Tuesday, April 29th, 2008
Music Review: 25 Years of Red Grammer
I noticed a children’s concert at a local theatre being held next month. Red Grammer! No, wait, who?
The great fun of exploring children’s music as a new parent is finding a gem and instantly having a world of past works revealed to you. This is a review of music from one artist that spans 25 years.
Red Grammer’s musical career hit the big time when the 1960s folk trio The Limeliters reunited. Grammer was about 7-years-old when the band first formed, but he sang with them for 10 years in the 1980s as its soaring tenor with two of the group’s original members.
During his time in the limelight, Red and his wife Kathy began writing songs for their two young children. If my math is correct, the duo produced three children’s albums by the time Grammer left The Limeliters in 1991 to embark on his solo career.
Most of Grammer’s children’s music is comprised of an acoustic guitar and his voice. Some songs are a cappella, relying purely on his voice, personality and ingenuity to carry a song. Sometimes a harmonica, banjo, piano, saxophone, trombone or other stray instrument sneaks in.
You could summarize Grammer with the cliche of “peace, love and understanding.” Themes include self worth, appreciation of world cultures, acceptance, cooperation, thirst for knowledge, and yes, world peace.
All of that is intermingled with tunes about tickling, monsters and going to the beach.
In concert, Grammer engages his audience to sing with him, perform call-and-response, sing words or sounds at points in a song, or even learn and perform sign language to sign a song’s chorus.
What follows are my takes on some specials songs from five of his albums.
CD #1: Down the Do-Re-Me — This is a mix of original and traditional songs that showcase Grammer’s vocal skill, and are a lot of fun to boot.
Down by the Sea — Act out your family taking a trip to the beach. Jumping in the water brings swooshing sounds as you pretend to jump into the ocean, and shake your waist as your toes wiggle in the sand, and so on. This song is carried entirely by Grammer’s voice and enthusiasm.
The ABC’s of You — Behold a masterpiece alphabet song. It takes a while to memorize, but wow, it’s great. For each letter, several words starting with that letter are enthusiastically repeated… all of which describe how you feel about the person you’re singing to.
“I think you’re…
A-1, Grade A, beloved and beautiful
Capable, caring, delightful, dependable,
Enjoyable, excellent, fascinating, fabulous,
A gift, a gem, genuinely generous…”
CD #2: Hello World — A lot can happen when humanity works together as one. That’s the official message. These songs are about peace, love and enjoying your place in the world.
Hello World — This has to be Grammer’s signature song. It’s a simple story about the joys of life, from a child’s perspective.
Buono Appetito — Great googly moogly! It’s a song comprised entirely of food names and a chorus filled with meal-related greetings from around the world.
We’re Rich! — Rejoice in the wealth provided to us by world cultures found in things such as games, dance, music, science and technology. He begins with things kids relate to (hop scotch, jump rope) and moves onto things that may spark some later discussion (cosmonauts, outrigger canoes).
“Folks have been on this planet for generations
In every land and every nation,
Giving their best from dawn to dusk,
Leaving all they’ve learned to us.
Add it together, what have you got?
1, 2, 3, we’ve got a whole lot… we’re rich!”
The ending message is “to add a gift to what we find.”
CD #3: Teaching Peace — Here’s Grammer’s own description: “When Kathy and I were writing these songs we realized that ‘peace’ has to be something alive and vibrant or no one will ever show up for it. Our goal was to bring joy and energy to the skills we all have to learn to be good world citizens.”
Places in the World — This is another masterpiece. Grammer recites the names of 64 world cities and manages to do it to a snappy beat. (Disneyland counts as a city, right? Okay, good.)
“These are places in the world
Some you know, some you don’t
Some you’ll visit, and some you won’t
Some are near and some are far
Some sound exotic, like Zanzibar
‘Cause these are places in the world.”
I Think You’re Wonderful — Every CD needs a sappy sentimental song. Slam dunk.
“‘I think you’re wonderful,’
when somebody says that to me,
I feel wonderful, as wonderful as can be.
