Music for Kids?
By Patrick F. Cannon
I have written previously about the importance of exposing students to the widest possible variety of musical styles and periods as part of an ongoing education in the arts. The necessity for this was driven home to me once again recently when I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about how parents should introduce their children to good music.
The author, who was clearly in his late 20s or early 30s, was generally dismissive of much of the music written especially for young children, particularly toddlers and pre-schoolers. His list of appropriate music for kids included a few familiar names, but many I had never heard of. But every one of them could be lumped under the heading “Rock and Roll.”
Now, my own children had several albums of music written for children, which they seemed to enjoy. One, which I remember fondly, was from the then-popular kid’s show, Captain Kangaroo. One of the Captain’s sidekicks, Mr, Green Jeans, sang a song which began “My Uncle Terwiliger waltzes with bears, what a terrible, terrible state of affairs.” What rock song could compare with that?
But they were also exposed to albums of classical, folk, and popular music from what has become known as the Great American Songbook (the work of Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Rodgers, Kern, etc.). We also had Beatles recordings, which is exactly as far back in musical history as the Tribune author was now willing to go with his children. I feel sorry for them for having a clueless father. Imagine dismissing all painting before Andy Warhol, or all architecture before Robert Venturi, or all movies before Lawrence of Arabia? Too bad for you, Van Gogh, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Citizen Cain.
Now, my children are now in their 40s. My daughter retains very eclectic musical tastes. My son, who was a classically-trained flutist, abandoned it for the guitar and rock and roll. That’s fine with me, since he didn’t make his choice out of ignorance.
I thought about all of this as I was watching Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. Felder, an accomplished pianist, has done several shows wherein he channels famous composers, including Beethoven, Gershwin and Chopin. Berlin, perhaps America’s greatest popular songwriter, wrote over 1,500 songs during his long career, a career that was mostly over by the time the Beatles appeared on the scene, But sorry kids, you’re never going to hear Blue Skies, What’ll I Do, Always, God Bless America, White Christmas, It’s a Lovely Day Today, or The Song is Ended (because it ended for you in 1962).
And Berlin was only one of our great American popular music composers. So, kiddies, your also never going to hear Embraceable You, Ol’ Man River, You’re the Top, Oklahoma, On the Street Where She Lives, The Way You Look Tonight, So In Love, Night and Day, My Funny Valentine, Maria, Just One of Those Things, Lady Be Good, Some Enchanted Evening, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, etc., etc., etc.
Felder (as Berlin) said he never wrote a song without a reason. They were written for revues, musicals, both stage and screen, or some special occasion, such as the birth of one of his children. Contrast this with the current practice of songwriter/performers who want to tell us all about their own love lives, both current and past. I can think of no reason why I should care about Taylor Swifts’ reasons for breaking up with another performer, who is likely to write his own song in rebuttal. Ms. Swift is now all of 25, and has been writing such songs since she was 14. Ah, the wisdom of the ages!
Good songs, of course, are still being written, many for the Broadway stage. In the past, the best ones would have been heard on the radio and would even climb to the top of the pop music charts. No more. Now we have separate lists for R&B/Hip Hop, Country, Hot Dance/Electronic, and (presumably for everything else) Pop. Artists rarely stray from their niche, although we occasionally find one crossing over from Country to Pop. Some of them are extraordinarily talented, but like so many actors, don’t feel they have to test themselves against the great music or drama of the past.
Regardless of the genre, the lyrics are too much about me instead of you. Once we had “you are the breathless touch of springtime.” Now, more often than not it’s “you are the S.O.B. who broke my heart.” The increasing vulgarization of lyrics is also noteworthy, but that’s a subject for another day.
Copyright 2015 by Patrick F. Cannon