than the thousands that have come before it (though it's better than a lot of them), but his willingness to make the song his one is folk as anything.

The song is on his forthcoming album Jump for Joy! (out August 18), and as with many of his videos, features Ballew's own drawings.  (Look for Beatle John.)

Caspar Babypants - "Froggie Went a Courtin'" [YouTube]

Four on the Floor (Kids Music Reviews for Preschoolers)

Owl Singalong cover

Owl Singalong cover

Here's the next installment of reviews of albums before I pause a bit with my reviews.  Last week I covered some recent (2017) releases, but this week's roundup includes some albums more than a year old.

I wanted to take a look at some recent albums targeted at the preschool set, those kids moving close to (if not sitting directly on) the ground.  This isn't a complete listing of such albums, but they are four albums that I think give a fair overview of where 21st century music for your favorite 3-year-old is at the moment.

We'll start with the most famous kids musician on this list, and arguably, the first kids music superstar -- Raffi.  Most folks recognize the first wave of kids musicians -- legends like Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly -- as folksingers, including the social justice component that folksingers have often been recognized as having, especially in the United States from the '30s through the '60s.  They weren't just singing about animals and playtime, they also sang about freedom and justice.  (Sometimes they even did so simultaneously.)

It took awhile, but Raffi has become every bit the political folksinger his predecessors were.  When he first burst onto the scene in the mid-1970s, his first albums were classic sing-along stuff, but he avoided political items.  Gradually, however, he mixed in songs celebrating the natural world, with "Baby Beluga" becoming a touchstone song for hundreds of thousands of kids in the early '80s.

His 2016 album Owl Singalong came comparatively quickly on the heels of his previous album, 2014's Love Bug, signifying new inspiration after more than a decade away from the genre, and this album is filled with lots of songs celebrating the importance of the natural world and, one senses, a new urgency from the 68-year-old Canadian singer.

There's a sprightliness to the music here, aided by Raffi's newfound discovery of the ukulele.  Longtime friend and collaborator Ken Whiteley and his son Ben help out with instrumentals, his niece Kristin Cavoukian sings on a couple songs, as do a number of others, and he deftly mixes new takes on old classic music circle songs like "More We Sing Together" and "The Lion Pokey" with folk songs written with a wider circle in mind, like "The Garden Song" and "Somos El Barco."  (Oddly enough, this may be the album pitched at the oldest audience of these four.)  Raffi's voice is as fine as ever, though he's still willing to be very playful with his voice, too.  All in all, this is a fine collection of songs, a worthy addition to Raffi's long discography.

Love Bug cover

Love Bug cover

Another artist who covers much the same ground as Raffi is Maryland's Valerie Smalkin.  A ventriloquist and musician who's been performing a long time, her 2016 album Love Bug (see, a Raffi connection right there!) could easily find a home in many a preschool classroom.  For the most part, the album is filled with originals with a couple more traditional songs ("Hey Betty Martin," "Bumblebee") mixed in.  The physical album comes with suggestions for making listening to the songs a more interactive process as well, which is not unusual for these types of albums -- it's another common theme we often see.  The execution of these songs in arrangements is just enough improved over most such albums that I think it won't wear out its welcome nearly as fast.  Smalkin's appealing voice helps out as well.  (I could do with less synth, but most similar types of albums lean on that synth even more than it's leaned on here.)  I wouldn't listen to this album by itself as much as I would the other three albums here, but for those looking for a little more movement and interaction as part of their listening experience, this might do the trick.

Songs for Little Ones cover

Songs for Little Ones cover

Moving on to an artist clearly inspired by Raffi -- Charlie Hope.  I've compared the Canadian/American Hope favorably with the Canadian legend, and her latest album, Songs for Little Ones, released late last year, does nothing to dissuade me from the comparison.

Whereas her previous albums tended to be a little more of a mix of original songs (and some darn catchy ones to boot) and classic kids' songs, this new album shifts the balance of the songs to the classic side, with only 3 originals -- still lovely -- and 22 covers.  I tend to think that new families should have multiple versions of these types of albums just so those families can hear how, say, Raffi's take on "Down By the Bay" differs from Hope's here, but there are far worse voices to include on a short list of albums of classic songs than Hope's bright, clear voice.  The arrangements here are more folk-pop -- no synths, but poppier perhaps than Raffi's earthier approach (just enough tasteful percussion or perhaps an occasional string instrument or recorder to liven it up).

