Back to school

THERE’S ONLY ONE thing that makes me want to put my foot through the TV screen faster than that grating blond wench in the Old Navy ads: singing children. Why is being assaulted by some grinning brat in muddy dungarees, warbling at the top of its little lungs, supposed to compel me to buy lunch meat? I do not want to know your baloney’s first name, I want you to shut up until you’re old enough to master basic diction and breath control.

The fundamental problem with kids singing in commercials is the same one that plagues school music programs: The strings are being pulled by grown-ups, typically governed by strict, corny notions of what constitutes “appropriate” fare for youngsters. As early as third grade, I knew being in chorus was an exercise in futility. It was only my desperate love of applause that motivated me to risk falling off a riser before the eyes of the whole cafeteria on a regular basis, not the heart-wrenching lyrics of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Red River Valley.” I wanted to tackle ABBA and the Beatles, but the closest we ever got at Kent Gardens Elementary was the Carpenters’ “Top of the World.”

But it could have been different, were it not for that cruel mistress named Geography. For had I been reared in rural Langley, B.C., instead of suburban Northern Virginia, my path in 1976—the year I started third grade—would have crossed with that of Hans Fenger. And I might have been among the voices heard on the Langley Schools Music Project’s Innocence and Despair, a one-of-a-kind recording unlikely to ever be duplicated.

Hans Fenger, a Dutch hippie living in Vancouver, had it made in 1971, giving guitar lessons during the day and playing local bars at night. But after getting his girlfriend knocked up, he decided to seek gainful employment. He studied for his teaching certificate, and upon graduation in 1974, landed a gig in Langley, a conservative outpost he describes as “a sort of Canadian Bible Belt.” The following year, thanks to the district’s head teacher, Hans was assigned to teach music at three small grade schools.

Hans came to the job with neither conventional music-instruction experience nor fixed ideas of what tykes should sing. The latter proved no problem. “The kids knew what they liked—emotion, drama, and making music as a group,” he says in the liner notes. Living in isolated farm country, most of them only knew music from the radio, and that’s what they wanted to sing.

“Children’s music is often condescending and ignores the reality of children’s lives, which can be dark and scary,” Hans observes. That didn’t cut it in Langley. “These children hated ‘cute.’ They cherished songs that evoked loneliness and sadness.”

An admirer of color-outside-the-lines iconoclasts Phil Spector and Sun Ra, Hans obliged, setting his 9- to 12-year-old charges loose on “The Long and Winding Road,” “Rhiannon,” and the entire Beach Boys catalog. He equipped the kids with xylophones, ragtag percussion, and a bass guitar, and taught them rudimentary, “organic” arrangements, augmented by his own piano and guitar accompaniment.

In 1976, despite having to travel considerable distances, all of Fenger’s students gathered in the same gymnasium, and, after a few rehearsals, recorded nine selections. Each was done in a single take, using just two microphones, a two-track tape deck, and the room’s cavernous acoustics. With money collected from the kids, Hans pressed the results on vinyl and distributed 300 LPs to students, families, and faculty. The following year, he staged and recorded a second concert, featuring the children, dressed in homemade costumes and Day-Glo body paint, doing interpretive gymnastics to “Space Oddity” and “Dust in the Wind.”

Twenty-four years later, these recordings are available to the general public. Assembled by “outsider” musicologist and Songs in the Key of Z author Irwin Chusid, Innocence and Despair captivates with its naﶥt頡nd enthusiasm. On Paul McCartney’s “Venus and Mars/Rock Show,” a persistent tambourine slides in and out of sync with the voices. “Space Oddity” boasts a dynamic arrangement (including a guitar freak-out and drums that sound like empty pickle buckets) that David Bowie says he “couldn’t have conceived of, even with half of Colombia’s finest export products in me.” And if 9-year-old soloist Sheila Behman’s rendition of “Desperado” doesn’t break your heart . . . well, you don’t have one.

I am not advocating teaching kids four-part arrangements of Limp Bizkit ditties and passing it off as education; lord knows school music programs are in enough trouble as is. But everyone, not just educators, can probably find something to cherish in the Langley Schools Music Project’s Innocence and Despair. And that’s coming from someone who despises singing children.

Innocence and Despair (on Bar None Records) is in stores Oct. 23.