MP3 Ken Lonnquist - The Lost Songs Of Kenland
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29 MP3 Songs
KIDS/FAMILY: Children's Pop, FOLK: Folk Pop
THE LOST SONGS OF KENLAND
"The Lost Songs Of Kenland inhabits a pop-fantasy world that Lennon & McCartney would have recognized; in some ways, itâs like Sgt. Pepperâs for kids. Lost Songsâ multi-layered-but-controlled production values, colorful imagery, affection for old-fashioned showmanship and feel for the light and dark sides of a kidâs inner world make it a young American cousin to the Fab Fourâs masterpiece."
'" Maureen Gerarden, Isthmus
Ken Lonnquist has made his mark in the world of childrenâs music.
By Dwight Allen Isthmus Weekly Arts Newspaper
Early one Friday evening in November, Ken Lonnquist sang a bunch of his childrenâs songs to an S.R.O. crowd at the Meadowridge Branch Library, out on the southwestern edge of Madison. Lonnquist wore blue jeans, a striped t-shirt, galluses, one gold-hoop earring and no shoes. He accompanied himself on a custom-made, small-bodied acoustic guitar. About halfway through the show, a boy who was sitting up front, a curious, pesky kid of about 9 or 10, asked Lonnquist what the metal thingamabob was on the floor there, next to Kenâs empty boots. The boy picked the thingamabob up and examined it.
âThatâs called a capo,â Lonnquist said, politely. âWould you like to see me use it?â The boy said he would. Lonnquist said, well, he might do that, sometime, and then he went into a song called âMy Motherâs Snoringâ which didnât require him to use a capo but did give him a chance to snore noisily and profoundly.
Lonnquist, who is 35 and has lived in Madison since he was 13, has been performing for children for almost a dozen years. He has written, by his count, a âgazillionâ songs for kids, as well as several hundred others for taller people. âMy Motherâs Snoringâ is among his most popular numbers'"he recorded it on his first cassette for kids, Kengos Bongos, which was made in 1986 in his living room'"but it is probably not quite as popular as his fast, funny, âAlligator Rag (Donât Get Caught With Your Pants Down When Thereâs An Alligator Around)â. This song, which Lonnquist adapted from a ditty he wrote for broad-minded adults back in the early days of the Reagan administration, appeals directly, if not unimaginatively, to childrenâs interest in butts.
If you are Ken Lonnquist, âAlligator Ragâ is a good song to sing if you donât seem to have a firm grip on your audience. One reason that Lonnquist didnât always have a firm grip on the Meadowridge audience was that it contained quite a few toddlers, in addition to the people whom Lonnquist regards as his ideal listeners, the Kindergarten through 6th grade crowd. âIâve been told by parents and teachers that Iâm very good at holding kidsâ attention,â Lonnquist said later. âBut whenever there are toddlers around, you can throw everything out the window. I donât do toddler music, the ââ¬ËWheels On The Busâ kind of thing.â
âAlligator Ragâ seemed to concentrate the minds of many of the children at Meadowridge. Lonnquistâs next number, âOne Speed Bikeâ, which is on a just-released cassette called Welcome 2 Kenland, got the joint jumping. âOne Speed Bikeâ is irresistible rock ââ¬Ën roll, a classic portrait of a red-blooded, speed-obsessed kid. Lonnquist even managed to get a boy in untied high-top sneakers who was reading a stack of Spider-Man comic books to look his way.
Then, after doing a funny, swaying song about a tree-climbing boy named Morgan Menezes who ânever worries about stuff like gravityâ, Lonnquist tried out a soft, pretty tune called âCount On Meâ. This song includes the refrain âI love you.â The first time Lonnquist sang the refrain, a kid sitting up front'"the boy interested in the capo, it turned out'"said, âOh, gross!â This comment led to others'"âYuck!â and âEuuuu!â being the chief ones. Lonnquist absorbed all of this calmly, and converted the refrain into âI love yeeuuuuâ, thereby acknowledging the kidsâ feelings and deflating them a little, too. But these kids were a tough audience, or, perhaps, simply a forgetful one; they didnât applaud when the song was over. Lonnquist pulled a long face and said, âHey, did you know that if you donât clap the performer will have to go through years of very expensive therapy?â
A Little Dreaminââ¬Ë
A week or so later I met Lonnquist for lunch at Montyâs Blue Plate Diner, on the east side, his stomping grounds. He was wearing shoes'"high-top canvas sneakers (tied). He had an artisteâs beret on his head, and a few daysâ worth of whiskers on his face, and some burrs on his sweater which suggested that heâd been messing around in nature. He hadnât, he said, unless you considered walking the dogs in the park messing around in nature. However, he had been working on a new cassette collection of his environmental for kids. And later that afternoon he was going to perform some of those songs at Glendale Elementary School, which was having a Science Extravaganza Day.