Away We Go cover

Away We Go cover

Finally we have Caspar Babypants.  Chris Ballew has been remarkably consistent and productive in making remarkably good music for preschoolers over the past decade, and there's nothing in his latest, 2016's Away We Go!, that changes that assessment.  Ballew heads the other direction as Hope, as this new album leans more heavily towards original tunes than reworking classic kids' songs.  There are some nifty new takes, like the concluding track "If You're Sleepy," which converts "If You're Happy and You Know It" into a very sleepy (and very Beatles-esque) wind-down track.  It's mostly a solo effort from Ballew, with only Jen Wood providing vocals on "If You're Sleepy" and the Okee Dokee Brothers pitching in on a couple tracks, but his poppy arrangements are, as always, filled with verve and occasional surprises.  And as always, Ballew's lyrics are fanciful (tiny horses, runaway pancakes, best friends snail and spider) and playful.

If I were to pick the album I'd listen to most on repeat, it'd probably be the Caspar Babypants album just because it's the most varied in melody and words, with the Raffi a close, close second.  But Songs For Little Ones would make a fine addition to any home or preschool classroom, and I think Love Bug could find a good home in a classroom as well.  They're all recommended to varying degrees.

Note: I was given a copy of these albums for possible review.

Christmas and Holiday Kids Music 2016

It has been a comparatively slow season this year for Christmas and general holiday-themed kids music, at least compared to previous years.  But that doesn't mean we've been left with coal.  Hanukkah and Christmas are only a week away, so let's jump in!

First, there's the first holiday song from Charlie Hope -- she's released a jolly and bright rendition of "Up on the Rooftop."  For the moment, you can still download it for free via the Soundcloud widget below!

Charlie Hope - "Up on the Rooftop" [Soundcloud]

Lard Dog and the Band of Shy - Rudolph cover

Lard Dog and the Band of Shy - Rudolph cover

If Hope's track offers a simple reminder of youthful anticipation, the following track from Lard Dog and the Band of Shy serves up a blast of Christmas rebellion.  It's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but a version unlike you've ever heard before, mixing in "Wild Thing," the Ramones" and even "Dreidel, Dreidel" into the holiday classic.  I really like both Hope's and Lard Dog's tracks, but they are toooootally different strains of Christmas songs, y'all.  Anyway, grab the free download at Lard Dog's website.

And while I would not have expected "hard-rocking" to be the most prevalent holiday song type, with Annie Lynn's "I Kept Your Present," that is, in fact, the case.  What to do when you find the perfect gift... for you, not for the person you bought it for?  This song has the answer.  You can stream it on Soundcloud, but the better version by far is her video.  The hands slay me.

Annie Lynn - "I Kept Your Present" [YouTube]

I'm sure I've missed some of this year's holiday music made specifically for kids -- let me know if I have [Ed: I did! Thanks, Sagan, for the reminders and heads up!]

A modern, electronic take on some holiday music comes from the Bay Area's Liz DeRoche, AKA The Singing Lizard.  There's not much on her Holiday Party EP that is specifically kid-focused, but the arrangements are fresh and worth exploring, even if you don't happen to have any little ones around.

The Singing Lizard - Holiday Party [Bandcamp]

Speaking of modern takes on Christmas music for kids, Minnesota's Uncle Dox features some fast but laid-back rhymes on "Santa."  There's been some really good hip-hop music for kids, and some good Christmas and holiday music for kids, but I'm hard-pressed to think of many hip-hop holiday music for kids.  This fits in that small Venn diagram intersection for sure.

Uncle Dox - "Santa" [Soundcloud]

A mellower take on some Christmas songs comes courtesy of Father Goose, who gets Dan Zanes, Sonia De Los Santos and others to help out "Irie Christmas." As you might suspect from the title, his take on a few Christmas classics gets mashed together with a reggae beat.

Father Goose - "Irie Christmas" [Spotify]

While we're on the Spotify edge of the world, how about something new from Colorado's Steve Weeks?  It's been a while, right?  Well, if you're looking for a tender ode to family togetherness or the meaning of the season, whatever your spiritual persuasion, you won't find it here.  Unless, of course, "Decorate the Cat" is how you celebrate the solstice.  Maybe it is.  I'm not judging.  In any case, this is a pretty amusing song.  (Again, unless, you're very much anti-cat-decorating.)

Steve Weeks - "Decorate the Cat" [Spotify]

Moving on, then, back to videos and something slightly more sincere.  The video below comes courtesy of Sara Lovell.

It's for "Wake Up It's Christmas Time," and it's one of those Christmas songs that celebrates the Christmas season mostly cultural and not spiritually, but makes an effort to celebrate the "spirit of the season," as it were in a most welcoming and non-exclusionary way.

The video itself is pretty simple -- Lovell strumming her (tenor?) ukulele in the woods -- but as a vehicle for the song itself, it works just fine.

Sara Lovell - "Wake Up It's Christmas Time" [YouTube]   

You'll notice that these features have been very much in the Christmas realm, albeit secularly and culturally.  Luckily, we have at least one entry this year full-on celebrating Hanukkah, which, unbeknownst to me, is now 25% more festival-ly.  Let the Macaroons explain in their animated video for "10 Days of Hanukkah."

