WHILE I HAVE been a music reviewer since 1981, it is certainly true that I was singularly unqualified to review children’s albums until the birth of our daughter, Bethany, in 1996. Readers who are parents will surely appreciate the fact that I am now eminently qualified to review this genre! By and large, children enjoy music, and this was no surprise to me. What was a learning for a man who was childless until age 36 was that toddlers, in particular, latch onto favourites and, in the words of the Teletubbies, want to hear them “again, again, again.” This can be problematic for parents. It is not enough that they do the important editing work of choosing music for their children’s exposure that has messages that are helpful or, at least, innocuous. They also need to prepare themselves for scores of listens to the same album, repetition being such a hallmark of the toddler developmental process. [pullquote]You see, a Barney album has some good teachings and some good old fun amongst its slavish reworkings of traditional melodies. However, the processed voices and simple, synth- heavy beats and melodies really become grating after several listens. Trust me. I know. The same can be said for most albums of music from children’s programs. Take, for instance, the recent phenomenon, the Teletubbies. There is certainly nothing wrong in these gentle, loving creatures, Jerry Falwell’s inane homophobic ramblings notwithstanding. However, repeated listens to the music might make parents scream. The contrast of the music of Canada’s Fred Penner is striking and delightful. A children’s artist for 20 years, Penner is a really good musician and songwriter, and these gifts do not disappear as he creates memorable favourites for children. Penner’s latest release, the compilation, Fred’s Favourites, is a wonderful cross-section of his talents. Musically, he and his Cat’s Meow Band deliver folk pop with nice shots of country, gospel, and blues. In a sense, only its sheer catchiness gives it away as children’s music instrumentally. Lyrically, Penner’s big contribution is in writing and singing songs that affirm the dignity -the worth – the sheer preciousness of children. For every bit of plain fun like the romp, The Cat Came Back, (a bit of genius that borrows from Hit The Road, Jack), there are several more affirmations of children as God’s gifts. Proud is a self-worth ode. What A Day! is wide-eyed wonder at the gift of creation and life itself. Imagination is a specific rejoicing at the gift of the mind, while We’re Gonna Shine is an affirmation of potential. You Can Do It If You Try, meanwhile, is a gem of a song which encourages children to persevere as they hone their individual gifts and develop as human beings.
The Christian parent, then, can rest assured that Fred Penner is teaching their children solid and valuable lessons. Furthermore, they can be thankful for the bonus that the song and the singer will not wear thin – even if listened to again, and again, and again. Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner. Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.