From Raffi to Dylan With My Grandson

From Raffi to Dylan With My Grandson

Written by Wayne Robins

Steely Dan is Served with Mushed Yams

For the last seven months I've been scheming how to shape my grandson Ezra's musical tastes.

First, I'd like to say, when people ask me if I've seen The Greatest Night in Pop, about the making of "We Are the World," I ask them: "Have you seen my grandson watch 'Monster in the Mirror'"?

"Monster in the Mirror" is a Sesame Street classic. The easily frightened Grover keeps seeing a monster, until he is reassured that what's happening is that he gets spooked every time he sees himself in a mirror. There is an all-star video filmed in 1991 with a cast that, for its time, was the kid celebrity equivalent of any 1980s pop charity event.

The singers featured on the "wubba-wubba-wubba-wubba-whoo-whoo-whoo" chorus include Robin Williams, Candice Bergen, Julia Roberts, Bo Jackson, Lou Diamond Phillips, Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum, Whoopi Goldberg and about 20 other performers. Though Bart Simpson kind of steals the finale with his "wubba man!" bratness, the real star is Ray Charles, whose verse, as always, rises over everyone. Ezra really digs the Ray Charles part: his eyes, glued to the screen, light up.


I tried to get Ezra more interested in Brother Ray with a YouTube video of "What'd I Say" from The Ed Sullivan Show, but at seven months he isn't ready for Charles outside of the context of "Monster in the Mirror."

I didn't want to start him off on the Ramones – too intense – even though he is very verbal for his age, and his hour-long monologues sound like he's saying "gabba gabba hey." Actually, he's not quite up to "gabba gabba hey" yet. We spend hours reading and re-reading his favorite book, Moo, Bah, La La La! or more precisely "Moo, Bah, La La La! by Sandra Boynton," since I want him to learn that behind all good writing and drawing there is an author, an artist, or a byline, and it is always good manners to recognize them. Yesterday, both Maureen and I were sure he said "la la la" after the 17th consecutive reading, and we were preparing his application for the debate team at Oxford.

I recalled that the first music he responded to was traditional jazz, on WWOZ's "Jazz from the French Market." Then I remembered the child that it soothed was my daughter Jackie's black Labrador, Napa, one afternoon over the extended 2023 Thanksgiving (like, 12 days extended). We were baby-sitting Napa while Jackie and her husband Joe were traipsing around Lausanne and Florence.

I believe all children can benefit from early exposure to more modern New Orleans piano and dance music. By modern I mean late 1950s or later. So yesterday afternoon, I pulled out my cherished mono vinyl copy of Chris Kenner's Atlantic album Land of 1,000 Dances. Kenner wrote the classic, which was a hit for Cannibal and the Headhunters" in 1965 and Wilson Pickett a year later. Ezra needs to be held up to move his feet: as I said, he's seven months old, and is a championship babbler, though he does not yet walk or stand or crawl. I showed him some moves from dance names Kenner dropped: The Watusi, the Fly, the Mashed Potatoes, the Slop...but he was distracted by one of his toys. My moves might not be as slick as they used to be.


Anyhoo, after we bopped to Kenner's R&B, we went to the dining table to eat our pizzas (frozen) from Roberta's in Brooklyn (found at one Met Food in my Queens neighborhood) and Ezra drank his ba-ba (bottle, of his mother's milk) and snacked on soft carrots and yams at his highchair. I put on Pretzel Logic, a strategic move designed to get Ezra to associate Steely Dan with the sybaritic pleasures of mushing soft food into his mouth, chin, cheeks, lips, throat, his shirt, pants, and the floor. Even if he missed actually swallowing 90 per cent of the food, he is learning to eat as our human ancestors did, without cutlery or plates. He does have a spoon, but he prefers to gum-out on the thick end, as he is likely teething.

Back in the living room, I put on the second Raffi album, Singable Songs for the Very Young. Each of my three daughters was raised to Raffi music, and that of his Canadian compatriots. When A&M Records in the mid-1980s was smart enough to enter a distribution agreement to release the music of Raffi, Ken Whiteley, Fred Penner, and possibly Sharon, Lois & Bram (who also had a TV show in the US), my first daughter, Alexandra, aka Sasha, was about four. My editor at Newsday had a daughter of a similar age, and we were both delighted to have children's music that did not insult the intelligence of any child, or the parents of those children. Both my editor and I were fed up with The Smurfs, which dominated children's entertainment.

