By Halina Newberry Grant
Music is a constant in our house. The Mr. and I met while both temping for a major record label, and our tastes range from avant guard jazz to the Grateful Dead. I’m a big ol’ softie for the kid’s stuff though. My daughter’s bedtime ritual includes five books and five songs that I’ve sung to her from her beginning. There’s a musical theatre standard, a country standard, a couple of old-school Disney classics and a singer-songwriter favorite about the moon that is her number one request.
Like most people, we have our playlists that we love that include all the hits—Baby Beluga, Wheels on the Bus and Five Little Monkeys. We pepper our days with Jazz and classical, and her latest favorite thing to listen to, and I’m not making this up to sound enlightened or obnoxious—a one hour loop of monks chanting Om. It was a one-off, post-yoga thing. She was hooked. I think it’s hilarious.
But there are three albums that have reached platinum status in our house and car. They are old, they are brilliant and they belong in your ears.
Peter, Paul and Mommy—Peter Paul and Mary
This album is my childhood. I wasn’t yet born when it was recorded in 1969, but it was in the record cabinet. Yes, I said records. That’s what people listened to when I was little. Not just audiophiles looking for pure sound; people. All people. Because that’s how music was recorded and manufactured.
Product configuration aside, this album has the definitive arrangements, harmonies, and performances of folk classics like Puff the Magic Dragon, It’s Raining, and Going to the Zoo. When I was a kid, I was transfixed by this live recording. There were kids and their parents singing along with these songs like everyone knew each other and had been singing together their whole lives. How did these kids get so lucky that they got to be on this record? And who were the kids on the cover?
Beyond having family-friendly sing-along songs, this album is a time capsule of folk music during its heyday. 1969 was the summer of love, the year of Woodstock and this genre of music was being celebrated everywhere from New York City west village cafes to parks, sit-ins and living-room or camp-fire hootenannies.
My favorite track is I Have a Song to Sing-O. This is actually a Gilbert and Sullivan duet from The Yeoman of the Guard (written in 1888.) But the nuances and intricacies of the Peter, Paul and Mary arrangement with three part harmonies truly brings this song to life, with the intimacy and liveliness of a King’s court performance, and the plucky guitar transforms the melancholy chord structure to a lively dance. It’s just romantic.
For a real treat, look up some videos online of their live performances of these songs from the ‘60’s.
Really Rosie—Carole King and Maurice Sendak
So what happens when you take books by Maurice Sendak and you put them to music written and performed by Carole King? Magic. Magic is what happens.
You know Maurice from Where the Wild Things Are and you know Carole from Tapestry and legendary music in general. When the two get together it’s chocolate, peanut butter, marshmallows, salted caramel and you know those little buttercrunch things? All that.
The rolling march drum beat at the beginning of this album is all that is needed to quiet my toddler in the car, and it’s been that way for most of her young life.
Released as an album in 1975, it was also a short animated film which played on TV that same year. There’s a narrative that is a little hard to follow by just listening to the songs, but it doesn’t really matter. Each song tells its own story, and has terrific band back-up and harmonies and back-up harmonies sung by Carole’s own kids.
The titular character, Rosie, is sassy, opinionated, a little arrogant, and bossy. She is awesome. The title song sets her up as the big kid I always wanted to be:
I’m Really Rosie, I’m Rosie Real/
You’d better believe me, I’m a great big deal/
Believe me! Believe me!/
I’m a star from afar off the Golden Coast/
Beat that drum, make that toast/
To Rosie the most!
Then there’s the line about how she can tap across the Tappan Zee. What is a Tappan Zee!? How can I get there? I better start tapping! This album was one of the first reasons I knew I had to move to New York City when I grew up. The East coast accents, the song about Avenue P (a real place in Brooklyn!) the Nutshell Kids (who were they, and could I join their gang?) and the illustrations that seemed to move on the page all created a world in my mind where kids were in charge and their lives were a musical.
I bought a couple of the companion books for my daughter, and Alligators Everywhere is our alphabet song. For many months, the letter “N” was my daughter’s favorite: Never Napping.
As a music nerd, I really delight in hearing Carole sing so freely. Her familiar warmth is there, but on songs like The Ballad of Chicken Soup, she lets go wails and screams as she enacts the dramatic demise of our dear friend, Chicken Soup. She’s playful, open and unrefined.
Free to Be…You and Me – Marlo Thomas and Friends
Individuality! Equality! Gender neutrality!
If you’re a child of the 70’s, you might have vague recollections of these concepts. Back then, people had crazy ideals, and they gathered their children around and sang about them.
Marlo Thomas became famous as TV’s That Girl from 1966-1971, the first sitcom with a single, independent woman as the central character. After the series ended, she wrote the book Free to Be…You and Me and recorded the original songs, sketches, spoken word and poetry with a who’s-who cast—Alan Alda, Rosey Grier, Cicely Tyson, Carol Channing, Mel Brooks, Harry Belafonte, Dick Cavett, Shirley Jones, Jack Cassidy and Diana Ross. And it is so much fun.
Sure, it’s dated—with big Up-with-People chorus numbers and ‘70’s-style wide vocal vibrato, and a song about ladies wearing gloves. But all of that becomes charming as you absorb the timeless themes.
Parents are People teaches kids that moms and dads have all kinds of jobs—moms can be ranchers, doctors, cleaners and drive taxis. Daddies can be writers, painters, joke tellers, or play cello. They can be almost anything they want to be; our genders don’t dictate our qualifications.
Another favorite is It’s Alright to Cry sung by Rosey Greer, who played football for the New York Giants and the LA Rams. He also was famously a bodyguard to Bobby Kennedy, and wrestled the gunman to the ground after his assassination. What I’m saying is that he was an anomaly in the 1970’s; a manly specimen of manliness, and here he is singing “It’s alright to feel things/though the feelings may be strange/feelings are such strange things/and they change and change and change.”
I’ve looked, but I can’t find any contemporary albums that hit me in the solar-plexus of feelings, nostalgia and ideals that these old school albums do. I don’t want my kid to have to look for community, acceptance, harmony, and individualism; I want them to just be a part of her daily life. So in revisiting these old albums and ideas, they become new again, and I have a little hope that we’re recycling some good in the world.