It was noon'"rush hour at the Blue Plate, which, earlier in the day, serves as the broadcasting site for WORTâs âBreakfast Special.â Lonnquist, whose association with WORT goes back to 1978, hosted âThe Breakfast Specialâ in the late â80s, when it emanated from Clevelandâs Lunch on Wilson Street. (Last winter, he filled in as host, while WORT looked for a permanent replacement). Though Lonnquist describes himself as âa morning personâ, he doesnât especially enjoy rising at 4:30 AM and spending the hours after 9:00 AM, when the show was over, as a zombie. However, he enjoyed being a radio host much more than the only other day job he has held. In 1989, when he had, as he put it, âalbum debts up the wazoo,â he taught debate and acting at Middleton High School. He wore a tie and tight-fitting shoes. âThe job really reinforced my desire to be an itinerant musician,â he says.
Unlike many itinerant musicians, Lonnquist makes a living, nowadays, at his trade. He gives about 250 concerts a year, most of them for the K-12 crowd, which means, among other things, that he gets to perform in a smoke-free, alcohol-free environment and is able to go to bed at a decent hour. Childrenâs music has become a big business, and though Lonnquist isnât well known beyond the upper Midwest, he has managed, by dint of talent and energy, to stake out some territory for himself. âIf I werenât occupying the unique niches I occupy,â he told me, âit would be impossible for me to make my living solely from music.â
Lonnquist ordered a Blue Plate veggie burger and a tall glass of milk, and told me about his parents and his seven older brothers and sisters. His father, who was born in northern Wisconsin, was a corn geneticist, one of the key figures in the so-called Green Revolution which led to improved grain production in Third World countries. Like everybody else in his family, his father played an instrument (guitar) and sang a little (cowboy songs). He was also a champion snorer, a fact that isnât obvious in âMy Motherâs Snoring.â
âWhen I wrote that song,â Lonnquist said, âmy father had been dead for several years, so I decided to make my mother the snorer. Itâs more fun to tease the living.â
Lonnquist composed his first song one day when he was 7, walking home from school in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he lived until he was 10. He made up a melody for some lyrics he found in a book called The Ghost Of Dibble Hollow. Many years later, he re-used that simply, bouncy melody in his version of âThe Princess And The Peaâ, which is on Kengos Bongos.
In 1967, when he was 10, he got his first guitar. (His family had since moved to Mexico City.) Soon thereafter, inspired by The Beatles (âI was a Beatlemaniac, and still amâ) and his own problems as a budding adolescent, he began to make a habit of writing songs. He wrote so much that his sister Peg, who is three years older, decided to prove that there was nothing mysterious about songwriting. She produced a one-verse nonsense song called âBe-Boppa-Doodley-Oppa.â Later, Lonnquist added a verse of his own and put the song on A Little Dreaminâ, his second kidsâ collection. The liner notes say: âMusic and goofy words by Peg Lonnquist, normal words by Ken Lonnquist.â
As the last of eight children, âthe smallest in a pile of achievers,â Lonnquist had to make a lot of noise in order to be heard. âIt was a ââ¬ËHorton Hears A Whoâ kind of thing for me,â he said, and then recited, in a small, faraway voice, the Whosâ pleas for recognition: We are here! We are here! As a result of his status at home, Lonnquist became something of a ham. But his hamminess didnât extend to his songwriting, which, in itâs adolescent phase, was mostly serious and romantic, indebted to early Paul Simon.
Lonnquist believed that singing his own songs and those of people he admired defined him, and he was reluctant to do it in front of his peers. He said that the first time he performed in public'"at an open mike night at the University of Wisconsin, which he sporadically attended between 1975 and 1980'"he forgot all the words to Gordon Lightfootâs âIf You Could Read My Mind,â which he had sung in private thousands of times. âI think I was paralyzed because it mattered so much to me that I be, um, okay in peopleâs minds,â he told me.
In the late â70s, Lonnquist played in a country-rock band called Rowdy Yates. The experience of performing in bars for big bags of bloatation equipped with pool sticks and whatnot made the idea of writing and singing for kids seem desirable. In the early â80s he started composing songs for Childrenâs Theater of Madison. He also traveled around the state as a balladeer in the employ of Environmental Decade, an education and lobbying group. âI was supposed to be their ââ¬ËPete Seegerâ.â
At the same time, he was knocking out all kinds of adult songs, many of them as the âBreakfast Specialâsâ composer-frequently-in-residence. âListeners would call in and suggest topics, and then when we broke for news Iâd go write a song and perform it later in the show,â Lonnquist said. (Some of those songs, including âThe Kiss Your Ass Goodbye Polka,â appear on The Late News From Clevelandâs Lunch, a 1990 recording full of manic parodies.