I went to Toronto, where I had lunch with Raffi and a dinner with Sharon, Lois, & Bram. It was January 28, 1986, and I'll always remember the date because it was the day the Challenger space shuttle, the first to attempt to bring civilians into space, blew up shortly after blast-off. The first thing Raffi said to me when I met him at the luncheonette downstairs from his office was, "I'm sorry, it's a very sad day for your country." Since I was in flight to Toronto when the explosion happened, it was the first I had heard. I got up at looked at the luncheonette's small TV to get a grip on what had occurred.

In between the loathsome Smurfs (a Belgian franchise that was popular in the US throughout the 1980s) and the emergence of Barney the Dinosaur, there was a moment of air and life that Raffi and company delivered to children's music. This is because these musicians had all played folk music for adults in Toronto and the rest of the Canadian music scene, and did not find it beneath themselves to use the same effort in singing, picking, production, and songwriting or song curating talents to find good stuff for kids and parents to enjoy together. Raffi was an environmentalist long before it was fashionable, as heard in songs such as "Baby Beluga," an amusing and singable tune about keeping our oceans clean and preserving endangered species such as whales.

After lunch and the interview in his office with Raffi, I returned to the Windsor Arms, before dinner with Sharon, Lois, and Bram, at a chic restaurant near the hotel. Murray Kempton, New York Newsday's great columnist, probably recommended the hotel, because the well-traveled Murray the K, whose desk was next to mine for a time, always suggested hotels with understated elegance whenever I went on the road.

I was still drinking in those days, so when the waiter arrived to take our drink order, I asked for a dry vodka martini. "I'll have one," Sharon, Lois, and Bram said in sequence, almost in harmony. It was so refreshing, the Canadian children's music scene, in that it was played by adults who had no reason not to drink adult cocktails during a dinner interview with a visiting reporter. It wasn't exactly comparable to smoking a j and knocking back a bottle of Thunderbird with Mister Rogers, but you get the idea.


After Raffi, I decided to bring on some Bob Dylan, but I didn’t want to shock him with Blood on the Tracks, for example. Instead I pulled out a compilation disc, I Shall Be Unreleased, a 1991 release by Rhino Records and Sony Music of covers of then lesser-known Bob Dylan songs by an assortment of excellent artists. This was before the widespread issuing of the extraordinary Dylan Bootleg Series by Sony Music and Dylan's office, so it remains one of the great collections of Dylan covers.

Consider Joan Baez's "Love is a Four Letter Word," an uptempo rendition by a woman who understood and experienced better than anyone alive exactly what the composer meant. I'm more an admirer than fan of Baez's distinctive and exemplary artistic gifts, but this performance breaks my heart in so many ways that I don't know whether to break down sobbing or laugh my butt off every time I hear it. Which is not often, because I don't want to drain this experience of its mojo. Let it be said that Vanguard released the Baez track as a single in 1967, a little bit of a rocking wink at her former boyfriend, now a rock star.

The liner notes were written by Dylan friend Sharon, Lois & Bram, who provides detailed information on each recording. The A&R coordination was done by Rhino's astute and much-missed Gary Stewart. The tracks are spectacular, from the opener, Rod Stewart's "Only a Hobo" from his Gasoline Alley album, to the Dream Syndicate's closer, a live radio performance for KCRW, of the then little-known "Blind Willie McTell." In between are such gems as "Wanted Man," the title of a Johnny Cash album I once found in a cut-out bin, whose title song is so intrinsically Johnny Cash that I didn't notice Dylan wrote it. Manfred Mann, always an outstanding Dylan interpreter ("Quinn the Eskimo" aka "The Mighty Quinn") delivers "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" from the British Invasion era. Two surprises: Paul Revere & the Raiders (performing as the Raiders), doing "(If I Had to Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It) All Over You," a 1973 Columbia single; and "Dusty Old Fairgrounds," a 1973 Mercury release by early power poppers Blue Ash. (This had to be Paul Nelson's idea.)


By this time, though, all that listening and dancing and bopping had taken its toll on Ezra and his grandpa. He began to snooze in my arms; the stereo was turned down to subliminal, and I'm guessing Ezra had his first of what I hope will be many Bob Dylan dreams. I know I had one.


This article originally appeared in Wayne Robins’ Substack and is used here by permission. Wayne’s Words columnist Wayne Robins teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, and writes the Critical Conditions Substack,


Header image: Raffi, 2020 publicity photo.

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