The gift of music

While we are busily preparing for the birth of our daughter, I’ve been steadily creating playlists for her first musical experience. This has not been easy. Assembling the crib, setting up the nursery, even choosing her name has been relatively straightforward. But the first music our baby will hear has required much deliberation. The Mozart effect aside, I believe the music we first hear sets the tone for the rest of our lives.

Michelle learns to rock
Michelle learns to rock

Some the earliest music I remember was the Beatles, playing from a red and white Fisher Price turntable that looked like a small piece of luggage. My grandmother had chosen this and the albums (Rubber Soul, Revolver) which I listened to over and over. My mom also liked to play a children’s introduction to classics, which had selections from Peter and the Wolf and the Nutcracker, among others. I remember being only about a year old when I heard this music, but in some way it influenced my eclectic tastes in music to this day.

So why not just go out and buy a stack of CD’s for children and let them play? The short answer: they all suck. If you’ve ever listened to the instant-migrane producing sounds of Raffi, Debbie & Friends or Barney, you know what I mean. I’ve been in the car with my little cousins when this music was playing and it nearly drove me to acts of vehicular homicide. In fact, I read that interrogators at Abu Ghraib actually used loops of Barney’ s “I love you/you love me” song as “futility music”, in military speak, designed to convince a prisoner of the futility of maintaining any resistance to questioning. Personally, I would break before the song was over.

So why would we subject our children to the same music used to flush out snipers? When I listen to the “cool” kids music being touted today, I instantly get that they are just copying the styles of established musicians, while substituting inane lyrics. Some examples: Steve Songs and his fun-loving, goofy sound, is profoundly lame compared to innovative bands like Noah and the Whale. Justin Roberts, who alternates between imitating Paul Simon and Nick Drake begs the obvious question: why not let your kids listen to Paul Simon and Nick Drake? Ben Rudnick, does some bluegrass and dixieland numbers that while only vaguely irritating, make me think he should have just stuck with playing Bar Mitzvas.

Why did the we ever get the idea that “children’s music” is good for children? When I was a little kid, in addition to rocking out to The Who, Jefferson Airplane and the Supremes, I was privileged to listen to Free to Be You & Me, which is still a classic, because it featured some of the best musicians (Roberta Flack, Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson, Rita Coolidge, Diana Ross) singing beautifully crafted songs that helped kids deal with the real issues growing up. I’m going to share it with my little girl because I haven’t seen anything better than this album for kids, which came out in 1972.

Don’t get me wrong, I like some recent stuff, just not for kids. There’s plenty of wonderful music that any kids would love, so I’ve done my best to include a popular song list that will grow with her. For a start, I’ve chosen a lot of lyrically sentimental pieces with melodies that are simple, but not overly simplistic. I like many covers better than the wildly popular originals, and I tried to include several genres. Here’s some of the first 50 (in the order they occurred to me):

1. Aaron Copeland, Appalachian Spring – one of the greatest 20th century composers created this compact masterpiece, that feels like being born in, well, the Appalacian Spring

2. The Beatles, ‘Till There Was You – the playful simplicy of this broadway song, oringally from the Music Man, was one of the Beatles first recordings. At just over 2 min, it’s hard not to keep singing it after it’s through.

3. Nat King Cole, Let There Be Love – Nat King Cole appears a few times in my list, because the richness of his voice is unmatched. From When I Fall in Love, one of the most romatic albums ever produced. You can hear him smile when he sings.

4. Stevie Wonder, Isn’t She Lovely – while this may seem too obvious because the title and its radio popularity,  the joy in Stevie Wonder’s voice, the jazzy chord progressions and tempo, make this a perfect song to celebrate your little gir’s birth.

5. Eva Cassidy, What a Wonderful World – originally made popular by Louis Armstrong, Eva Cassidy’s voice is infinitely more listenable, and her phrasing draws you in. That she knew she would die in obscurity, is all throughout her music, and she sounds grateful for every moment.