It makes me want to say
the same thing to somebody new.
And by the way, I’ve been meaning to say,
I think you’re wonderful, too.”
Barnyard Boogie — This boogie is by a singing rooster. It’s great karaoke material because you can belt it out any way you want, sort of like singing “Happy Birthday,” and it still sounds good. You do have to be able to crow like a rooster though. Fun.
Hooray for the World — A super simple song great for the youngest ones. Grammer recounts the many different things we can be thankful for, like jelly fish, bears, slimy old slugs and raisins in a box.
“Hooray for the world! I’m glad to be on it.
Hooray for the world! I’m glad to be on it.
Hooray for the world! It’s a special place.
We’ve got Mother Nature and the human race.”
CD #4 Red Grammer’s Favorite Sing-Along Songs — This collection is a series of cover songs of old favorites and some fun obscure ones too. Most fall loosely around the idea of Americana — cultural songs from US history, and three specifically on patriotic themes. My daughter enjoys There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea, and Gary, Indiana. But for once, I’m going to talk about the more sophisticated songs that I like…
Big Rock Candy Mountain — My hands-down favorite. The original Big Rock was a hobo song about paradise, most recently featured in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Tom Chapin and John Foster went and turned it into a children’s vision of paradise.
“In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There’s a land that’s fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes,
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty,
And the sun shines every day,
On the birds and the bees,
And the cigarette trees,
The lemonade springs,
Where the bluebird sings,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
“Oh, the Big Rock Candy Mountain
Is a perfect place for kids.
Your allowance grows on bushes,
And the cookie jars don’t have lids.
You can have your choice of any pet,
In the Big Rock Candy Zoo.
There’s a root beer lake you can dive into.
You can paddle all around it in a big canoe,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
Mingulay Boat Song — This exception to the Americana theme is a Scottish fishermen song penned in the 1930s describing an earlier era recounting fishermen returning from the Atlantic to the Isle of Mingulay. It’s a sentimental song expressing love for one’s home after being away for so long.
Erie Canal — Otherwise known as Low Bridge, this one was written in 1905 as an ode to the good old take-your-time pre-1880 days when goods were shipped by mule barge on the Erie Canal at a top speed of 15 m.p.h. It reminds me of classic children’s books Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, and Paddle to the Sea.
It’s Another Beautiful Morning — Another simple song, about smiling and walking down the street being happy.
CD #5: Can You Sound Just Like Me? This is Grammer’s first children’s album, composed for his two children and recorded in 1983.
Can You Sound Just Like Me? — Grammer still performs this song in concert. He conjures up a host of nonsense words and animal sounds, challenging you to sound just like him.
My House — This is pure toddlerhood, talking about the things that exist in your home. If your toddler has just learned to talk on the phone, you know this is the bread and butter of such conversations. My daughter was captivated telling relatives, “I have a bed. I also have a chair. I eat at our dinner table.” It’s a blissful self-centered life.
DVD: Hooray for the World — Longtime readers know I’ve carefully avoided exposing my almost 4-year-old daughter to dumbifying baby videos, TV and video games. Her first exposure would be deliberate, and I’m pleased to say her first “TV show,” as she called it, was seeing Red Grammer’s concert DVD.
First, it’s presented well. Even though the concert was filmed with five cameras, it’s a very mellow presentation that allows children to focus on Grammer’s lyrics, his audience instructions and audience participation. That is to say, it lacks the attention deficit-inducing qualities popular today of cutting to different scenes every second or two. You can study the screen and the pace moves along naturally.
Second, it seems to provide a great feel for what his concerts are like. That was my chief goal, to acclimate my daughter to her first sit-down music concert. Will she have the attention span? Will she pick up and have fun repeating the song mannerisms? Will she recognize any of the songs? We’ll find out next week.
Third, the song selections are great. Because Grammer relies on his voice to carry a song, the concert is as lucid as his CD recordings. We’ll likely watch the DVD a couple more times this week in preparation for the concert.
Check out Grammer singing Barnyard Boogie…