Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
“People who don’t have kids don’t realize the insidious artistic scourge that is ‘children’s music.’ How can we heal as a society when everyone’s earliest artistic experience is completely devoid of humanity or beauty? Half joking but kinda not,” lamented Canadian musician Grimes on Twitter back in May. A quick scan of any digital platform for music for children will leave any parent or caretaker flummoxed. Take, for example, one of the all-time best-selling groups for kids, Kidz Bop, whose family-friendly versions of pop songs are Auto-Tuned into oblivion, with overblown, ear-shattering mixes that would make Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction” sound tame. Not to mention Cocomelon and his distant cousin Bebefinn, whose strident, rehashed nursery rhymes and repetitive words seem to go nowhere. While this harmless, bright music delights children, constant exposure from morning to bedtime can leave grown-ups like Grimes, a mother of two herself, wishing for something more substantial.
Mr. Greg & Cass McCombs Sing and Play New Folk Songs for Children is exactly that. The record is a collaboration between San Francisco-based preschool teacher Greg Gardner and his longtime friend, musician Cass McCombs. Billed by Smithsonian Folkways as “music that could resonate with a child just as immediately and organically as it would a discerning folk or indie rock fan,” the 20 tracks on the album are made for children with the enjoyment of both children and adults in mind.
Opener “Little Wilma Wiggly Worm” (a charming ditty about a worm named Wilma) is a rock song complete with a brisk guitar solo and psychedelic organ accents. The song’s playful simplicity sets the record’s overall tone, a blend of American roots music with well-crafted lyrics that are closer in style to Woodie Guthrie’s radical anthem “This Land Is Your Land” than to the rave-adjacent echolalia of The Kiboomers. By drawing from country, folk, and protest songs—think Elizabeth Cotten’s Shake Sugaree and Pete Seeger’s If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle—Gardner and McCombs build a repertoire with a clear interest in promoting empathy and social change. Examples of this can be found in songs like “Friends From All Around The World,” and “Each One Of Us,” which employ warm guitars and delicate vocal harmonies to teach children to celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity.
There is a sense of wonder, joy, and musical discovery in Gardner’s and McCombs’ compositions. Playing with words and repetition while ingeniously describing the attributes of owls and the human body respectively, tracks like “I’m a Nocturnal Animal” and “My Skull Is Made Out Of Bone,” make the case that highlighting children’s voices and interests, rather than dumbing things down, creates a more compelling, pleasant listen for everyone.
In collaboration with McCombs and through his work as an educator, Gardner brings out the best elements for which the Bay Area (where he lives and teaches) is historically and culturally cherished: idealism, musical innovation, and equality. “Wave A Flag For Harvey Milk,” sung along with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir, takes a stand for activism and LGBTQ+ rights; “Roll Around Downtown” covers the city’s rich skateboarding history; and “Oona Louise, My Friend,” with its mellow keyboard and pensive vocals, could appear on any of the many notable rock ‘n’ roll records produced by local bands. With its message of hope, quasi-psychedelic arrangements, and all-embracing words about creativity and love, Mr. Greg & Cass McCombs Sing and Play New Folk Songs for Children tactfully exemplifies the progressive values and creative of history of the Bay Area in a language enjoyable by children and adults alike.