How many different ways can one bias someone against a song? Would you be less apt to listen to a song in a language other than your own? A song with religious undertones? A song ostensibly for children? Here you go, world. It’s all three.
My esteemed colleague wrote a few weeks back about “The Fox,” and how it is essentially a children’s song. I take umbrage with this, personally, not because I think that Ylvis created a bona fide pop-humor gem (you can ask my friend April: not one lol was lolled when I first heard the song), but because a great children’s song does far more than teach that on Old McDonald’s farm, some ducks went a-quack-quack-here. There is indeed something to the fact that webgeek humor and children’s content is so damn similar (recall also the story of the couple whose 3 year old believes The Doctor, not Santa, delivers toys on Christmas… whose fantasy is that really?) but that is for some grumpier installment. Today, instead, I would like to make the argument that children’s music can actually be quite articulate and lovely, without needing to be off-the-wall goofy.
Let’s make no mistake, of course: we all love humor, and joking can be a great way to teach a child creative thought processes… forming their own terrible jokes (there are cassettes of me doing this very thing, and someday they will be burned) forces a child to figure out how jokes are created. When someone… oh, let’s randomly choose Raffi… sings a song like “Down By the Bay,” no one can fathom the context: he’s driven from home because his mother asks questions about a moose kissing a goose? For a child, though, these are images they will latch onto through rhyme (a similar song in my childhood states that “it’s corn, corn, corn, that makes you feel forlorn”… prescient given today’s dietary concerns?) but also through absurdity. It foists some bizarre image outside of all reality into their head, and sparks curiosity. Similarly, what child immediately knows what a Beluga is? By using a strange word in a cute song, there is a certain wonderment in imagining the song’s world.
Still, while humor can be great, tossing every goofy word you’ve ever thought of into a song isn’t enough. Consider, for example, children’s books as well: are there some you loved as a child that you’re embarrassed about now? Are there others you whole-heartedly love, possibly even more, now that you’re older? Even without the nostalgia factor, there’s something enchanting about a Maurice Sendak or William Steig picture book that won’t ever be matched by generations who for some reason were read Jay Leno’s “If Roast Beef Could Fly” as a child. Seriously, who are those parents? If it’s only obvious that forced-wacky from a celebrity isn’t quite high children’s lit, though, consider this: Dr. Seuss’ “On Beyond Zebra” is an imaginative take on refusing to limit oneself, and probably a perfect gift for a somewhat older child starting to explore his or her creativity. His ABC book, however, is almost entirely useless. This isn’t personal opinion, though it falls in line with mine… simply that both texts are best for a child who is far beyond learning his or her ABCs, but the latter is presented as a primer in them. Associating the letters with nonsense creatures simply doesn’t foster learning like the basic A-is-for-Apple standard.
So where does music come in? We could approach this from any direction (and I wager this won’t be the last time I try). We could look at Sesame Street’s stellar parodies, which have always straddled the line between completely identifiable and unimpeachably different, or the way many kids shows and kids recordings take classic folk songs and standards, easing children into a more “appropriate” era of “popular” song before letting them loose into “adult” music. I think “De Colores” is an excellent example, however, because it delves into many paths, all of which help craft a great song. It is a Spanish folk song, which mines the same territory as any English standard, from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to “Swinging on a Star.” You take a simple concept, with a strong sense of melody, and there you have it, instant kid’s sing-along. As that goes, “De Colores” is truly beautiful. It’s uplifting without needing to grasp a word of it, and it provides a mood of perhaps finding yourself in Spain, grabbing tapas at a local bar in Barcelona, surrounded by music and laughter. Something feels authentic to our imagination of the country, just as the songs of Stephen Foster sound authentic to our imagination of his time.
So yes, “De Colores” is musically sound in any context. We are not devoid of the educational aspect here, however. Let’s be honest, if you’re of a certain age, and English was your first language, you probably started learning Spanish through the likes of Sesame Street. To this day, the majority of the Spanish I know is from those same Muppets. A song like “De Colores” not only subtly introduces another language (Raffi is not shy with French either), but the inflections of the song’s instrumentation introduce culture. Raffi makes a smart choice here, choosing a song that is fairly obviously about “colors,” but the lyrics do not discuss the colors themselves, but simply the beauty of the multi-colored world. Children may latch on, knowing something about colors, but that’s not the message. What is the message? Well, the original is a lengthy reflection on how God creates the beauty of the world, but Raffi edits this heavily as well, another wise choice. The focus remains on the world’s beauty.
Now, Raffi is admittedly not a man known for his high musical prowess, but it’s worth noting that the presentation is fully organic, as a live band would present, and also fully professional. He dials the humor back here, trying to do the song justice. I think this might be what makes the full package truly perfect: it boils down to a man playing a simple, lovely song, one he truly respects, for an audience. It’s an audience he understands, but also one which, despite his many comical songs, he’s never willing to condescend to. He’ll play the Spanish song, he’ll record a whole album about environmentalism, he’ll do whatever, because he trusts that some of them might get it, but also feels it’s important to expose them. He doesn’t lapse too deeply into vocal quirk to keep the kiddies rapt here… he lets the music do the talking. It’s what makes children’s musicians like him endure, and what makes other child-novelty fade away. Maybe we’ve never thought of this before, but it’s worth considering: more than likely, just as your favorite children’s books were written with respect for the parents who had to read them, your favorite children’s music did the same.
“De Colores,” then, is a song I will and do listen to even now, without irony. It’s my definitive version of an old, classic song, and it opens up to me in ways I doubt it would have in childhood. Among those ways, however, is something I never would have grasped back then. While the first verse does not directly discuss color, the second verse does revert to classic children’s song territory. Translated simply, the song states: “The rooster sings: ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo.’ The hen says ‘cluck cluck cluck.’ The chicks go ‘peep peep peep.’” Perhaps it’s unavoidable that, even in trying to enjoy art for its own sake, humans just like them some animal sounds.
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