Doug Brown, a Madison-based musician who has worked alongside Lonnquist since 1978, says that the quality that impresses him most about his friend is his spontaneity. âThere is something almost magical about the way he can conjure up a song on the spur of the moment. Heâs a real creative spirit.â
Kenny Aigen, a keyboardist who has played on all but one of Lonnquistâs recordings for children, says that the reason Lonnquist is able to reach kids is that he can remember what it is like to be one. âKen doesnât write childrenâs music as an adult trying to figure out what kids want,â Aigen, who is a professor of music therapy at New York University, told me. âNor does he try to figure out what parents want their children to hear. He isnât moralistic and he isnât cutesy-wutesy.â Lonnquist himself has said of his kidsâ music, âI try to write songs that are fun for me, because I have to sing them forever.â
Lonnquist chased his glass of milk with a cup of coffee, and then we headed off for Glendale Elementary, in southeastern Madison. We traveled in the environmentally incorrect California style: he in his Toyota, I in mine. I listened to Welcome 2 Kenland, one his two new childrenâs cassettes. The other is Old Befana, a retelling, in song and narrative, of an Italian Twelfth Night folktale. Unlike his first two albums for kids, the new ones were recorded in a studio'"Butch Vigâs'"and have high quality sound.
Kenland is a lively and varied collection. It includes the aforementioned âOne Speed Bikeâ, two gentle environmental songs, a do-wop-ish tune about TV, âOld Witchâ (which Lonnquist heard long ago on a Burl Ives record), a jungle-beat number about a girl with messy habits, and a song about the composerâs two dogs (Blue and Moon), who howl when the same girl plays her saxophone. The girl is Natalie Richter, the 13 year old daughter of Lonnquistâs partner, Joanne Schilling. Natalie has appeared on all of Lonnquistâs recordings for kids. âBut,â Lonnquist said, âsheâs not into my stuff anymore. Sheâs into whatâs hip.â
At the Blue Plate, I had asked Lonnquist if he ever listened to other performers of childrenâs music'"I was thinking of Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Taj Mahal, Maria Muldaur, Dave Van Ronk'"and he said, âNo, hardly at all.â Nor, for that matter, did he listen to much folk music'"or, rather, to what echt folkies call folk music. He said he was more likely to find inspiration for his kidsâ songs in rock or folk-rock or Tex-Mex or reggae or other impure forms of pop music. And, he said, he often re-read the books that excited him as a boy'"Eleanor Cameronâs Mushroom Planet series, for instance. âI want to remember the feelings I had then, so I can impart them to kids now.â
Inside Glendale, Lonnquist sniffed the air and said, âCleaning fluid. Every school in North America has the same smell.â He got directions to the gym, and then went back outside and drove his car and me through the school playground, where recess was in full swing. âIt sure would be bad publicity if I hit one of these kids,â he said, as a girl with pigtails double-dog-dared him, or seemed to. He took his equipment into the gym, and was met there by Renee Forrest, Glendaleâs music teacher, who told him that he would be the culminating act of all-science day. He had been preceded by a man known as Mr. Science, whose show featured a couple of chemical explosions.
Lonnquist had an audience of 550. He led off with âOne Speed Bikeâ'"a song with very modest scientific content'"and got everybody clapping. He then did songs about more conventional matters'"recycling, whales, water, solar energy, garbage. Some of the songs were funny, and the serious ones werenât sappy or preachy. A few of them were participation songs. The effect of 550 children in a small gym shouting âGarbage!â every few bars was galvanizing.
Two days after Thanksgiving, Lonnquist performed in the Marquee Room of the Civic Center. He was celebrating the release of his two new cassettes, and the room was decorated with balloons and streamers. Natalie was there, taking tickets. Her mom was there, too. Peg Lonnquist had come down from her home in Minneapolis. Her brother had asked her to lead the audience in a kind of stretching exercise called the âBanana Cheerâ, and also, at the end of a song called âI Sold My Cat,â to make the sound of an elephant trumpeting. She did both tasks with flair.
When Lonnquist started to sing âI Sold My Cat,â a girl sitting up front, a fan, said, âI know this song.â
Lonnquist stopped, and then said, âI know this song, too. Thatâs something we have in common.â
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