'TIS THE SEASON to be jolly. Unless of course you're en route to the relatives, out there on a long stretch of interstate, just you, the spouse and the kids, who are getting restless right about now, having grown tired of counting out-of-state plates, not to mention each other.
Then it dawns on you: Now's the ideal time to stuff that stocking stuffer into the cassette deck -- you know, one of the children's albums you bought to keep the kids quiet and yourself entertained. (Okay, so it wasn't entirely a selfless act.)
"Listen up!" you shout over your shoulder. "Who do you want to hear? Jonathan Winters reading Paul Bunyan or Danny Glover telling the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby."
"Raffi, Raffi, Raffi," they roar back.
"Raffi?" you scoff. "Don't you guys know who Jonathan Winters is?"
Herewith a glimpse of some new audio stocking stuffers aimed at kids (and sometimes parents with hidden agendas).
Jonathan Winters reads "Paul Bunyan," with music by Leo Kottke and Duck Baker (Windham Hill). So what if the kids don't know Winters from Suzanne Sommers. They're never too young to make his acquaintance. Besides, how else are they going to find out whether tall Paul was really a closet environmentalist? (You wouldn't expect Winters to stick to the facts, such as they are, regarding Mr. Bunyan, now would you?) Just don't make the mistake of mentioning how much you enjoy Kottke and Baker's guitar work. This is meant for the kids' motoring pleasure, after all, not yours. (This and all the Windham Hill releases are also available in videocassette, book, compact disc and cassette/book form.)
Danny Glover Reads "Brer Rabbit" and "The Wonderful Tar Baby," with music by Taj Mahal (Windham Hill). As with "Song of the South," the vocal characterizations here are likely to offend some, but Glover animates Brers Fox and Rabbit with great enthusiasm while Mahal evokes the briar patch setting with guitar, banjo and harmonica. Any kid familiar with Bugs Bunny, though, is likely to guess who will be outfoxed right off and regard the entire Uncle Remus affair as tame stuff.
Meg Ryan Reads "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Goldilocks," with music by Art Lande (Windham Hill). Windham Hill usually puts a lot of thought into casting these stories, so what went wrong here? Sure, Ryan is a familiar face on the screen these days, but it doesn't necessarily follow that she's much of a storyteller. Both of these fables receive such listless readings that you're left wondering if a box office name was all the producers had in mind.
John Gielgud Reads "The Emperor's New Clothes," with music by Mark Isham (Windham Hill). This is the Hans Christian Andersen classic, classically told by Gielgud and subtly orchestrated by Isham's brass, reeds and percussion. In short, a perfect pairing, though no doubt a tad dry for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle crowd.
Maria Muldaur "On the Sunny Side" (Music for Little People). Sure enough, this is the same Maria Muldaur who recorded the sultry "Midnight at the Oasis" and the bawdy "Don't You Feel My Leg." And she's still pretty sultry too, at least on the album's finale, "Dream a Little Dream." Elsewhere, she gives "Melancholy Baby" a lullaby lilt, showcases daughter Jennie May on Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors," and recruits a children's chorus for support on "Would You Like to Swing on a Star?" and other undeniably hummable pop standards.
Bill Harley "Grownups Are Strange" (Round River). Harley picks and sings, but mostly he's a storyteller -- a teller of long stories at that. He's got a genuine flair for it, no question about it, and he's smart enough to make sure the two tales here are suspenseful enough to hold your interest over the long, long, long run. Beware, though: The one about grandma versus the headless man may stir very young imaginations far more than you bargained for.
Raffi "Evergreen, Everblue" (MCA). Well, it was bound to happen. Raffi gets topical. Sample chorus: "Our dear, dear mother/daily provider/earth be your name/the time has come to honor you/to know you and show our love." He's not exactly alone in this save-the-earth endeavor either. There are elaborate orchestrations and more singers than you could shake a stick at -- even a rap singer. Geez, it's enough to make you miss the old Raffi.