There was a time -- around the late '70s and early '80s -- when music for kids kind of rocked. Albums like Marlo Thomas' Free to Be You and Me espoused hippie ideals of racial tolerance, gender equality and good body image feel-good '70s folk-rock. Groundbreaking TV shows like Schoolhouse Rock, Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and, my personal favorite, The Electric Company all featured original music-with-a-message that used the actual tunes of popular songs (like the infamous "Letter B" spelling song that got the Children's Television Workshop a vicious cease-and-desist letter from the Beatles' Apple legal department) or kid-friendly styles.
The enduring popularity of those shows and their songs should have proved to the market that the playground set could appreciate a funky beat and a wry lyrical turn, but for some unknown reason, the '90s were taken over by mealymouthed, overly simplistic purveyors of kiddie tunes like the insipidly bearded Raffi, or the much-derided Barney the purple dinosaur. My sources with children tell me that this generation of hipster parents is fighting this, at least regionally. In San Francisco, there's a sort of late-Beatles pop-rock act for kids called the Sippy Cups, and in Los Angeles, there's a metal band for kids called Black Rattle. But really, who ever said there needed to be music made just for kids? Your average 5-year-old is unlikely to relax with the headphones while getting into a 20-minute experimental jazz cut, but she's perfectly able to rock out to something with a fun, simple melody, a good dance beat and silly lyrics like the Coasters' "Poison Ivy."
With that in mind, the world-music label Putumayo has released, under the Putumayo Kids label, a series of "Playground" albums -- collections of songs mostly recorded with grownups in mind, sorted into various genres, that are likely to set small feet to tapping. One of the best is the New Orleans Playground -- after all, the sound of Dixieland, a brass band, or horn-heavy New Orleans R&B is feel-good music that appeals on the most basic level. It kicks off with Clifton Chenier doing the jump blues "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie." Other highlights include no-brainer kid-friendly tunes, like the Meters doing "They All Ask'd For You," Clarence "Frogman" Henry's classic "Ain't Got No Home," and an impeccably cool recording of Dr. John doing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Adults love these songs because they rock, but kids will dig the song whose rhythm sounds like a choo-choo train, the singer who mimics a girl, a boy, and a frog, or the song about animals in the zoo. And the cheery, shake-it rhythms of songs like Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" or Chris Kenner's version of "I Like It Like That" are dance-floor-fillers for any age. Plus, anyone under 10 (or maybe under 8, if they live in New Orleans) won't be sick of "When The Saints Go Marching In" yet. An added bonus to the series is that each album comes with an attached booklet that describes not only the genre of music on the album written in language meant to be read aloud to the kids, but also a paragraph on each artist and their chosen song. For example, "Kermit Ruffins (no relation to Kermit the Frog) is a trumpet player from New Orleans who started playing in brass bands when he was just a little kid." The paragraph about Lee Dorsey's song includes a tip that singing a song is a good thing to do when waiting for somebody who is late, plus a note that it was a huge R&B hit in 1961 -- behavioral advice and useful trivia for cocktail parties later in life. The rest of the set, African Playground, Reggae Playground, and Latin Playground, are equally well curated. Latin Playground also has a spicy version of "Mardi Gras Mambo" performed by Cubanismo.
In a much more boutique effort, the alt-country label Bloodshot has just released a new project from the incredibly prolific Jon Langord (Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Waco Brothers and the legendary English country-punk outfit the Mekons). He teamed up with former Mekon Sally Timms, plus labelmates singer/songwriter Kelly Hogan and the ramshackle, acoustic ragtime/hillbilly band Devil In A Woodpile to put together an alter ego band for kids, the Wee Hairy Beasties. Their first release, Animal Crackers, is an 11-song masterwork that showcases the group's utter dominion over all styles of roots music from sultry hot jazz to bass-slapping rockabilly. The original songs are written for kids, but the music is hot, clever and professional. "Housefly Blues" is a foxy, jazzy lounge number in the Billie Holiday style. Devil in the Woodpile's washboard and banjo country swing sound on the rollicking "Buzz Buzz Buzz," could easily be a track off of an album for grownups. But the best of all is the reworking of Muddy Waters' voodoo blues soliloquy "I'm A Man," note for note, as "I'm an A.N.T.," boastfully singing the proud tale of a happy bug.