ALTHOUGH THE GRAMMY AWARDS might lead you to think otherwise, there's a lot more to the world of children's records than the annual slew of Sesame Street records and the simple readings of children's tales. One need look no further than the Washington area, which has been a home base for some of the most rewarding vinyl offerings in the last twelve months.
The best children's records are those that not only spark the imagination, but also expand the range of experiences. It also helps when they can be shared as family affairs (as any parent knows, if a child listens to a record or tape, mom and/or dad is usually doing the same).
Cathy Fink's Grandma Slid Down the Mountain (Rounder 8010) is a case in point. Fink, a champion banjo player and a versatile folk musician, has produced a winner, from the yodeling lesson that precedes the ingenious title song to the talking street rhythms of "The Jazzy Three Bears" to the celebration of working mothers on Si Kahn's "What Does Your Mama Do?"
With a warm clear voice that recalls Peggy Seeger and an engaging personality that suggests Pete, Fink moves through a half-dozen musical styles with grace and confidence. "I'd Like to Be a Cowgirl" is a western-swing bow to Pasty Montana; "Oh Susanna" is taut and old-timey; "The Cuckoo Rock" is both cuckoo and rockabilly; "Brush Your Teeth" is a sugar- coated lesson. It's all delivered with honest enthusiasm and absolutely no condescension, music that invites you in for a little exploration. More than just a collection of outstanding songs, "Grandma Slid Down the Mountain" exposes kids to disparate musical energies.
That same expansive celebration is at the heart of Howdjadoo! (Rounder 8009) by John McCutcheon. Like Fink, he relies on a collection of musical friends to augment his basic sound, and draws from Si Kahn's deep repertoire ("Babysitter" and "Rubber Blubber Whale"). Also like Fink, McCutcheon celebrates the joys of "Peanut Butter" (in both a tongue-tying story and a bright song). This is nutritious music.
McCutcheon is a virtuoso on the hammer dulcimer and that instrument's dancing spirit fills much of his music, whether it be the absolutely joyous affirmation of life cycles in "Happy Birthday," the waltz-like tenderness of "Here's to Cheshire," or the high-low choir imagery in Bill Staines' classic "All God's Critters." Drawing heavily from traditional sources (he even makes "John Henry" seem new), McCutcheon invests his songs and stories with a rustic delight; he's also clever enough to include an 18-page coloring booklet with the album, a move that's sure to bring listeners even further into the songs.
Michele Valeri's excellent Dinosaur Rock (Caedmon TC1739) has recently been discussed in these pages but bears another mention. This musical/lecture tends to be more thematically centered than Fink's and McCutcheon's offerings, but still celebrates the cultural diversity of American music in grand style.
Honey, I Love (Caedmon TC1736) is a reissue of the 1982 album featuring the writings of Eloise Greenfield, the music of Byron Morris and the exuberant recitation of seven young, gifted and black Washingtonians, ages seven to 12. Greenfield's poems, which explore and illuminate the Afro-American urban experience, reveal her keen ear for the rhythms and nuances of the street and for the indomitability of the heart. Morris' straight-ahead jazz underpinning never intrudes, and the kids do a bang-up job, their enthusiasm as restlessly infectious as the "Rope Rhythm," their commitment as deep as "Way Down in the Music." Call them the First Poets.
Phil Rosenthal, guitarist and lead singer for the Seldom Scene, has recorded two cassettes of bluegrass songs for children, Twinkle and Crawdad (Soundworks CH031 and CH021). His delivery is warm and the string-driven arrangements on a bunch of traditional children's folk songs are in the smooth new-grass style defined by the Scene over the last decade. The only problem is that there's nothing particularly engaging about the arrangements; they're safe, accessible and just a little flat in their enthusiasm.
That's also the problem with Nitey-Nite (Daddy's Rose C-101), another local tape, from Patti Dallas and Laura Baron. This one is a collection of "tender melodies for a beautiful bedtime," but it may be a bit too much lullabye at one sitting. The singers' voices are certainly attractive and a number of songs are supplemented by excellent Irish harp playing from Sue Richards (in fact, the best moments here are Richards' solo pieces). But it's a repeat of the drawback on Rosenthal's recordings -- the interpretations of the songs are not particularly imaginative or enthralling.
Barry Louis Polisar is an efficient kiddie-factory who's processed 65,000 copies of seven albums, the latest of which is Off-Color Songs For Kids (Rainbow Morning Music Alternatives 5141).
These songs include "You Better Not Giggle, Now Don't You Laugh, But I'm in Love With a Giraffe"; a paean to "Underwear"; a convoluted morality tale, "Elvin and the Witch: A Song About Politics and Friendship." Polisar tends to belabor the obvious, but an awful lot of kids seem to respond to his insights into their concerns and fantasies. KIDDIE HIT PARADE Here are a few non-local children's records that may also be rewarding:
* Mr. T's Commandments (Columbia BFC39596). Everybody's favorite cartoon character takes to recording better than he takes to acting. His aggressive, boastful delivery is custom-made for the rap styles that dominate this album. He also delivers some very effective messages, including "Don't Talk to Strangers," "No Dope, No Drugs," "You Gotta Go Through It" (a song about self-pride and awareness), and the title track, which celebrates the wisdom and influence of parents. There is nothing uncertain about Mr. T, even when he celebrates himself, but there's also "Mr. T, Mr. T," a lovely self-parody remade from the Bobettes' "Mr. Lee." If your kid is a fan, this is a valuable record.
* Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein (Columbia FC39412). In which the gravel-voiced writer and tunesmith brings his own book of poems to life with almost manic intensity. Funny, heartwarming, revealing and in tune with the ageless funny bone.
* The Baby Record (Passport PB6038). Essentially an aerobics record for babies, with Sesame Street's Bob McGrath and Katharine Smithrim leading parents through bouncing and action rhymes, finger, toe and instrument play, and so on. Like most aerobics records, it's useful but also cold and clinical.
* Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Caedmon TC1722). Judith Viorst's wonderfully humane stories and poems read by Blythe Danner, with incidental music by Don Heckman.
* And two personal favorites: Steve Allen's Hip Fables (Doctor Jazz FW38729), uproarious retellings of Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and two others in jazzy lingo; Mike and Peggy Seeger's American Folk Songs for Children (Rounder 8001/3), a landmark three-record set collecting ballads, work and play songs, chants, spirituals and blues, all time-tested and at the heart of our cultural heritage. HOW TO GET THEM Most of these records and tapes are available at full-service record stores. They can also be ordered by mail from:
* Caedmon, at 1995 Broadway, New York, New York 10023. Caedmon is particularly strong in the spoken-word department. It and Folkways Records have the largest catalogues of children's records and cassettes.
* Folkways Records, 632 Broadway, New York, New York 10012. Folkways is a great source of ethnic recordings and also maintains timeless recordings by Woody Guthrie and Ella Jenkins.
* Roundup, P.O. Box 154 North Cambridge, Massachusetts 02140. Roundup, which is owned by Rounder Records, handles small, independent labels (excluding Caedmon and Doctor Jazz).
* Soundworks Inc., 1912 N. Lincoln Street, Arlington, Virginia 22207. Soundworks carries a dozen children's tapes, including some Children's Radio Theater programs and two Mister Rogers tapes on discipline, and divorce. Most of its catalogue consists of adult tapes by the likes of Werner Erhard, Leo Buscaglia and Emmet Miller.
Children's Radio Theater, by the way, has its own catalogue, listing more than three dozen cassettes drawn from its weekly programming on WPFW (89.3 FM). The catalogue is available from CRT, 1314 14th Street NW, Washington DC 20006.