Cover Story: Noise for Tots

Children's music that won't make parents want to put a gun to their heads

C. Matthew Hamby

When my first child was born a couple of years ago, I was in charge of getting the supplies together for the hospital. Hot water bottle, stress ball, pillows ... and a CD wallet full of music. I wanted my child to come into the world to The Beatles.

My luck — she came out not to sounds of "Because" or something life-affirming and gorgeous, but to the crazed strains of "Honey Pie" from The White Album. Guess it beats "Helter Skelter."

Music is one of the most important things in my life, and I was eager to share my love with what was now the most important thing in my life. Early on I would constantly play The Beatles for my daughter, because I've long felt that everything you need to know about life can be found within the Fab Four's unparalleled discography.

My daughter took to The Beatles, but my selfish musical history lessons soon fell by the wayside. Learning as I go along, I realized force-feeding music I deem worthy wasn't going to work, just as it won't work when she's a teenager listening to whatever weird music kids will be listening to in 15 years. You just can't predict taste — her current favorite song is the Barnes & Barnes novelty classic, "Fish Heads."

So I gave in to the world of kids' music. But, music snob that I am, I couldn't just go with Barney Sings or VeggieTales' Songs of God and Carrots. I've made it my mission to find kid-friendly music for my daughter that doesn't make me want run out to buy super high-quality noise-reduction headphones.

When I interviewed Joan Whittaker, aka local children's music artist "Miss Joanie," earlier this year, she told me, "I think when it comes to music, kids are pretty much as sophisticated as adults. It's kind of an innate quality they have."

Indeed, my daughter has responded to things I thought she'd hate and ignored music I thought she'd love.

But below are several tolerable CDs that are a good place to start for new parents or parents-to-be. These are mostly for kids up to maybe 7 or 8; after that, they'll be on to the next Hilary Duff-type.

So enjoy this smart kids' music while you can. You'll be humming kids' songs throughout your day anyway; they might as well be good ones.

They Might Be Giants — Here Come the ABCs

I always had a vague appreciation for this veteran AltPop duo's weird and wacky songs, but once I had a kid, I came to worship them. Their music always had a kaleidoscopic, playful aura, so going into kids' music was a natural move. The twosome doesn't dumb anything down, as the songs on ABCs are mischievous, often surreal and remarkably clever, just like their "grown-up" work. TMBG are The Beatles of children's music; Here Come the ABCs is the Sgt. Pepper's of ABC albums. You might actually find yourself listening to this with no kids around.

Key Kuts: "Alphabet Lost and Found" and "The Vowel Family."

Also Recommended: TMBG's first kids' work, No!

Wee Hairy Beasties — Animal Crackers

Roots music seems to especially lend itself to being remolded into kid-friendly music. And you can't go wrong with animal songs. This collection from the AltAmericana indie label, Bloodshot Records, features lively, fun Folk originals by underground Roots heroes like Jon Langford and Sally Timms from The Mekons/Waco Brothers and Kelly Hogan. Langford's punky, spunky British accent adds a little bouncy swagger to the proceedings, and Hogan sings like an Appalachian Billie Holiday ... even when she's making the buzzing sounds of a bee or fly.

Key Kuts: "Cyril the Karaoke Squirrel" and the kazoo-laden "Ragtime Duck."

Also Recommended: Bloodshot's various artist collection, The Bottle Let Me Down (best name for a kids' album ever).

Farmer Jason — A Day at the Farm

It seems as though a lot of established musicians get into the kids' music market because they have children and decide, as there's not a ton of great music out there for them, why not just make some? So seems the case with Farmer Jason, the alter ego of Jason Ringenberg, an AltCountry pioneer with "Cow Punk" legends Jason and the Scorchers. With an "aw shucks, kids" demeanor, Ringenberg's children's albums are full of classic Country sounds and song topics that young 'uns can easily latch onto (guitar pickin' chickens, dancin' doggies, sloppy piggies). Ringenberg introduces each song and gives them great context, so the kids know what they're getting into. If ma or pop were Scorchers fans, this one's indispensable.

Key Kuts: "Get Up Up Up!" and "The Tractor Goes Chug Chug Chug"

Also Recommended: Farmer Jason's Rockin' in the Forest

Various Artists — See You on the Moon

Believe it or not, Indie Rock hipsters have kids, too. See You on the Moon is an album just for those future Pitchfork readers, with original contributions from Sufjan Stevens, Low's Alan Sparhawk and Hot Chip. This one's kind of hit or miss, full of mostly woozy, fragile sleepy-time ballads that are occasionally too impenetrable for anyone under 15 to get a handle on. It seems more of a "parents" album at times. Still, there are some enjoyable, artsy nuggets here, including an epic, narcotic reworking of "Puff the Magic Dragon" by Broken Social Scene.

