Kids Music that Parents Can Enjoy, Too | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Kids Music that Parents Can Enjoy, Too

Ralph Covert began his musical career with an adult audience of rock-n-rollers but for a decade, it's been a pint-sized set flocking to Ralph's World. There are a growing number of musicians making waves in the children's rock scene, and several hail from the Windy City. For WBEZ, music critic Althea Legaspi joins a stable of Chicago children's rock residents who are aspiring to reach the same lofty position as the queen of kids music.

Ralph's World
Sat. Feb. 27, 11 a.m.
Raue Center of the Arts 

Jeanie B.
Sun. Feb. 28
Beat Kitchen

Justin Roberts 
Sun. Mar. 28 
Old Town School of Folk Music

Children's music has been recorded since tunes were first set to tape, but back then it was little more than nursery rhymes. The genre took a huge leap in the ‘50s when progenitors Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Chicago's own Ella Jenkins made original music that appealed to children and adults alike. As Ralph's World's Ralph Covert explains, Jenkins influences were far reaching.

COVERT: A few years back the year that Ella Jenkins got her lifetime achievement GRAMMY Award, I was at a reception, and I was talking to her and there's a guy named Tom Tom Washington who did a lot of Earth Wind and Fire's horn arrangements, he's a Chicago guy he came up and said, "Ella, I just wanted to say back when I was kid living in the projects. You came in and did a concert, and my best friend Herbie Hancock and I walked out of the rec room from your concert at age 5 or 6 and we looked at each other we said, ‘Wow, musicians. That's what we're gonna be.'” He goes, ‘I just wanted to say thank you for starting me down a path of music.'

Flash forward to the ‘70s when songs from Sesame Street, The Muppets, and Schoolhouse Rock were more than family entertainment, they shaped culture and generations to come. Singer Justin Roberts recalls.

ROBERTS: Schoolhouse Rock. I loved watching those when I was a kid, and…when I was in college a friend had the mathematic rock on vinyl, and I hadn't heard it since I was a kid. And we put it on and I was like that is the coolest music, it's the greatest chord progressions, the lyrics are smart and funny, and I was like, 'that's such great music, it's undeniable.' There's a reason why it gets sampled. It's a good song.

The ‘80s and ‘90s, however ushered in an era of seeming commercialism, where rising stars in children's music, stars like Barney appealed mainly to a generation of tots…and this music rarely appealed to adults. Thankfully, the genre has recently returned in a way back to its roots. At least that's what Justin Roberts, whose catchy tune “Pop Fly” is heard here says.

ROBERTS: In the ‘50s and ‘60s these concerts were for families and for everyone. And I think it's sort of returning in a new way with a different style of music possibly, but it's the same kind of thing they were doing in the ‘60s which is bring a bunch of people together to enjoy a show, all ages.

Popular adult rock artists such as They Might Be Giants, Dan Zanes, and Ziggy Marley are making kids records. And here in Chicago Ralph's World, Jeanie B. and Justin Roberts are getting back to the basics: writing good rock ‘n' roll songs for people of all ages to enjoy. Ralph's World brings in a lot of different styles, but rock ‘n' roll ties it together. Justin Roberts has a knack for writing indelibly catchy pop rock tunes, and Jeanie B.'s forte lies within a mom's perspective, but on her album “Joy” she gives some props to dads too, like on her song “Hey Daddio!” All three artists appeal to the 2 to 10 year-old age range, but Jeanie B. says it's writing across generations that makes the music rock for all ages.

JEANIE B.: I've had parents say to me, 'Jeanie, I've put your CD in the car the other day, and my kids weren't even with me.' And I was like, 'Yes! That's what I'm trying to do.'

These artists say making music a family affair is what makes the music appealing. But why has Chicago become conducive for this kiddie music? In addition to interactive musical classes for kids and parents, such as Old Town School's Wiggle Worms, Roberts also says the city's venues are favorable to family music.

ROBERTS: I know early on when I first started playing out in Chicago, there were already clubs that were rock clubs that were doing kid's music pretty regularly. I think I played at Schubas I think the first time I played live in Chicago. And you know, all these people coming out to a bar to see kid's music and enjoy it, I think that's something really special. And I found when I was looking around to tour to different cities, not every city was as receptive to like opening their bar to a kid's show.

Ralph's World got its break at the Old Town School, when he was invited to teach a Wiggle Worms class there. Minty Fresh label owner Jim Powers' kid attended the class and Powers suggested Covert make a kids CD. Nine years and nine albums later, Ralph's World has expanded into plays, books and countless national tours. He just released All Around Ralph's World, whose themes took shape a world away.

COVERT: A lot of the songs on the new Ralph's World record were actually written as part of a project I did for Disney, where they have English Language Schools they're building in China, and they have a very music-driven curriculum for teaching these young Chinese kids English. And it just so happened as I was kind of looking at my favorite songs as I was putting this record together, a number of them were some travel songs that had been written as part of the Disney English language project.

These artists may be opening up the world of music to kids, but as Ralph Covert says making kid's rock expands the musician's creativity, too.

COVERT: I like to say that as kids' artists, our, the playground that we get to write in and play in is as broad as the kids' imaginations.

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