Barry Louis Polisar got started in his present occupation by pure coincidence. He was learning how to play the guitar and become a vegetarian, so he wrote a song about his dietary blues: "I Eat Kids."
"So it's goodbye liver. Goodbye roast beef."
"Hello Tommy, Michael and Debbie. I won't eat chicken and I won't eat cows.
"I don't eat animals. I eat children now."
Polisar, who was 19, performed his veggie song in a local coffeehouse. A teacher in the audience asked if he would like to play for her class. He said yes, thus beginning his career as a composer and singer of unusual children's songs.
Polisar now is 25. He has written and recorded more than 80 songs, which he has distributed himself to about 350 record stores and about 13,000 public libraries across the country, including most of those in Northern Virginia. He is his own agent and, as he puts it, his own "record uncompany."
Polisar performs about 10 times a week in schools, recreation centers and libraries around the metropolitan area. He says more than half of his bookings are in Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria and Prince William counties. His first album, which took the song "I Eat Kids" as its title, was recorded in Fairfax County before a live audience.
Polisar recently received a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to perform around the state in towns such as Roanoke, Charlottesville, Norfolk and Portsmouth. He says the reaction to his concerts has been enthusiastic, with a full house of 1,200 ("wall-to-wall kids") in Danville.
The titles of Polisar's songs help explain his popularity with the younger set. "My Brother Thinks He's a Banana," "I Don't Brush My Teeth and I Never Comb My Hair," "I Got a Teacher, She's So Mean" and "Shut Up In the Library" offer not-so-mute testimony to a child's perception of the grown-up world.
Polisar believes his success comes from his refusal to "treat kids in a lollipop way."
"I've been called a songster for children's liberation," Polisar said. "That's a pigeonhole way to say it, but I try to get people to laugh at themselves. I write about naughty kids and mean teachers because I think it's wrong to pretend those things don't exist.It's better to bring them out in the open and let them be laughed at."
Polisar prefers his approach over the attitudes expressed in most songs for children, which he describes as being too moralistic.
"Most are goody-goody," he said."Even the songs by the 'Sesame Street' people, who have made some real strides, are really scary . . . It's still adults telling kids how to act, with a tinge of a moral, telling kids how to feel."
Polisar said that he gets a lot of his material from watching children's reactions to his performances. Not all of his songs have started out as children's songs, however, as in the case of "I Eat Kids" or the quasi-romantic "I Need You Like a Doughnut Needs a Hole." But, as an intense, ambitious, and jittery young man, he sees limitations in his present subject matter.
"The ideas don't come as frequently as they used to," Polisar said. "I wrote three songs about teachers. What else can I do with that? . . . I do and I don't want to do this forever. When the bookings stop coming in and I can't live off it anymore, I'll stop. But there's a mushrooming effect. One booking produces a few others."
The typical performance begins with Polisar singing in his expressive but somewhat raspy voice a few of his satirical songs about the relationships between brothers and sisters, parents and kids, teachers and students. He then starts a sing-along, teaching the audience his songs and at the same time helping ensure they will be repeated and, at best, purchased in record form.
Some of his more notable performances have included a week at the Kennedy Center two years ago and concerts at Wolf Trap in the past three years. He is currently planning concerts in Pennsylvania and possibly Connecticut.