Rock 'n' Roll Grade School

Children are not as innocent as we think. Let's not forget that many of the most vicious rebel groups throughout history were composed of press-ganged child soldiers. Remember the Children's Crusade? Remember Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front? Remember junior high, for goodness sake? No amount of sheltering is going to help those wide-eyed little brats: They've already seen it all. Why, then, do elementary-school music teachers still think that they can restore sixth graders' innocence by getting them to sing a song called "Happiness" before they sneak home to blast Cannibal Corpse's "Meat Hook Sodomy" on their stereos?

Which takes us to the subject of Hans Fenger--a hippie music instructor at a school in a remote, northern Canadian farming community--who understood children's psyches better than most. Back in the late Seventies, he took his group of 60 9-to-12-year-olds, armed them with xylophones, drumsticks, and a bass guitar, and proceeded to teach them dark and brooding songs by everyone from David Bowie to the Beach Boys. To cap off the music year, Fenger arranged his pupils in an echoing school gym and brought a mic to the proceedings.

More than two decades later, Irwin Chusid, the host of an outsider-music show on New York's WFMU-FM, received a CDR of the same kids singing Bowie's "Space Oddity." "It was one of the strangest school recordings I'd ever hear--and I've heard hundreds," Chusid writes on his Key of ZWeb site (keyofz.com). Which is perhaps why Chusid decided to curate the Langley Schools Music Project's Innocence and Despair (Bar None), one of the most moving albums of the year.

Fenger seemed to understand that the best way to tell whether a song is good is to let a little kid decide. (I remember listening to Björk's "Isobel" while watching a friend's baby--who had the same name--wobble around to the beat and thinking This song is pure genius.) And after listening to these lyrics sung in a munchkin voice, you start to imagine that the songs were written specifically for children, or maybe even by children. The Beach Boys' "In My Room" is the perfect acoustic guitar-and-xylophone anthem for the lonely outcast in the class: "There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets to/In my room, in my room/In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears." "Good Vibrations"--performed here with eerily prophetic chimes replacing the theremin--captures the first blush of preteen lust: "I love the colorful clothes she wears/And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair." (Is it any surprise that the emotionally stunted Brian Wilson would go on to make music in his own private sandbox?)

But perhaps the most chilling rendition on the album is the Eagles' "Desperado," performed with a simple-as-"Chopsticks" piano melody and the heartbreaking solo voice of a shrunken Tammy Wynette. When the little starlet sings, "Desperado, oh, you ain't gettin' no younger/Your pain and your hunger, they're drivin' you home/.../Your prison is walking through this world all alone," you start to remember the grief of feeling prematurely all of the things you shouldn't have to cope with until you're older. (Who hasn't attended a younger sibling's grade-school event when you were in junior high, watched the kids running and squealing, and felt suddenly and irreversibly old?)

Fenger knows that kids can't be protected from the real world, and it's this understanding between him and his students that ultimately makes the album so successful. "I never liked conventional 'children's music,' which is condescending and ignores the reality of children's lives, which can be dark and scary," Fenger writes in the liner notes to Innocence and Despair. "These children hated 'cute.' They cherished songs that evoked loneliness and sadness."

Judging by the profound effect that Innocence and Despair has had on me, that's the kind of music I cherish as well.

 
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