Key Kuts: The jaunty title track by Great Lake Swimmers and "Fruit Belt" by Kid Koala and Lederhosen Lucil.

Also Recommended: The just-released The Colours Are Brighter, featuring new kids' songs from Belle and Sebastian, The Flaming Lips, Franz Ferdinand and Four Tet.

Joel Caithamer — Activate!

Local singer/songwriter Caithamer took his experience with kids — he's been a librarian for close to a decade — and his deft Rockabilly chops to concoct Activate!, a rollicking, stray-cat-struttin' collection of greasy kids' stuff that could pass as a legit vintage Rock & Roll/Rockabilly album if it weren't for the child-friendly storytelling. Caithamer is joined by some top-notch local players as he rolls through high-energy songs about babysitting nightmares (the Cat in the Hat-worthy "Bobby's Been Bad But Wanda's Been Worse"), Sunday morning breakfast ("Pancakes All Around") and Evel Knievel ("Daredevil of Butte"). If Sun Records had become known for pumping out children's music instead of Rock & Roll, this could have been its flagship release and Caithamer would be its Elvis.

Key Kuts: "Big Bad Wolf" and "Sock Monkey Man"

Also Recommended: Check out Caithamer's live library music series (

Dan Zanes and Friends — Family Dance

Next to TMBG, Dan Zanes is my favorite children's music performer. A Roots Rock pioneer with the Del Fuegos in the '80s, Zanes found a second career as a kids' troubadour in the '00s. Family Dance (from 2002) is Zanes' second album of smart covers and originals, and it features a fantastic backing band plus guests like Rosanne Cash and Loudon Wainwright III. Long before Springsteen showed Pete Seeger love on his last album, Zanes was reworking Seeger songs for the lunchbox set; the infectious "All Around the Kitchen" is included here. The album also features the best versions of "The Hokey Pokey" and "Skip to My Lou" — two tired, cliché songs given miraculous new life — ever put to tape.

Key Kuts: "Wonder Wheel" and "Rock Island Line"

Also Recommended: Zanes' concert/videos DVD, All Around the Kitchen!.

Miss Joanie — Miss Joanie's Potty Party

This one's not only fun, it's practical. There are innumerable potty-training books out there for parents, but Miss Joanie's lighthearted musical tutorial can't be beat when it comes time to leave the diapers behind. Joanie covers all of the toilet bases — wash your hands, don't put stuff in the toilet that doesn't belong and don't get frustrated if you don't make it to the porcelain throne on time. The music is amazingly performed as Joanie and her crack band mix a variety of Pop musical styles masterfully.

Key Kuts: "Underwear Dance" and "Monkey Soup."

Also Recommended: Don't miss Miss Joanie's many interactive concerts at local bookstores and libraries.

Various Artists — Smithsonian Folkways Children's Music Collection

This one's a true must-have for all parents. Like the rest of Smithsonian Folkways traditional music collections, this CD showcases the classics with a loving, far-reaching touch, featuring music from around the world with a heavy emphasis on American Folk artists like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and the queen of children's music, Ella Jenkins. Truly timeless.

Key Kuts: Leadbelly's "Ha-Ha This-a-Way" and "Merrily We Roll Along" by Lord Invader With The Calypso Orchestra.

Also Recommended: Woody Guthrie's Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child.

Zak Morgan — When Bullfrogs Croak

If They Might Be Giants are The Beatles of kids' music, local singer/songwriter Zak Morgan is its Bob Dylan, weaving funny, magical and poetic tales with sing-along choruses, magnetic sound effects and funny voices. Morgan is somewhat of a god of the local kids' music set; this collection, featuring guests like Victoria Williams and Over the Rhine's Karin Bergquist, even scored him a Grammy nomination, an extremely rare feat for an independently released album. Morgan has been compared favorably to Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss and he's won several national awards for his work across two beautifully-illustrated and gorgeously produced CDs. Cincinnati parents are lucky to have Morgan right here in their own backyard.

Key Kuts: "The Pox of Chicken" and "It's a Drag to Be a Dragon."

Also Recommended: Bloom, Morgan's 1999 debut CD. ©