The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

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JUL-AUG 2011 Issue

Songs for Swinging Babies

I’m not a witch; I’m you. Like you, I want to make sure that my musical taste is informed but not stiff, critically based but wide-ranging, privately elite in feel. And I want to make sure I can imprint that taste on my baby, so that not only will she be the hippest among her peers, but that her hipness will reflect back on me. Yes, I’m you: a Brooklyn parent.

Parents, your babies dig music! You already know this, of course, but I mean music is a discovery and a delight for them, their natural language. Science informs us that all babies are born with perfect pitch, but doesn’t take the further step of exploring what that means. We don’t need science to demonstrate that humans have a musical nature, and looking inside we realize that we are humans because we are musical. Anyone who listens to music honestly knows that marriage has nothing to do with founding civilization; ’twas music that brought us together. Why else would ancient peoples gather socially with strangers?

Our beautiful, precious children are born musical. Listen to the phrases in their language. It’s musical babble. And look at how they react when they hear music. What kind of music, you may wonder, do they enjoy the most? What kind will be the most fulfilling to us, socially, when we tell our friends and neighbors what the little bundle of joy likes? That, dear parent, is why I am here.

The music your child enjoys can be anything, and it’s frequently the most maddening kind of ear-worm. But continue to expose them to all sorts of things, as with food. There are therapeutic benefits to it; lullabies sound the way they do because of what they’re supposed to do, and I have it on the authority of the music editor of this publication that Hans-Joachim Roedelius’s proto-electronica Wenn Der Südwind Weht calmed his colicky baby. Does Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby actually work? For some parents I’m certain it does.

If it’s high culture you’d like to encourage, you can find it in a low place. The excellent “Baby Got Bach” series, organized by Orli Shaham and Gail Wein, presents snippets of classical music to toddlers, who get to participate. It’s held at Le Poisson Rouge, the Downtown music club, which of course has a bar. You’re welcome.

No one style of music will make your baby smarter than another, but music they like will make them happy and engaged. For my own little Pea, her first favorite was the theme from Doctor Who, which I have to sing to her in an exhausting falsetto voice. But the smile it gives her—how could I stop? She also loves it when I sing Yes’s “And You and I” (even more exhausting). She has enjoyed the slow movement of my favorite Mozart piano concerto, No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, but she’s been indifferent to Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Ives. She loves the sound of people talking over the radio, especially Phil Schaap, but she pays only fleeting attention to the Charlie Parker records Phil introduces.

What this tells me is that her ears find music at the high and low ends of the frequency range the most attractive; other stuff is hit-and-miss. She may or may not like the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, but I could sing “Oo Bop Sh’Bam” to her all day. Same thing with “Hey Pete, Let’s Eat More Meat.” The meat is tasty, but it’s the bebop scat singing that gives her the giggly-grins. It’s an adult’s version of baby-talk. That, along with the favorite stuff she always enjoys, no matter mood, time of day, or physical state, has brought me to an assured conclusion when it comes to baby music: All babies dig jive.

Yes, jive, baby! The style may seem gimmicky to our supposedly more enlightened ears, but this blend of blues, swing, and good times is just a pleasure to you and your little one. The most familiar names are Cab Calloway, Louis Prima, and Louis Jordan, and there were excellent practitioners in Lucky Millinder, the Griffin Brothers and, on the European classical side, Spike Jones. (Under no circumstances should you buy Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive.) But the greatest of all, the heppest of the hep, the coolest of all the cats, was the Legendary McVouty himself, Slim Gaillard. And there’s nothing that my baby loves like some Slim Gaillard. Some? I mean all Slim Gaillard, from “Avocado Seed Soup Symphony” to “Potato Chips,” from “Laughing in Rhythm” to “Chicken Rhythm,” from “Matzoh Balls” to her all-time fave, “Dunkin’ Bagel”—stop me if you catch a theme here.

And that theme actually is this: Sing to your baby. It’s important, but even better, it’s fun. I’m certain babies dig jive, and that’s because babies love it when you sing to them. And since, like you, I can’t sing, I sing jive, because it’s easy on the voice, easy to remember, and, as Slim sang, because, “Humpty Dumpty is very much hip.”


George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is a Brooklyn-based composer and writer. He runs and writes for, Time Out New York, and other publications.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

All Issues