Once upon a time, "children's music" was a pejorative. Today, it often means terrific talent, musical integrity and lyrics with substance and wit. The small contingent of performers who carried the quality banner alone--such as Dan Crow, Peter Alsop and Sharon, Lois and Bram--has become a crowd scene.
Among that crowd, it's difficult to pick out a "best," but with its latest release, "Happy to Be Here," the remarkable Parachute Express trio--Janice Hubbard, Stephen Michael Schwartz and Donny Becker--becomes a top contender.
The group's sophisticated harmonies and instrumentals, combined with child-sensitive melodies and messages, have never been more appealing than on this new Walt Disney Records release (three previous Parachute Express albums were re-released on the Disney label this year).
Nonsense songs--"What Will I Take to the Moon?" and "Willy Falldown"--share space with the memorable rhythms and harmonies of "Smooth Movin' Boogie Express" and "Ups and Downs." The finest cut may be "The Changing Garden of Mister Bell," a touching story song that works on many age levels, written by Hubbard and Michael Silversher.
In it, a child learns from her elderly neighbor, who came "from a foreign place," about the beauty of growing things. She also gleans a sense of love and loss:
I once saw a photograph upon his mantle shelf, Of a beautiful lady, a child in her arms, And the young Mister Bell himself. I wondered out loud about them, And he answered in the strangest way: "See how the garden grows, It's changing every day."
Not a false note sounds.
"Happy to Be Here." Walt Disney Records. Widely available. CD: no list price; audio cassette: $8.98. Lend an Ear: Why is music good for kids? How can parents share it with their offspring? What should they look for? The answers to these questions and more are found in Jill Jarnow's "All Ears: How to Choose and Use Recorded Music for Children" (Penguin Books).
In addition to a highly readable discussion of the emotional, psychological and intellectual benefits of music for children, Jarnow offers a practical guide as well, listing more than 200 recordings, with subject and age indexes.
Jarnow, a producer of films for educational television and author of young-adult novels, began researching children's music several years ago when her son was small.
"It was a real eye-opener for me," she said in a recent interview, "all the different topics that were out there: Food, siblings, school, fears, sharing . . . a child's need to be loved unconditionally."
Why then do children clamor for the same song over and over, until parents want to climb the walls?
"Repetition serves a real function," Jarnow said. "Every time children hear a song, they hear something different, even though to an adult it sounds the same. They're absorbing combinations of tones, rhythms, words, emotions . . . and learning to concentrate, learning what communication is about and learning to think.
"This is something they bypass when they're watching video," she added, "because all those images are there for them and it becomes a passive experience."