Listening to music can be a radical act. And I don’t mean in the 2112 or Footloose “music is evil” type of way. But more that the type of music we listen to is not only a reflection of our tastes and perspectives but an influence on them.
Nowhere is this more true than for kids, who either end up listening to music developed for their specific age group or are subjected to their parents’ musical tastes. While some kids music is absolutely inane, it doesn’t have to be. Without needing to go full-on Defiance of Anthropomorphic Sea Mammals (from Portlandia), here are a few songs that may help inspire your kids to be activists or at least anti-authoritarian. Not all of these were originally for kids – many of them are straight-up folk songs – but I think they all have a kid appeal.
Science is Real / My Brother the Ape – They Might Be Giants: While the entire album is about the awesomeness of science, these two songs are purposely stirring the pot. “Science is Real” describes how while science is real, lots of other things are not, including angels, unicorns and elves. While it never explicitly mentions religion (outside of angels), it could be seen as dismissive of it. I don’t take it that way because my Christianity meshes well with my trust in science, but it could be seriously challenging for some people. My Brother the Ape runs down all of the wonderful aspects of evolution, imagining inviting the entire human family tree to a giant party. It sounds pretty rocking to me, but for those who the idea of being related to a monkey is insulting…well, it’s insulting.
Sheep Don’t Wear Shoes – Marsha Goodman-Wood: This pean to non-conformity is about a sheep who wants to wear shoes even though everyone tells him the title phrase, “sheep don’t wear shoes.” Despite peer pressure and societal norms, the narrator decides that “I’ll rely on my fine wooly head” to make a decision. While there’s plenty of children’s media that encourages kids not to give into the misguided ideas of their friends, it’s generally to guide them instead into following the advice of authority figures, a la “Just say no.” But in contrast, the sheep says in the first verse, “And though I’m usually good / And though I try to obey / Maybe it’s time to refuse.” In the end, the sheep decides, “I’ve got to form my own views!” An awesome lesson for kids that you need to be the one to decide, not authority or your friends.
This Land is Your Land – Woody Guthrie: Even though this was originally a protest song, it’s somehow turned into a mother and apple pie sort of thing that kids sing at school concerts. But in those circumstances, they usually leave out a crucial piece – the last few verses. Those lyrics bring the idea of America being all of our land to a new level, with lines about blatantly ignoring No Trespassing signs, questioning the morality of economic inequality, and walking the Freedom Highway of the Civil Rights movement. These lyrics are actually fundamental to understanding the point of the song, which is much more powerful for their presence. In fact, one of my most patriotic memories is standing on the National Mall at 7 AM in January, waiting for President Obama’s inauguration to begin and watching a video of Pete Seeger play this song.
I’m Gonna Be An Engineer – Peggy Seeger: An inspirational song for any female who’s been told she can’t do something because “you only need to learn to be a lady.” While some of the references are a bit outdated – very few people start as a typist – the struggle for gender equality in a number of different fields is still real, especially engineering. Perfect song for a budding feminist of either gender. (Note that this song is more appropriate for pre-teens or teenagers, as it does reference some of the worst aspects of sexism, including being expected to sleep with the boss and some slurs.)
Garden Song – Dave Mallett (covered by a bunch of people, including the linked one, which is awesomely John Denver with the Muppets): Although it was the standard for thousands of years, growing your own food can be a radical act these days. From people being sued by corporations for saving seeds to reducing food scarcity in urban areas, gardening can be very powerful. This is a lovely song about the peace found in the simple act of planting and nurturing seeds. As it says, “Find my way in nature’s chain / Tune my body and my brain / To the music of the land.” Compared to a lot of the overstimulation of children’s entertainment, the patience and gentleness it espouses is pretty radical in and of itself.
All I Want is You – by Barry Louis Polisar, cover by the Vespers: Looking at the lyrics, this seems like a standard sweet romance song. With cute images about being a couple like “If I was a flower growing wild and free / All I’d want is you to be my sweet honey bee,” it’s nice to listen to, but not exactly deep. But the cover of it imbues it with much more complexity. When I heard a woman singing “All I want is you, will you be my bride?” on the kids’ Internet radio station for the first time, I wondered if I heard it wrong. By not changing the lyrics despite the gender-swapped singer, it opens the door for children to see a same-sex relationship as normal. Not having it be explicitly called out, just part of the lyrics, makes it all the better.
What are your favorite children’s songs that are a little different than the average kiddie rock?