Ken Lonnquist: The Fifth Beatle

The Fab Four--in one--of children's music

The Lost Songs of Kenland
BMI, 1986 & 1998
$15

The Circus Kenlando
Tomorrow River Music, 1998
$15

Ken Lonnquist is the most astounding thing to happen to children's-no, make that family-music since . . . well, since forever. There is no way to adequately describe the music he creates or capture the charm of his live performances, no one to whom he can be compared. Except perhaps John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

I cannot imagine what our lives would be like without his music in our home, our car, as a part of our family language. And the scary thing is, I only stumbled onto him by accident.

Six months pregnant and unwilling to sit another moment watching my ankles swell at the playground, five-year-old Malcolm and I sauntered down the street a muggy summer day in search of respite. The Wild Rumpus bookstore was cool and welcoming. Part library, part animal sanctuary, part retail space, all fun; it's the sort of bookstore where children come first in an entirely uncontrived way.

Apparently, many knew of Ken Lonnquist's performance that day, and the excitement was palpable. When this exuberant character stepped forward with a guitar and microphone, everything I knew and believed about music aimed at children flew out the charming children's store's front door.

Ken hunkered down with the kids and sang songs that resonated with them about one-speed bikes, X-ray specs, elephants, and enormous cats. He stood tall, winked at parents, and spun stories of foolish children who neglect "please" and "thank you" then are whisked away by fairies to dark and mysterious fates. For an all-too-brief afternoon, filled with equal amounts of joy and fun, he held our hearts with his music.

Music has always been a huge part of our lives, all sorts: Eric Clapton, Glenn Miller, Beethoven, Cole Porter, The Doors, Patsy Cline, Mozart, Billy Holiday, those aforementioned guys from Liverpool...suffice to say our tastes are eclectic. My children also enjoy many fine geared-to-children tapes, CD's and yes, records. From Burl Ives to the Roches; I can listen to them in managed amounts.

But grown-ups don't play those children's collections alone and there are firm guidelines regarding how many times certain music can be listened to in a twenty-four hour period. Don't talk to me about Raffi (who is perfectly fine) or Sharon, Lois, and Bram (also quite pleasant) and try to draw comparisons to Ken Lonnquist. They are the Monkeys; Ken is The Beatles.

My husband and I were stunned when we started listening to our first acquisition. Where did this guy come from? Why hadn't we heard about him before? There's a change that comes over someone, as the transformation from passive to attentive listener occurs.

"What is this? Who is this? Did you hear that lyric? It's really funny!"

Much of the fun of Lonnquist is the discovery. His songs contain brilliant pieces of humor, allowing children to revel and adults to reminisce about the precious and perilous aspects of childhood. And I've been told that the children in my home have an especially fine ability to relate to the song, "My Mother's Snoring."

There are story songs inspired by fairy tales, environmental ditties that speak to everything from Garbage to Rainforests, songs that praise vegetables and breakfast-food. We've only begun our Lonnquist collection, with Circus Kenlando, Earthy Songs For Kids, Kengos Bongos, Welcome 2 Kenland and The Lost Songs of Kenland; there's not a lemon in the bunch. Some of his more mellow efforts can move me to tears, or bring a small soul to my side for an extra kiss.

Besides appearing around the country, he also composes for the Madison Children's Theater and has written ten full-scale musical theater productions. He has received-among other awards and distinctions--the Entertainer of the Year by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry, Parent's Choice, American Library Association, and an Environmentalist of the Year from the Madison Audubon society. He's composed thousands of songs and recorded more than three thousand of them.

The successes of his song-writing workshops, residencies for schools, universities, teacher, and environmental conferences are evident in the liner notes, for many of the recordings come from work with the children.

Although he has some loyal and committed followers, he's still hasn't made tremendous headway into the Minnesota market. Fortunately, family connections bring him to this neighborhood with some regularity. Certainly, the crowds are getting larger every time he appears at Wild Rumpus, and word of mouth seems to be spreading the news gradually. But I can't help feeling as if I'm keeping a delicious secret from the rest of the world.

I pondered the question of Ken Lonnquist as I listened to Junestruck, luminous songs & tales. I wondered what his grown up music would be like, if it would appeal to me as much as his other work. It does, very much. And in the first song, I think he answers my 'Why isn't he better known? Why isn't he bigger?' question: "I don't wanna be a star, just wanna pay all my dues / I don't wanna travel far, just wanna wear out my shoes / And if you think you can / Maybe you could follow to where I am / Dreamin' takes you into a distant land . . ."

Ahhh, Ken-land. I get it now.

Ever since that chance meeting, this music has been a part of our family and so, naturally, has Ken. What if we hadn't walked into the store that day? There are no accidents, only collisions of fate. Ken Lonnquist is among my happiest karmic fender benders.

Ken Lonnquist's music is available in the Twin Cities exclusively at Wild Rumpus Bookstore, 2720 West 43rd Street, in Minneapolis. Also through Tomorrow River Music, P.O. Box 165 Madison, Wisconsin 53701 (608)423-3095.

Sally Russell is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent.

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