Child's Play

Twenty-five years ago, an idealistic freak recorded Canadian children singing pop songs. Newly reissued, the CD is an underground hit.

In the mid-'70s, Hans Fenger, a young hippie musician turned elementary-school music teacher, decided to forgo the classroom's usual saccharine choirbook fare in favor of contemporary pop tunes by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Barry Manilow, the Eagles and other artists. Accompanied by Fenger on piano or guitar and a few kids on open-tuned electric bass, Orff xylophones, a stripped-down drum kit and other simple instruments, the students, all from the Langley district of rural western Canada, sang with gusto and delicacy. Inspired by their enthusiasm, Fenger borrowed a two-track Revox tape deck, set up a couple of microphones in the gymnasium and recorded the 9- to 12-year-olds performing songs such as "Space Oddity," "Desperado," "God Only Knows" and "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft." The school district pressed a few hundred copies to sell to parents, and, for a quarter-century, the albums moldered in basements, forgotten.

Then, last year, someone sent Irwin Chusid a CD-R featuring the kids' version of "Space Oddity," dubbed from an album found at a thrift store. Chusid, an outsider-art authority and host of The Incorrect Music Hour on NYC station WFMU-FM, loved it so much that he went to the trouble of tracking down Fenger to find more recordings from the Langley sessions. Once Chusid heard the entire collection, he was determined to release it for general consumption. Fenger, who now teaches music in Vancouver, admits to some initial skepticism: "I was really afraid when Irwin had first done this that it was going to be one of these 'It's so bad, it's good' things. I was really hesitant. I didn't want to see the kids used in that way or laughed at -- 'Oh, listen to this; it's so weird and campy.' After talking to Irwin for a while, I saw that there was a certain integrity in it."

Asked how he convinced Fenger that his motives were pure, Chusid says he was just honest about his reaction to the music: "There was such sincerity to it, such earnestness and such beauty in hearing the kids sing these songs. You don't usually hear kids singing 'Rhiannon'; you hear them singing 'Jimmy Crack Corn' and 'I've Been Working on the Railroad' and 'Tomorrow,' from Annie. So, I'm hearing this thing, and I'm thinking it's really special, very unusual. And I found that I enjoyed listening to it over and over again. It had some kind of durability. Hans didn't know about my book [Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music]. He didn't know about my radio show. I convinced him that I wasn't simply exploiting these kids because I thought it was a freak show. I thought it was beautiful music that people needed to hear."

He's right. The biggest surprise in listening to the Langley Schools Music Project's Innocence and Despair (Basta/Bar None) is how uncutesy it is, despite its rather alarming premise. How easily a CD of untrained children singing pop songs could devolve into unlistenable schmaltz, a smarmy novelty gag. That it transcends mere kitsch is a minor miracle and certainly a testament to Fenger's eccentric genius. These kids weren't prodigies, and most of them weren't even particularly talented. Their technique falters, their voices veer off key, the beat staggers and lists, but their collective investment in the project transfigures the songs, reveals them from different angles, makes them new. The children's astringent, tremulous, unaffected voices find a perfect habitat in Fenger's spare, intelligent arrangements. Familiar melodies have the power to surprise in this context. Who would have guessed that drippy ballads such as Barry Manilow's "Mandy" and the Eagles' "Desperado" could sound anything but hokey and cloying, much less profound? Or that already good songs could, when performed by a large chorus of little kids, attain a new dimension: Freed from its melodramatic glam trappings, Bowie's "Space Oddity" is a heartbreaking commentary on the human condition; stripped of its baroque studio touches, the Beach Boys' "In My Room" becomes an existential hymn.

"I picked the songs because I didn't know anything about children's music," Fenger admits. "I didn't even know there was a genre called children's music. I picked them because I thought they'd all be nice songs for children to sing, and they liked them because they're not love songs in the sense of 'Oh, I love you, let's go home.' They're songs that are sort of philosophical but in ways that a young child can understand. So they felt like they were being treated as equals instead of being looked down upon, having to sing songs about my funny little friend the raccoon or how if we all joined hands there'd be peace in the world. They wanted to sing heavy stuff.

"For so many kids, the emotion they're expected to reproduce is cute and happy," Fenger continues. "And children are not cute and happy -- I've never met any who are. I mean, they are sometimes, but so am I. Many adults see childhood as a carefree, happy time, but they've blocked out all the parts of their childhood in which they were scared, alone, didn't know what was going on."

For Fenger, the timing of the reissue couldn't have been more serendipitous: "Last November, I was really at a low point in my teaching career, and after that I took a number of months off. For lack of a better word, it was just so karmic to have the beginning of your teaching career come back to you, just as you're kind of reaching the end of it, feeling kind of frustrated with it. It was an incredible experience."

One of the best things about the project was that it afforded Fenger, now 53, the opportunity to re-establish contact with several former pupils. One of the soloists, Sheila Behman, whose naked, crystalline reading of "Desperado" is the CD's high point, told Fenger that making the record changed her life. "Music was something that really set them apart, in terms of self-confidence, self-esteem," Fenger explains. "In those days, when kids made a record, it wasn't like now, where they have CD writers and everything. For them, a record was this whole mysterious process -- and the fact that they had a record and Shaun Cassidy had a record meant they were just like Shaun Cassidy."

According to Chusid, the album is special for other reasons. "I've heard hundreds, if not thousands, of school records over the years, and I've never heard anything like this. It's Hans Fenger and his arrangements. It's the repertoire. It's the Orff instruments. And there aren't any horns -- I'm not a big fan of horns in the hands of students; they're generally what make those recordings unlistenable. You've got the quality of the recording, the natural reverb of the gymnasium. And the big fact for me is that there's no audience. On most school-band recordings, you hear the audience applauding, coughing, dropping things, yelling things out. This has a sort of studio veneer. Everything was really balanced.

"I've referred to this album as a gateway drug to outsider music," Chusid continues. "I've got to admit that Jandek, Wesley Willis, Daniel Johnston and Lucia Pamela could be difficult for some people to take because their stuff is really sloppy, loses the beat, wavers in and out of pitch, the lyrical content is surrealistic, whereas these kids doing Beach Boys, Beatles, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac -- people can recognize the music and, once they get past the fact that the tambourine is half-a-beat off, hear it and go, 'There's really a spirit here, a passion, an honesty, a voice.' And most people get it a lot quicker than I would have thought."

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