Lately it seems music has stopped evolving—or slowed to a subtle crawl. Where there used to be well defined, bold eras (think disco, punk, grunge, R&B), now is a mixed pot of electronic-accented indie with indie becoming ever more mainstream.
The children’s music genre holds onto boundaries a little better with more definitive styles that still largely lean toward the folk/acoustic side. Portland-based Red Yarn is a star of this style and the devotion that Andy Furgeson, the man behind the moniker, has toward reviving traditional folksongs and lyrical tale telling is worth noting.
Folk Music Alchemy
Furgeson is redefining this style ever so slightly, encouraging its evolution. Like an alchemist, he infuses elements of modern sound while holding tight to the constitution under which this folksy music was born. For his third release, Wake Up & Sing, Ferguson journeyed to the Hudson River Valley to see the grounds that inspired some of his musical heroes, from Seeger’s Clearwater to The Band’s Big Pink House in Woodstock.
While in New York State, he joined forces with Grammy-winning producer Dean Jones (another musical alchemist), whose influence is recognizable through the variety of eclectic instruments. But the genius behind Jones’s producer mastery is honoring Furgeson’s style and giving him space and encouragement to emit even more electricity. Songs like “Clap Your Hands” and “Fourth of July” are fueled with a mix of classic rock and bluegrass, punctuated by a rollicking banjo.
In many ways, Furgeson’s style echoes that of Pete Seeger, a man with an acoustic guitar and a passion for encouraging kids to sing. Seeger came riding the tide of a social landscape that drew strength from community, knowing that there is power in numbers especially when it comes to music. In this environment, singing along isn’t really a conscious choice. The music draws you in with a force that is consuming.
Furgeson breaks through in this way as well. His approach is vibrant. It’s passionate. He steps so fully into the lyrical content and traditional stories that he becomes the music. Though Wake Up & Sing features prominent vocals by Furgeson, it toys with the possibility of full stage ensemble with special guest appearances by the likes of Mo Phillips, Morgan Taylor (Gustafer Yellowgold) and Furgeson’s wife, Jessie Eller-Issacs.
Simple Melodies that Start a Sing-a-Long
In his previous two releases, Deep Woods and Deep Woods Revival, Ferguson reintroduced American folk classics from anthologies such as Carl Sandburg’s Great American Songbook (1927) and Alan Lomax’s Folk Songs of North America (1960)—with a balance of light and dark content and a focus on animal perspectives. Wake Up & Sing preserves some animal subject matter but moves into a more playful, sunny arena with the songs retaining a formula that has made children’s musicians like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Ella Jenkins such celebrated artists. Furgeson knows exactly how to get his young audience to participate through simple, gentle melodies, playful lyrics, and familiar and appealing language.
Songs Filled with Big Love
Wake Up & Sing also takes a somewhat more personal detour as much of the album comes from Furgeson’s archives—notebooks of folksong adaptations and rhymes he had written for his son. The tender and original ballad, “Welcome to the World,” is instilled with the staggeringly raw emotion of first-time parenthood and reminds us that song is a powerful mouthpiece for the heart. It articulates the inarticulate moments when your chest swells, throat tightens and eyes well up, overcome by the depth of love and the longing to protect and shield your child from the world.
“If I could take you in my arms and tell you that I’m going to
Keep you safe from harm, you know my boy I’d want to
But it’s a mean and mystic world and everybody’s going to
Find out on their own, you know my boy you got to
And I’m just looking for the words…
Just when you’re grabbing for the tissues, the song comes back around to comfort not only your child but you as well.
But remember now and then, anytime you want to
Find your way back home, you need a place to run to
To feel the sky above, to feel the earth below you
You got this heart to love, you got these arms to hold you
And I’ll say, “Welcome to the world…”
The Background to a Beautiful Day
Wake Up & Sing is a delightful addition to the Red Yarn repertoire and an album absolutely worth exploring. Its 11 songs offer a sun-moon cycle as it coaxes listeners into a day full of discovery and wonder, gently lulling you back into a sweet little slumber. As Red Yarn, Ferguson has created a style all his own which will no doubt take him on a path to reach the same time-honored status as some of this genre’s classically favored artists including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins and Raffi.
Shout out to Ryan Bruce for the brilliantly colored vintage linocut print found on the album’s cover.
Bonus Material: Families new to Red Yarn should know that there is so much more to this artist. Behind the music is a brilliant stage show featuring a family of puppets (endearingly referred to as “critters”) familiar to many from The Deep Woods albums and productions. Furgeson has also become a staunch supporter of the Portland kindie music community by producing a family music series called The Family Ramble in downtown Portland. This year’s series capped off with a performance by Grammy winning artist Tim Kubart, and will return in the fall.