[Dixielandjazz] Playing for Kids, Writing Songs For Kids

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Jan 30 07:56:28 PST 2005

Below is one reason Rock Music survives with young children audiences who
then go on to make up the adult audience. And the reason why all OKOM bands
should be playing/writing songs for young kids. It is a lesson in how to
develop the audience and easily transferable to Our Kind of Music.

It is easy to do, fun, pays well, is "Jazz" and you'll get an incredible
reaction from  kids and parents. All it takes is band leader commitment.

Steve Barbone

January 30, 2005 - NY Times - By DAVID EDELSTEIN 'RALPH'S WORLD'
Nursery School of Rock

Ralph Covert At Joe's Pub on Feb. 6. Additional shows at www.ralphsworld.com

There's a boom, boom, boom in the living room/The kids are banging on the
drum," begins an emblematic Ralph Covert song, a rock-'n'-roll headbanger
for the kindergarten set, not to mention grown-ups who find most children's
CD's stupefyingly simple-minded.

The tune is simple but artful, and the vision of children bopping, playing
instruments (or pretend instruments) and plain letting go captures the life
force of garage-band rock without the anger or bad vibes. "Sunny Day, Rainy
Day, Anytime Band" isn't Mr. Covert's most complex song, but it is typically

When you listen to most kids' groups - the Wiggles from Australia, for
instance - the tunes are infectious in a different way: you think you'll
need a lobotomy to get them out of your head. Mr. Covert's songs, in
contrast, tap into the collective unconscious of parents who grew up with
rock and want to share it with their children, but who find themselves in a
sticky situation trying to explain, say, why Maxwell is beating heads with a
silver hammer. 

Through five children's CD's, Mr. Covert's styles range from reggae ("Clean
Up") to Beach Boys' surf music ("Surfing in My Imagination") to 70's
art-rock ("Kid Astro"). There are songs that acknowledge the sad side of
life (" "Moo moo' said the cow to his friends/I got the barnyard blues/Will
it ever end?"), defiant anthems like "We Are Ants"
("Gimmegimmegimmegimmegimmegimmegimmegimmegimmegimme something sweet/We want
candy! We want chocolate!"), and tender ballads that evoke the joy and
heartbreak of growing up ("Riding With No Hands"). A song called "Miss Molly
Crackerjack" is so exhilarating that you can't believe it wasn't a
swing-band standard. Some of us find occasions to play Mr. Covert's kids'
CD's even after the kids have gone to sleep.

"To me, writing music for kids is no different than writing music for
adults," said Mr. Covert, who was in New York in December for an appearance
on CBS's "Early Show" and a Sunday matinee at Southpaw in Park Slope,
Brooklyn. He is scheduled to play Joe's Pub in the East Village on Feb. 6.

"A Bad Examples song about heartbreak and a kids' song about wanting a pet
are both songs about yearning. The emotional center is the same. It's really
a very subtle tweak. A kids' song is shorter and you want it to crystallize
more quickly. And you don't want to sing about sex."

Mr. Covert, 42, is lead singer and songwriter for the Bad Examples, a rock
band that was extremely popular in his home city, Chicago, in the early
90's, but that hasn't quite broken out anywhere else. In the mid-90's he
began teaching songwriting at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago,
which also had a toddler music division called Wiggleworms. Its former
director, Jacqueline Russell, characterized the program as "teachers with
guitars singing 'Itsy-Bitsy Spider' to 12 parents with babies on their

In 1996 she approached Mr. Covert to run a different kind of class,
recalling: "He said, 'Well, I won't do the folky stuff,' and I said, 'Good!
Do fun rock songs!' "

For Mr. Covert there was an added incentive. He had part-time custody of his
very young daughter, Fiona Schenkelberg, and was often at a loss for ways to
amuse her. Now he could earn extra money and at the same time have a weekly

His repertory was unorthodox. "It upset some parents at first," Ms. Russell
said. "The kids would ask for 'Itsy-Bitsy Spider' and Ralph would say, 'I'll
sing you another song about spiders!' And he'd do 'Ziggy Stardust and the
Spiders From Mars.' "

But Mr. Covert's classes caught on; he began to write children's songs; and
then Jim Powers, president of the indie-rock label Minty Fresh, approached
him to make a CD for a new children's-music subsidiary, Mini-Fresh. Total
sales of Mr. Covert's five CD's -"Ralph's World," "Ralph's World Under the
Sea," "Happy Lemons," "Miss Peggy's Pie Parlor" and the new "Amazing
Adventures of Kid Astro" - have topped 120,000.

"We as parents are the consumers of this music," Ms. Russell said. "We have
more disposable income, fewer kids. We're not putting on a record and
closing the door. We're putting it on the big stereo and listening to it
with them." 

Mr. Covert isn't the only rock musician cultivating the juvenile audience.
Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, Justin Roberts, Peter Himmelman and even They
Might Be Giants have released entertaining, parent-friendly children's CD's.
It is possible, though, that Mr. Covert will turn out to be that genre's
Elvis Presley, or at the very least its Elvis Costello.

When in New York, Mr. Covert was losing his voice from a sinus infection he
was mysteriously reluctant to treat, the downside, perhaps, of his seemingly
inexhaustible can-do spirit. By the time he hit Southpaw, his warm, flexible
tenor had been reduced to an eardrum-grating rasp.

The kids, nevertheless, were rapt. In a sweatshirt, with big glasses and
hair that grazes his shoulders, Mr. Covert is racy by the standards of
children's music, but reassuringly boyish and gentle for their parents. That
said, there are few things more disconcerting than standing in a grungy rock
club watching one's 2-year-old ogle a guitarist with the rapturous eyes of a

Mr. Covert estimates that the Bad Examples occupies only about 5 percent of
his time, though he will occasionally do an adult and a child show in the
same place. Last year, at FitzGerald's in the Berwyn suburb of Chicago, the
band's booze glasses were still onstage the next morning when they came out
before a horde of screaming children. "We raised our glasses to the kids,"
said the drummer, Terry Wathen, "and they raised their juice boxes back to

Many children's performers are sickeningly solicitous of their audience, but
it's not even clear that Mr. Covert loves kids. "It's not about love," Ms.
Russell said. "It's more about who can get inside their heads and think like
a child, and be smart the way that kids are smart. It's about respect."

Mr. Covert had a revelation when a 7-year-old named Ben queried him about
"The Amazing Romero," a song on one of his adult albums. "It's about a blind
tightrope walker," Mr. Covert said, "but it's really about that adult sense
of having to find a balance in what seems to be a perennially desperate
situation - life. I said that a blind tightrope walker would just have to
fumble his way as he goes and make mistakes and hope not to fall."

"And Ben said, 'Oh, I get it. It's about second grade!' "

Mr. Covert is so in touch with his inner kid that he merged a song he wrote
35 years ago about his lemonade stand with one that Fiona, now 9, wrote
about hers. The result is one of two songs on "Happy Lemons" with their
co-credit. (The other is a gorgeous plaint called "Puddle of Mud.")

"She got very mad when I made it the title track," Mr. Covert recalled. "She
said, 'Dad, you didn't ask my permission. It's my song.' "

Mr. Covert brings a trace of childlike wonder to what he does; he said he
still can't believe he is making a living writing and performing rock songs,
even family-friendly ones. And there is a trace of the bad boy in there,
too. He tries to sing, he said, " in a way that makes the moms go, 'Damn,
he's hot,' and the dads see their wives and kids happy and go, 'Damn he's
cool,' and the kids just dance like crazy and go, 'Damn.' "

"If you're going to play hooky," he said, "play to win."

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