"Use your words!" For parents on the edge, this phrase has replaced "Clean your room!" as the behavior-modification plea of the day. Words, after all, are much preferred to hitting, screaming, throwing Mr. Potato Head off the table, and similar improvisations.
But not every mood is best expressed by language alone -- and when words fail, music rushes in. Three recent children's CDs provide enough rhythm, rhyme and melody to suit a wide range of moods, from angst to enchantment. This is not treacly "I love you, you love me" territory -- in each case, this is real music for real little people and the adults that hover around them.
But it might not be for everyone. Parents who don't want to instill in their child the early stirrings of rock 'n' roll rebellion should decree Daddy-o Daddy! (Rounder Records) as household contraband. Buried in this (yet another) multi-artist tribute to the genius of Woody Guthrie is a new, potent genre: the children's protest song. "You can wear my Mommy's shoes/Wear my Daddy's hat/You can even laugh at me/But don't you push me down," sings Taj Mahal in the chorus of his guttural reggae-rap rendition of "Don't You Push Me Down." As Guthrie knew well, it's but a short step from a ditty like this to locking arms and chanting "Which Side are You On." It's also the perfect song to blast after suffering a bout of playground injustice.
No songwriter has ever dwelt inside the minds of little kids like Guthrie. Both the twangy "Want to See Me Grow" (a sweet performance by Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore) and Billy Bragg and the Blokes' rocking "Dry Bed" capture the self-satisfaction felt when one can finally run, hop, and go a night without nocturnal pee-pee. "River didn't run an' wet my bed! I am a big boy now," sings Bragg with run-around-and-tell-the-whole-neighborhood delight. Elsewhere, Guthrie bathes his lyrics in babytalk: "My butterfly fritter/So pretty, pretty, pretty I could eat your nose"; "Hay stacka hoe stacka Oklahoma." These are gurgles from the fount of pure language, a joyride up and down the Tower of Babel.
Such silliness is also the specialty of local musician Johnette Downing's latest self-produced children's CD, Silly Sing Along. To Downing, songs are tollbooths into the world of play, the most important destination for any kid. Silly Sing Along is solidly in the tradition of pioneering kid's musician Ella Jenkins, whose landmark Folkways album You'll Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. For Downing as for Jenkins, music is participation. And just as Jenkins has for a half-century occupied the playgrounds, schools and libraries of Chicago, Downing can usually be found somewhere in town leading gaggles of New Orleans kids in hand-claps, limbos, twists and wiggles.
On her new album, Downing combines traditional songs such as "Do Your Ears Hang Low" and "Five Little Monkeys" with originals like "Bubble Gum," a naming song in the spirit of "I'm Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor." And in her "Bumped My Toe," things get progressively sillier with each verse: "And I bumped my arm down on the farm/Oh I bumped my hip in the Mighty Mississippi." Best of all, the liner notes for Silly Sing Along don't merely transcribe lyrics -- they also spell out movements like "pantomime dialing a phone" and "make fingers into scissors" for each song.
Yet for kids, as for adults, there also comes that twilight time best suited for more passive pursuits. Today's kids are well-acquainted with movies -- some of which they've permanently locked in the "repeat" mode on the family TV. As Harry Connick Jr. displays brilliantly in Songs I Heard (Columbia), such childhood movie-mongering isn't all bad: it can mean exposure to timeless melodies and fine lyricism.
Connick has said that he considers his latest recording for adults, but by that he must just mean he doesn't consider it a knock-off kiddy project. Which is, of course, what makes this disc so good for kids. Following in the footsteps of fellow jazzmen Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima (and John Coltrane and Miles Davis et al), Connick takes on the Disney canon, here turning in renditions of Mary Poppins tunes. While Prima concocted an Italian "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," Connick makes the song a second line. Songs I Heard also features music from movies like The Wizard of Oz, Annie, The Sound of Music and, best of all, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In the latter, Connick works in some of his James Booker-schooled piano work into "Oompa Loompa." But otherwise he doesn't vary too much from the material as he originally heard it on the big screen.
And why should he? These are some of the catchiest melodies around, and children's CDs by greats like Tony Bennett sometimes suffer from too much swing for a sing-along. By keeping it simple on Songs I Heard, Connick joins the Guthrie and Downing crowd by propping open the musical door so kids -- and the rest of us -- can swagger, strut, storm and second line to the other side.