The Macaroons - "10 Days of Hanukkah" [YouTube]

Finally (he says, not sure what else might come down the pike), there's the latest Caspar Babypants album, Winter Party!.

Winter Party album cover

Winter Party album cover

I'll be honest -- I totally forgot about this album.  I mean, I got it in, what? July? August?  It's, like, 110 degrees here then, and, well... I really have no excuse, but now we're here in December and we're smack-dab in prime holiday-listening music time.

Winter Party is every bit as delightful and whimsical as you'd expect a Caspar Babypants holiday album.  You can stream the entire album via YouTube below, but above that, how about his take -- nature focused as always -- on "The Twelve Days of Christmas?"

Caspar Babypants - "The Twelve Days of Christmas" [YouTube]

Anyway, the songs are a nice mix of traditional songs (including folk songs reworked so that they are holiday songs) and a few originals.  Having said that, the Christmas songs are reworked lyrically so that they're not specifically Christian in the spirit of inclusiveness, but that could throw people who are used to the original lyrics of, say, "Silent Night."

If that doesn't bother you, you'll find Winter Party to be lots of fun (and, frankly, even if you do, you'll be able to skip the couple tracks on which that happens).  I think it's definitely recommended.

Caspar Babypants - "Winter Party" [YouTube]

Video: "Banana Bread" - Caspar Babypants

Away We Go album cover

Away We Go album cover

You can view Caspar Babypants' song "Banana Bread" (from his new album Away We Go!) as an ode to that wonderful baked treat, or perhaps as a metaphor for life and value of being flexible.  Either way, I think you should watch the brand-new hand-animated video for the song.  Bananas wearing top hats for a song co-written by Chris Ballew and his dad (!).  If the Beatles were ever to have written a song about banana bread, this would have been it.

Caspar Babypants - "Banana Bread" [YouTube]

Video: "Jellyfish Jones" - Caspar Babypants

I know, I recently posted Caspar Babypants' video for "Mister Cloud" but I'm just a sucker for his stuff.

Especially when it's as cute and whimsical as his video for "Jellyfish Jones," another track off his brand new album Away We Go!.  This song features the title character who wishes for a skeleton so he can go on land and do a bunch of stuff.  As you might expect, the illustrations of possible activities -- my favorite is the ice skating jellyfish -- are delightful.  (They're courtesy of Mike Holm.)

Caspar Babypants - "Jellyfish Jones" [YouTube]

Intro to Kindie: Stefan Shepherd

It has been a long time since I've posted an "Intro to Kindie" list, such a long time that even if you're a regular reader, you'd probably need a reminder of its purpose.  (Here you go: Folks like me who are immersed in the genre provide a one-hour introduction to the genre for people who are unfamiliar with it.  It's the mixtape equivalent of an "elevator pitch.")

There are a lot of reasons for that, mostly having to do with PEOPLE BUSY ALL THE TIME.  And I'd always been planning on doing one of my own, but of course, PEOPLE BUSY ALL THE TIME.  Still, I felt like this post -- my post -- in particular just kept slipping further down off the list, and maybe that's because I thought that putting a list down "on paper" would make this list more permanent that it needs to be.

I would note that this isn't a list of the 20 best kids' songs of all time, or my 20 favorites, or my family's collective 20 favorites, or the 20 most important songs or artists.  Certainly some of these would appear on all such lists, but the purpose for me of this list is something more modest -- simply introduce an unfamiliar listener to kids' music to such music, perhaps with an emphasis on more modern music, but at least a good overview.

So as you look at (and listen to) this list of songs that I think make for a good introduction to kids music past, present, and future, keep in mind that what makes up the past, present, and future is always changing.  (It's changing as I write this.)  I'll still always think these songs are great and important, but my perspective, and kids music generally, will continue to evolve.

Without any further ado -- after all, this has been delayed long enough -- here is my intro to kindie, arranged roughly in alphabetical order:

Ella Jenkins - "Miss Mary Mack"

Pete Seeger - "Skip To My Lou"

Raffi - "Mr. Sun"

Laurie Berkner - "Moon Moon Moon"

Dan Zanes and Friends - "Pay Me My Money Down"

Elizabeth Mitchell - "Little Liza Jane"

They Might Be Giants - "Seven"

The Hipwaders - "Educated Kid"

Medeski, Martin & Wood - "Where's the Music?"

Lunch Money - "A Cookie As Big As My Head"

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo - "Gotta Be Me"

Recess Monkey - "Sack Lunch"

Caspar Babypants - "Stompy the Bear"

The Okee Dokee Brothers - "Can You Canoe?"

Justin Roberts - "Recess"

The Pop Ups - "All These Shapes"

Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band - "Piñata Attack"

Jazzy Ash - "Hide and Seek"

Mista Cookie Jar - "Gratitude"

Frances England - "See What We Can See"