6. Cat Stevens, If you Want to Sing Out – This is a must listen kids song, with its simple rhymes and message of unlimited possibility. 

7. Michael Buble, Daddy’s LIttle Girl – I like the Mills Brothers 1950 original, but Bouble’s version is more intimate. I’m totally gay for Michael Bouble (which rhymes)! He reminds me of Sinatra in his Nelson Riddle days. A once-in-a generation talent.

8. Sarah McLaughlin, Blackbird – this scratchy Beatles White Album original is softened by McLaughlin’s warm tones and own-voice-in-unison production. It’s too bad she doesn’t sing better music because her sound is creamy delicious. A beautiful song.

9. Sam Cooke, A Change is Gonna Come – one of my favorite songs of all time, haunting and uplifting, with soaring strings and majestic horns. Often covered, never even close to equalled. 

10.  Shawn Colvin, I Never Saw Blue Like that – I first heard Shawn Colvin about 20 years ago late one night on Austin City Limits and have been hooked ever since. The emotional honesty and conviction of her songs is unique. This song gives me chills. 

11. Etta James, At Last – Though she had a number of big songs in the early 60’s, this song defines her raw soulful sound like no other. To me it marks the beginning of a lifelong love affair. 

12. John Coltrane, Central Park West – I wanted to put in a 60’s jazz instrumental here, so this was my first choice. It feels like Manhattan in the Fall. A little melancholy, but brisk and spirited.

13. Norah Jones, Those Sweet Words – before she was ubiquitous on the Starbucks CD rack and overplayed by easy listening stations, I fell in love with her voice. This song exquisitely features her achey, sultry tones and signature country piano chords. Like a cup of bittersweet hot chocolate. 

14. Dire Straits, Why Worry – It was this or Romeo and Juliet. This track has more of a lullabye quality that sounds perfectly written to soothe a child. 

15. Jo Stafford, All the Things You Are – OK, not an obvious follow-on to Dire Straits. This versatile songstress partnered with Johnny Mercer to perform some of the greatest hits of the 40’s. The  lovesick lyrics and dramatic orchestral accompanyment are from a wonderful bygone era. Everyone should hear this music once in their life. 

16. Allison Krauss, When You Say Nothing at All – I first dismissed this as another inauthentic, overproduced boy band song, but when I heard Allison Krauss sing it, I began to reconsider. She’s got this angelic, emotive Bluegrass style that lends itself beautifully to this cover. Same goes for Now That I’ve Found You, which is also on the list.

There’s plenty more here; Sarah Vaughan, Roy Orbison, Peggy Lee, Ben Harper, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, James Taylor, Otis Redding, Brian Eno…

If you care to have the top 50, I’m happy to share the whole list. I’ve also got separate playlists for Jazz, Lullabye, Classical and Easy LIstening.  I also take requests 🙂

There’s so much wonderful music to choose from out there, I feel compelled to share it all with my daughter, instead of filling her head with dumbed-down noise.

Please send your suggestions

2 thoughts on “The gift of music”

  1. So spot on. And jarred some wonderful memories – the suitcase player, Peter & the Wolf, even the jacket art of that record (which disappeared one day and I searched frantically for a long time; perhaps was the late ’60s repetitive musical torture for my parents?!).

    Mills Bros., yes, Harry Bellafonte, Roger Miller, loads of classical, opera, so much more; certainly my older brother’s ’70s rock…..but, was there insipid “children’s music” then as is marketed now? I don’t remember, other than classic nursery rhymes. And the theme song to Villa Alegre.

    If it existed, I feel fortunate to have been unaware. And it is surprising to me that so many parents continue to succumb to it.

    Very sweet list, Chris. “Appalachian Spring” especially (I am biased) fills the child in all of us. Your daughter is blessed to have parents with foresight and thought around all of this, and will remember.

    Thanks for stirring up my inner 2-year old.

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