What Happens When Children Start a Band
On wikiHow, there are instructions on how to properly start up a band. The entry splendidly reduces the whole tortuous process to a series of simply phrased steps -- "Don't have people in the band who refuse to practice!" "Watch out for egos!" "Try to wear the same colors!" -- while conveying an unchecked innocence typically associated with children. (Regarding rehearsing: "Does U2 still practice? Of course!") All that was missing was a warning on the dangers of falling prey to kiddie excess (i.e., gorging on too many backstage chocolate bars and soft drinks).
I caught my 12-year-old and nine-year-old engaging in the sort of hurried, excited talk that accompanies the genesis of a good idea. They were chatting with similarly aged friends about starting a band. I considered tacking on several dozen addenda to that wikiHow entry and printing for distribution. You know, a little instruction on how an aspiring artist can keep breathing in an era where album sales continue to plummet, technology has democratized the recording process, the Internet delivers fame in small, unfulfilling doses, and constant stimulation is hurting our brain's ability to be creative. But that would have been Joe Jackson-level meddlesome, no?
Anyway, the whole incident had me considering two recent arrivals in the mail -- the Numero Group's two kid-centric compilations, Home Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul and Eccentric Soul: The Young Disciples -- and how the adolescents featured on these albums could have benefited from a few nuggets of wisdom regarding the burden of personal expectation and the oftentimes ugly side of the music business. Founded in 2003 by Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier, and Ken Shipley, the Chicago-based Numero reissues obscure, largely forgotten R&B, soul, and folk music. The compilations feature painstakingly compiled liner notes, vintage photographs, even accompanying DVD documentaries, like in the case of 2009 release Local Customs: Downriver Revival. In the words of Shipley: "We're saving bits of Americana and American music."
Home Schooled compiles vintage soul from the early 1970s, kid groups yearning to emulate the triumphs of the Jackson 5 and the Five Stairsteps. The artists hail from Chicago and Milwaukee, as well as the Mid-Atlantic states and Florida. Young Disciples, meanwhile, is a bit more focused, centering on East St. Louis' South End Community Center, which in the late 1960s featured a music program run by Allan Merry. A former musician who toured or recorded with artists such as Ray Charles and Hank Williams Jr., Merry formed the Young Disciples, a collective that featured solo acts, duos, and dance troupes.
"Groups involving kids were often regarded as novelty acts," Sevier explains. "But then Michael Jackson proved that kids don't have to be a novelty. Of course, he was able to do that because he had serious talent -- he had chops. And that's when people started looking to cash in, to discover or become the next Michael."
Ask a group of young children who can sing and most will raise their hands. Ask a group of adults the same question and the response will be significantly less enthusiastic. On Home Schooled and Young Disciplines, listeners hear this wide-eyed eagerness in both the voices and the words. The records push the idea that pure energy makes up for any creative failings. Songs are both raw and precious, and serve as a strong argument on behalf of these kids' convictions, however naïve they may be.
Home Schooled's highlights include 3 Stars' "Jersey Slide Pt. 1," with its dizzying vocal interplay, and Eight Minutes' "Here's Some Dances," which is as hip-shakingly exuberant as the title suggests. (Quick aside: A member of Eight Minutes provides the liner notes' most philosophical moment. Wendell Sudduth, on the failure of achieving success: "It was for the best, I think. I got to play baseball and be a normal kid. Michael [Jackson] didn't.")
Grown-ups frequently traffic in the concerns of adolescence, but the payoff isn't nearly as potent as when kids do the same and enter the world of adult mores. On Home Schooled, Cindy & the Playmates' "Now That School Is Through" intimates that the classroom is a place for life lessons more crucial than anything learned in a book. Otis the 3rd's "Time" is an adorable little ballad that leaves one pondering the inexorable march of time (but not before smiling at the track's images of loved ones walking hand-in-hand in Disneyland). Promise's "I'm Not Ready for Love" articulates how much of a downer romance can be, leaving the group's female vocalists with no desire to engage in a relationship anytime soon. "I'm not ready for love," they declare. "I'm not ready to kiss and hug."
On Young Disciples, the voices have matured, the sound is tighter. The observations are more nuanced (LaVel Moore's "The World is Changing"), the personal sentiments more emphatic (Dauphin Williams' "I Love You") and caustic (Sharon Clark & The Product of Time's "It's Not Your Business"). In many ways, Young Disciples is Home Schooled's natural conclusion, an album that demonstrates the idea that once a child begins to contemplate the future, innocence begins to wane.
It's a touch heartbreaking; when Sevier explains that many of these child artists have essentially become ciphers, their individual narratives swallowed up by history, it adds a whole new layer of sadness. The messengers have faded away, yet their messages persist.
"Adults typically leave evidence of their existence," Sevier says. "Kids leave less of a mark. They have adults doing so much for them, particularly when it comes to something involving music. We weren't able to chat with as many people had we had hoped. Many of them were just impossible to track down."
The former child artists Sevier and others from Numero did meet were generally untroubled by questions of what could have been.
"I think we're all familiar with how it works," Sevier says. "You were that great swimmer in high school and you went to states. But then you never went any further with it. You just moved on, tried to avoid being disappointed. It was all about maintaining a good perspective on things."
There are no better words of wisdom I could pass along to my fledgling musicians.
Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.