WHEN IT COMES TO teaching kids the fundamentals of zoology, comic strips and cartoons have a long way to go. Even at 35, I am

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Playing Possum

WHEN IT COMES TO teaching kids the fundamentals of zoology, comic strips and cartoons have a long way to go. Even at 35, I am dismayed when confronted with yet another example of a falsehood perpetrated by Bugs Bunny, et al. One of my pals recently returned from a trip to Palm Springs, Calif., and recounted, with genuine surprise, that roadrunners are actually only a few inches tall. In other words, no match for even a lilliputian coyote. And Tasmanian devils? No bigger than badgers. I reckon drawing funny animals larger than they really are renders them, well, funnier, but if illustrators had been jest a lil' more accurate when it came to proportions, I might not have been so terrified to venture into the woods as a child.

And yet, despite these fears, I had no such reservations about following an opossum into the swamp. Let me explain. . . .

When I was a lad, our family would make regular pilgrimages to Ohio to visit my father's parents. In addition to the promise of spending time with my beloved grandmother, there were many enticements that made me look forward to these tripslike an icebox that was stocked with cream sodas and the tiny, individual salt and pepper shakers set at each place around the dining table. (Years later, I learned Grandmother had purloined these from a certain airline over the course of many flights. When she had a full set of service for 12, she stopped traveling.) But for years, what I looked forward to most, besides seeing my grandmother, was spending time with Pogo.

Until I was old enough to appreciate Doonesbury, Pogo was my favorite comic strip. Although it had ceased to appear in the funny pages by my eighth birthday, I was fortunate to meet the denizens of the Okefenokee Swampled by the aforementioned opossum, Pogo, and his sidekick, a rambunctious alligator named Albertvia a volume of collected Pogo strips tucked away on a bookshelf in my grandparents' guest bedroom. I had trouble believing that Pogo was truly an opossumwe had opossums in Virginia, and they looked like giant rats, not friendly critters with furry heads and upturned nosesbut that never discouraged me from reading cover-to-cover on every visit. I rarely grasped the comic's political references, but I was savvy enough to appreciate the satire in Pogo and the simple way of life the characters celebrated. And, as a budding musical-theater geek, the cast's tendency to burst into song always warmed my heart.

With the exception of Annie, the funnies rarely beget enduring music. And yet, back in 1956, 13 years after Pogo first appeared, the strip's creator, Walt Kelly, and a young songwriter named Norman Monath had a notion to compose and commit 18 Songs of the Pogo to wax. Long out of print, this album, a highly sought-after collectible, has been reissued on CD by Reaction Recordings, expanded with a couple later 45 sides and some outtakes. Like the strip that spawned it, Songs of the Pogo has weathered the years admirably.

THE 24-TRACK SET kicks off with Kelly's own gruff rendition of "Go-Go Pogo." The author sings like Louis Prima after one too many cigars, sparring with a Dixieland jazz band that has banished its pianist to another room. The program continues with such notable selections as the rousing sing-along "Slopposition" and the solemn "Man's Best Friend." Although the liner notes claim these numbers were "originally scored for lute, harp, comb-with-tissue-paper, and nightingale," they are served just fine by the versatile orchestrations of arranger Jimmy Carroll.

The rest of the singers are as good a bunch as was ever called upon to give voice to the nonsensical poetry of "nature's screechers." According to the new liner notes, conductor Mitch Miller complained bitterly about featured vocalist Fia Karin, claiming that her lack of studio experience would keep Songs of the Pogo out of the hit parade. While, admittedly, it might have been nice to hear a seasoned jazz canary tackle the blues send-up "Don't Sugar Me," cooler heads would note that Miller was the same genius who steered Rosemary Clooney away from legit jazz in favor of novelty crap like "Come on-a My House." If nothing here quite matches the sheer audacity of Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross' 1961 vocalese rendition of Kelly's Christmas ditty, "Deck Us All With Boston Charlie," the sheer gusto of the parti cipants is more than sufficient to meet the demands of the task at hand.

As a child, I followed Pogo into the Okefenokee Swamp. Now, thanks to this unexpected reissue, I am delighted to welcome him into my home. I'm still not convinced that he's really an opossum, but after all the zoological misinformation foisted on me by Looney Tunes and the like over the years, who am I to argue?

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