March 26th – 6:30 PM – Community Room (Ferndale Area District Library)
Join us for a concert for the whole family!
Influenced by the nuanced musical-storytelling of Harry Chapin’s songs (like “Cats In The Cradle,”) singer/songwriter Randy Kaplan has risen to nationwide acclaim as the purveyor of a family friendly folk/pop that’s not patronizing. He presents playful singalong lyrics weaved into some more abstract and educational subjects, with entomological tales of Southern belle ladybugs, British queen bees, and East Village roaches along with moral tales about children with their Freudian ids gone wild.
His fifth CD, Jam On Rye features plenty of his signature fast-talking rap-bluegrass barn burners along with a calypso ode to a shower door and a couple of lullabies.
His music can be heard on SiriusXM’s Kids Place Live.
The Ferndale Library contacted Mr. Kaplan for an interview, recently…
FADL: Tell us about adapting an approach to songwriting for younger audiences. What would you consider your most formative experience when it comes to songwriting…
Randy Kaplan: For some reason, I find it natural to slip back into that childhood state of mind, the one that dominates consciousness before taxonomy takes over and everything gets put into its proper category with its proper name, time and place. I attribute this, at least partially, to my time working at Beansprouts Preschool in Brooklyn. I was the music guy there and a lot of the songs on my first CD, like “Mosquito Song,” “No Nothing,” and “Shampoo Me,” were written over a period of weeks inside particularl classrooms.
FADL: Can you talk about how those songs came together and how the preschool environment influenced them?
RP: I auditioned and got that job and fell in love with it instantly. I sang little half hour sets to about 12 classes per week there in Brooklyn for a few years. A lot of the songs were improvised over that period. just sing a snippet of language off the cuff, perhaps at the behest or request of a kid. Maybe a child said, “Sing a song about a shark!” and another one said “Sing a song about a bathtub!” And then I came up with a verse about a shark popping up out of the drain in a bathtub and demanding to be shampooed. I would forget all about that snippet and then the next week in that same classroom, all the kids would be clamoring for me to “do the song about the shark in the bathtub!” I wouldn’t remember what they were talking about, having come up with dozens of spontaneous verses like that over the course of the week, but they would remind me. “Oh yeah,” I’d remember and proceed to build off the original idea. And so the song would take shape and be written in that particular classroom over the course of weeks.
By the way, I was afraid that “Shampoo Me” would serve as a deterrent rather than as an enticement to bathe. Luckily, data confirms (at least anecdotal reports) that the song has been a help rather than a hindrance to many families during that bath time witching hour!
FADL: You specialize in roots music and Tin Pan Alley, can you talk about that as well as your current favorite song for performing lately?
RP: Well, right now my favorite song to perform is “Candy Man Blues.” It’s a Mississippi John Hurt ragtime song. I never thought I’d be able to learn it but I have. At first it was slow going but it’s amazing how with practice the complex syncopation of that ragtime picking becomes subconscious. What a great song. I think it’ll be the first song on my next CD, a solo acoustic record I’m planning of all Piedmont Blues and Ragtime songs from the 1920s and 30s. Oh, I’m also gonna throw in a Tin Pan Alley song and a Bob Dylan song arranged in a country blues style. This is a continuation of my longtime fascination with American Roots music. I put out a CD in 2012 called Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie which was comprised of songs I adapted from my guitar heroes’ repertoires, guys like Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson, and Blind Blake.
FADL: What makes a good song for kids & families?
RK: Well, pop music in the first half of the 20th century was mostly appropriate for both adults and children. Beautifully written Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs had adult themes intact but no vulgar language or explicit content.
I can pretty much cover one of those songs without altering them now and get away with it.
Today’s music has diverged, in both directions. The music for grown-ups tends to be more obviously “adult” and the kids’ music tends to be “sanitized.” Even my more scatological numbers have been catching a lot of flak this year! Hey, I have a toddler here at home and I was just writing what I knew
FADL: Your original story songs for children have a lot of energy and blend a lot of eclectic and classic styles. Can you talk about some other styles that inform your songs for kids…
RK:: I like all sorts of music from Folk to Jazz to Opera to Broadway to Rap to Rock to Classical or Concert Music. But my favorite is Country-Blues and Ragtime, Piedmont or East Coast Blues in particular. I’ve adapted an awful lot of songs from this repertoire. Now, these weren’t the pop songs I mentioned earlier and a lot of them had to undergo lyrical overhauls, especially for today’s audiences. Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly got away with singing these types of songs unabridged and unaltered for family audiences but, as I mentioned previously, that wouldn’t pass muster with the censors of today. So in addition to my original story songs and straight covers of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley gems I adapt old-timey American roots music. In fact, I made an entire CD of these adaptations: Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie. That syncopated ragtime rhythm seems to strike a chord in kids and I certainly love playing it.
FADL: And…tell us about your MICHIGAN connection…
RK: The state of Michigan is bound up with my fate for sure! I started my college career there, spending two years in Ann Arbor a couple of decades ago. I wound up graduating from UCLA and went on to study acting and music in Los Angeles. A few years ago I married a Michigander, a woman who graduated from U-M and whose family all lives in Michigan. We are in Los Angeles now but are fairly certain that we are moving to Michigan this summer! All those Great freshwater lakes surrounding it, the original home of Gibson Guitars (Kalamazoo), Charlevoix (I love playing the bandshell there!), the great history of the Detroit sports clubs, especially the Tigers, and a passageway to the rest of America on its southern border. My 3-year-old son points to Michigan on the map and says he wants to live there. Off we go.
FADL: Any other important influences on your musical life?
RK: I always think of the time I met Harry Chapin, the story-song king who lived near me and my family growing up out on Long Island. My mother was a huge fan and so were the other families in the neighborhood. Harry came to sing at our elementary school one day and my mother pulled some strings and got me backstage. She told Harry I played guitar and Harry shook my hand, smiled, and told me to keep practicing. Which I did.