The Good, the Bad, and the Sleepy

A Child's Celebration of Lullaby
Various Artists
(Music for Little People, 1998)

Priscilla Herdman
(Redwing, 1998)

Though it may be an apples-and-oranges comparison, and though how much such things matter to children is an open question, the marked differences between two recent recordings devoted to lullabies beg contrast.

A Child's Celebration of Lullaby is a musical dim-sum platter, featuring many morsels of contrasting song on the same disc. Artists from the Roches to Ladysmith Black Mambazo have contributed nuggets of song to this bedtime hodge-podge. Certainly, one song is more of a kid-sized musical dumpling than a whole album is; how many of us had beloved Disney or Sesame Street anthologies when we were kids, each song featuring different singers and styles? Yet those compendiums, conceived as they were by teams of artists working in concert, had a unity of intent that is absent in this CD.

The album itself is even part of a still larger series collection--a "Child's Celebration"--which includes rock-and-roll, Broadway fare, folk songs, and Christmas music. Most of the songs are published by Music for Little People, whose catalog is plainly designed to sell.

Furthermore, at times the songs themselves seem only nominally addressed to children. Kenny Loggins's "Cody's Song," inoffensively warbled by sugar-plum chanteuse Kathie Lee Gifford, includes the line "you'll always be/the lullaby in the heart of the child in me." Such self-referential sentimentality is scarcely listenable by grownups, and emotionally opaque to children; one wonders, "who is this song is for?"

There are bright spots; MLP's strategy of engaging seasoned recording artists for their children's collections has got to pay off now and again. Eric Bibb's "Singin' In My Heart" has a beguiling Caribbean feel and charming use of simple yet elegant language and imagery: "You are the sweet in the honey,/You are the red in the rose,/ You are the song singin' in my heart." And Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's mandolin-driven version of the traditional ballad "Shenandoah" is a soulful standout, though calling it "Shenandoah Lullaby" doesn't make it one.

Especially disappointing is the way Lena Horne's cool-jazz account of Gershwin's "Summertime" is unaccountably truncated by a clumsy premature fadeout. And Linda Ronstadt's take on "Brahms' Lullaby" is worth hearing in the same spirit in which one reads about alien abductions; it's so wildly implausible, almost funny.

Priscilla Herdman's album Moondreamer, a follow-up to her 1988 Stardreamer, is a showcase for a number of talented musicians and songwriters. The songs are collectively arranged by the various players and singers, who have obviously worked together a lot and function as a true ensemble. Herdman's voice, always sweet and mellow, has gained breadth and depth with the years, subtly changing from silky to velvety--an ideal summoner for the Sandman. Abbey Newton's cello playing--long a staple of Herdman's sound-is as round and inviting as ever, while Jay Ungar's fiddle is warm and violinistic.

Ungar has considerable artistic range; his bluesy licks are a delight on Peter Rowan's "Bluegrass Boy," while his lyricism and sense of line make the most of "John O' Dreams," whose melody is adapted from Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony.

The charmingly antique words by Bill Caddick give "John O' Dreams" the feel of an old traditional folksong, but there is in fact only one traditional song in this collection--the oft-recorded "All Through the Night." Herdman gives one of the nicest accounts of this Welsh lullaby that I have heard, making the most of its deceptively simple melody. This track also shows off Al Petteway's fluid guitar playing, as well as David Hornung's restrained accordion work. Both Horning's arrangements and Donald Sosin's piano accompaniments are unfailingly tasteful.

Backup singer Anne Hills's "One Thousand Pairs of Pajamas," a novelty piece with the feel of a music-hall ditty or parlor song tells of a child's unparalleled collection of sleep wear, inherited from a prodigally pajama-obsessed grandfather.

"Stars on the Water" is full of songwriter Si Kahn's customary masculine rusticity, more gently applied here than in his more familiar labor-activism and hard-times songs. And speaking of rustic, anyone who has ever wondered when seeing a beloved family dog turn benignly half-feral with a throaty ode to its wolf ancestors will appreciate Cheryl Wheeler's "Howl at the Moon."

The only song slightly out of place here is Billy Joel's "Goodnight, My Angel." Joel's polished, mature style is of a different sort than the other material--more urban, more sophisticated in the world-weary sense. But at the same time, it provides a foil for the more ingenuous numbers.

Unlike a lot of music geared toward children, Moondreamer is perfectly listenable for adults even after the kids have nodded off, and will be especially satisfying for the whole family to listen to together. This collection is also a good bridge from Barney and company to whatever music growing children will eventually choose for themselves.

Scott Robinson has been a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent. He's been out of commission for awhile (he and his wife recently moved to Philadelphia from Minnesota), however, he's agreed to still kick out a review every so often, and for that, we're very happy.

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