Music Review: Sunny Side of the Street CD

“A soundtrack in need of a movie.” That was my first thought upon hearing Sunny Side of the Street, a new sing-a-long CD from John Lithgow. It’s different than any other children’s CD I’ve heard. It features songs from the 1920s through 1950s, a time period known as the Great American Songbook. Some of the lyrics have been adapted to give them an extra kid-friendly orientation.

Marketing photo of the cover of the Sunny Side of the Street CD
Lithgow has written six children’s books and Sunny Side is his third children’s music CD. I didn’t know that. I know him from TV and film, particularly as the alien Lord John Whorfin inhabiting the schizophrenic mind of Italian physicist Dr. Emilio Lizardo in the mid-’80s cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Just look at this face. What’s not to love?

I apologize for the tangent. I wouldn’t be a Banzai fan if I didn’t pay homage.

Let’s get back to this boffo CD. In all that I’ve read about this music project one point stands out. Lithgow has been quoted as saying, “The secret is that these songs were actually written to entertain adults. They came from the good old days of Tin Pan Alley, from vaudeville or from musicals of the twenties and thirties. They have a wonderful lightheartedness because people in those days didn’t mind being silly.”

That’s it. An intangible goofiness fills the songs. They are fun, sometimes inspirational, sometimes nonsense. My 2-year-old daughter can dance to them, and one day sing along because, unlike some of our other children’s CDs, the lyrics are compositionally more prominent than the background music. (I guess that’s why it’s called a sing-a-long CD, huh?)

This week, when I play music for my daughter, she has begun asking, “Papa, what’s this song about?” The themes on this CD are pretty easy to convey, such as “be happy,” or “be nice to animals.” I’m not sure how I’ll respond when she wants to know about track #8, Inka Dinka Doo, which is a song about how nice a song it is. My wife simply says, “It’s a song about a funny word.”

We really enjoy all of the tracks on the CD, but four stand out to me.

Getting to Know You —  (1951 by Rodgers and Hammerstein) This song debuted in the musical The King and I when the teacher Anna first met King Mongkut’s children. [Real Media audio sample]

On the Sunny Side of the Street — (1930 by Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh) Sunny Side draws its roots from the poverty of the Great Depression as a cheery, keep-your-chin-up pep song. Lithgow has adapted the introduction, singing the part of a first grader preparing for his first day of school. Madeleine Peyroux sings the part of his mother. Sunny Side is a jazz standard that has been sung or performed extensively by the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Count Basie.

Baby! (Dororthy Fields, Jimmy McHugh) The liner notes in the CD booklet state in the finest of print, “With love to all my kids and to my granddaughter Ava. ‘Baby’ is about her.” In this adapted song, a mother (Maude Maggart) sings a sweet love ballad to her baby (John Lithgow) philosophically pondering what the baby is thinking about. In truth, the baby is preoccupied with his wet bottom and bedtime.

I see two eyes staring back at me,
two blues keeping track of me.
Hey there, tell me, what do you see?

For a year now, you’ve been a part of things.
And it’s clear now, you’re at the heart of things.
My love for you is more than a new love could be.

Ba-by, you wonderful
ba-by, you beautiful
ba-by, what goes on in your head?
[…]

The Laughing Policeman — (1922, Mabel Penrose) This is my favorite tune. I know it as Der Fuehrer’s Face, a parody song from a 1943 Disney animated cartoon featuring Donald Duck in which Hitler is lampooned. In the course of researching this review I discovered Disney’s version was a Weird Al-style rewrite.

The original song is The Laughing Policeman from 21 years earlier. It’s about a jolly policeman who simply laughs a lot. The refrain consists entirely of John Lithgow’s hearty guffaws. [Listen to a sample at Amazon] When the laughing starts I turn to my two-year-old daughter and begin sustained (fake) laughing. She has no choice but to respond with genuine rolling laughter. Don’t you love kids?

I’m a Manatee — (John Lithgow, Bill Elliott) This song is inspired by Lithgow’s book by the same name, about a boy dreaming he is a lowly cow of the sea. I love it for the sheer absurdity of singing about a manatee, and for its inventive lyrics. Listen to the entire song on Lithgow’s web site in Real Media format.

From time to time I dream that I’m a manatee,
Undulating underneath the sea.
Unshackled by the chains of idly vanity,
A modest manatee, that’s me.

I look just like a chubby brown bananity,
As I nose along the cozy ocean floor
Immune from human folly and inanity,
That’s why a manatee is such a happy herbivore.

I’m a manatee! I’m a manatee!
I’m every bit as wrinkled as my grannity.
No difference between my face and fannity.
A noble manatee, that’s me!
[…]

My family and I are Sunny Side fannities. I dearly hope Lithgow explores this genre further. Check it out.

[This CD was submitted for review by the publisher.]

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