Portland’s family of kindie musicians jams from coast to coast.
Some rainy afternoon last spring, an email went out amongst friends proposing a gathering at Mississippi Pizza Pub. There’d be music, it said. Kids required. Red Yarn was playing, and Red Yarn is something of a rock star to the under-4-feet demographic. The place was packed.
Andy Furgeson, the man behind Red Yarn, hopped on stage with a suitcase full of puppets and a guitar. Then, short of juggling flaming chainsaws with his teeth, he did the bravest thing a live performer can do: he invited a room full of amped-up children onto the stage with him. It should have been chaos; it wasn’t, not quite.
“It rides that line,” Furgeson says, laughing.
As soon as Andy turned himself into Red — it takes a magical incantation and a little imagination — the stage ceased being the stage. It was the Deep Woods, home to the animals that populate the American folk songbook.
It’s a fun concept, and one with its roots in Furgeson’s 2005 senior thesis at Pomona College, Roadmaps for the Soul: Whitman, Dylan and the American Bardic Project. It’s smart stuff, and it needs to be.
Ours is a post-Pixar world, and in a post-Pixar world, it’s not only okay to build a little emotional depth and intelligence into catchy hooks and goofy stories, it’s expected. If not by the kids, by the parents — we’re the ones with the wallets, after all.
And this is Portland. Home to a vibrant music scene, and a creative class The New York Times can’t stop, won’t stop crowing about.
We don’t need the Wiggles. We don’t want the Wiggles. We like local, and we’ve got local. Dozens of performers are playing pubs and coffee shops and clothing swaps and making music our kids love and we can like. A few are even elevating the art, and the city’s profile on the national scene.
Furgeson, for one, works old Americana with the heart and cheer of Pete Seeger. Lori Henriques plays jazz that could warm up Sesame Street or New Orleans. As Cat Doorman, Julianna Bright combines an illustrator’s touch with a punk’s passion. And Aaron Nigel Smith is doing nothing less that using a classic choral background to bring worlds together.
The Name’s Red. Red Yarn.
In December, in front of two sold-out Clinton Street Theater audiences, Furgeson premiered a 23-minute pilot episode of The Deep Woods, a puppet-packed short film that might one day become more. Look close enough, and you’ll notice Bob has a copy of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde hanging in his home. The woods offer Ferguson an endless supply of inspiration.
“It’s a story I can keep coming back to,” he says.
Like most performers around town, Furgeson, who grew up in Austin, Texas, began playing for grown-ups. He was playing bluegrass and folk. He was obsessed with the classic American songbook, the stuff Alan Lomax spent so much of his life archiving.
Furgeson started working after-school programs at Friendly House, and that’s where Red Yarn was born. “I was doing storytelling, and doing songs — all these old animal folk songs,” he says.
This was two and a half years ago, and it’s been growing ever since. A little less than a year ago, when his first child was born, Furgeson quit his job and turned Red Yarn into a full-time operation. The Deep Woods pilot is a next step, though he’s not sure to what, exactly. Television stardom would be one hope. Just doing his part for the folk tradition is another.
“There is an ambitious side of me,” he says. “This project has a greater purpose — to preserve these old songs.”
Big Questions, Set to Music
Lori Henriques remembers reading an interview with Paul Williams, one of the co-writers of “Rainbow Connection,” the breakout tune from 1979’s The Muppet Movie. “He wanted to portray Kermit as a frog of substance,” she says, and so he packed with big questions exactly like the kind kids ask every day.
On her newest record, How Great Can This Day Be, there are odes to scientist Jane Goodall and Mr. Rogers. Her catalog already included a songs built on big scientific principles, and the importance of water.
She’s won the Joe Raposo Children’s Music Award, named in honor of the composer responsible for all of the great old Sesame Street music — the stuff that could be sung by Kermit the Frog and Ray Charles alike.
It’s a finer line than we think. There was a time when she was living in Los Angeles that industry folks were interested in Henriques. At least until they heard some of the songs she’d been writing to help her piano students. Then she was asked if perhaps she could do something more like Norah Jones. No offense to Norah, but that wasn’t what Henriques wanted to do. She’s got plans for a musical for grown-ups, but the kid set is working for her.
NPR reviewed How Great Can This Day Be, and it shot up the sales charts on Amazon and iTunes. She gets a lot of SiriusXM airplay, and the money from that keeps the operation going.
With two kids, there’s no shortage of inspiration. The title track on the new album, “How Great Can This Day Be,” is something she and her son say to each other every day, she says. And that’s how it should work. Children should be inspiring.
Bright New Day
“I don’t like being goofy,” Julianna Bright says.
She’s sitting in her dining room next to a wall of records. There’s a piano in the living room, a row of typewriters on a shelf. The sound of her voice being played back bleeds up from the basement where she’s been working on some songs for the Discovery Channel.
In 2013, she released the first Cat Doorman album, Cat Doorman Songbook, in conjunction with an app from Portland’s Night & Day Studios. The app allowed kids to mix and follow along with the song “Little Red Wagon,” a rework of the 1951 version of “Little Brass Wagon” Charity Bailey recorded for Smithsonian Folkways.
The album included 12 originals, “Little Red Wagon,” and a song by Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, “Effervescing Elephant.” The band also included her husband Seth Lorincizi, who has played with Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, and in his and Bright’s “adult band” Golden Bears.
They didn’t cheat the songs. The arrangements were full, the writing was tight and she assumed some sophistication from the pint-sized listeners. She gave them credit. “And I found they deserved it,” she says. The one thing she’s learned? “The emotional content has been meaningful to them,” Bright says.
This year they plan to offer a lot of music. The first of as many as four EPs is finished and will soon be available online.
World Music, Portland Home
“(Kids) keep you honest,” Aaron Nigel Smith says. They’ll tell you what they don’t like. But their energy can be energizing, and Smith knows intimately how powerful music can be.
His grandmother shipped him off from their home outside Detroit to the American Boychoir School in New Jersey. “For three years I was immersed in classical music,” he says. He’d played Carnegie Hall by the age of 12, and never looked back.
By the time he and his wife Diedre moved their family to Lake Oswego in 2008, he’d toured the world, worked on the PBS Kids show Between the Lions, and they’d founded FUNdementals of Music and Movement. It’s a dance and music program they’ve since franchised to more than 100 early education centers.
In 2009, they founded the non-profit One World Chorus, to connect kids in Portland, Los Angeles, New York, Jamaica and Kenya through music. This month, One World will release a record of Bob Marley covers — on Tuff Gong Worldwide, the label run by Marley’s oldest son, Ziggy — featuring choruses from each of those places, brought together through the magic of studio technology.
He hopes one day to get them all together. He knows the power of such moments. Last year, he took a shipment of drums to a school in Jamaica. The drums had been donated by Remo and they made getting through customs a pain but when Smith saw the reactions of the kids, it was worth it. When he got home, Martin & Co., makers of the finest acoustic guitars, saw what he did and sent him guitars for his next trip. Those, too, brought smiles.
“I know (music) can change a kid’s life,” Smith says. “I know it. I know.”
Photos by Irene Tejaratchi Hess