Musings on Paul Williams, Frank Loesser & Vince Guaraldi

24 Aug

People write terrible songs sometimes when it’s time to write for children. Cloying, simplistic, past repetitive and onward into cruelly monotonous.

(I’m setting out on a project that would involve songs for children, so this is on my mind.)

And other people don’t. They don’t write terrible songs for children. They do magnificent things.

The other day a heard a friend in the other room singing “Rainbow Connection” to an infant and it put the song in my head. And it occurred to me why, beyond the fact that I’ve heard it since I was about five, this is such a brilliant song for kids: they can understand it almost as well as adults.

Rainbow_connectionWhen I was five, my life experience was (despite that huge leap in the first year) culturally pretty narrow. But I had, like most kids my age, seen The Wizard of Oz already. I mean, who hasn’t? It’s on the TV in the womb’s waiting room.

And what does Paul Williams choose to write about in a song that’s to open a movie that, while in no way really a kiddie movie (thanks again, Jim), everyone must have known would be seen by millions of children? With a song that immediately makes obvious reference to one of the only pieces of pop culture we knew, “Over the Rainbow,” and proceeds to write a poem about it, a poem the meaning of which was a little elusive at the time, but made that okay; a poem that came out of the mouth of a frog we already loved and trusted like earlier generations loved and trusted Howdy Doody or Mickey Mouse.

How the hell did he do that?

And then I got to thinking about my two other favorite examples of music that follows a less obvious path though written for children (no, not Williams’ “Flying Dreams” from The Secret of NIMH, though I’ve known the words since I was about nine), one of which used a very different tack, the other of which was closer to Williams’, in a way.

hans danny kayeThe former is Frank Loesser’s score for Hans Christian Andersen, which once heard is un-unsingable. You cannot not remember it. Using a musical logic that’s above commercial jingles, more in the neighborhood of what 1950s popular music was putting into practice in earnest – The Hook – Loesser almost offers a primer for children on how to make up songs, much as Andersen does with stories in the movie. “Thumbelina” and “No Two People” and “Wonderful Copenhagen” are not just songs you can join before they finish, they are songs that make your mind wander (in a good way, a creative way) when they accost you again later. The songs cause you to make up songs.

Was I alone here? I was a weird kid, but still.

vince_1The latter, the one that shares something with Williams, I think, is Vince Guaraldi, whose soundtracks for Charlie Brown specials are THE way to introduce a child to jazz. And it was many years before I figured out why: I think it’s because a good number of his soundtrack songs are improvisations based on the melodies of folk tunes (“Camptown Races”), Christmas carols (“The Little Drummer Boy”), the Minuet in G – songs, like “Over the Rainbow,” that a very small child has (or had… I can only speak for one generation) already heard. Songs that, when melodically or lyrically mused upon, even a child can follow.

What’s my point? I guess just that these three people were awfully good at this. And that I’m glad they did it.

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