Some of the best music for children is music that is not for children; or, more accurately, music that was not created specifically for children.
The River Raisin Ragtime Revue’s new CD, “Animal Fair” is a great example. R4, a 12-piece ragtime theater orchestra based in Tecumseh, Michigan, has been performing and recording ragtime classics and related genres of American music since its founding in 2002. They have played at, among other venues, the Henry Ford Museum, the DIA, Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater and at historic Greenfield Village. They have also recorded three critically acclaimed CDs of ragtime and other early American popular music classics. “Animal Fair” is their fourth CD, and their first for children. But you wouldn’t necessarily think that from listening. There’s no simplifying or dumbing down here; the music on Animal Fair is performed to the same exceptionally high standards that R4 set on their three previous recordings which were aimed at an adult audeince. What’s childlike and child appropriate about Animal Fair is the infectious exuberance and abandon with which the R4 musicians play these tunes.
The cover of Animal Fair is the perfect opening nod to this recording’s younger target audience. Diane Rosecrans Pemberton’s acrylic painting of a whimsical septet of animal musicians, squirrel to elephant, jamming on a variety of instruments, all gathered around a calico cat on the keys of a piano, sets just the right tone. The liner notes contain several more of her fanciful paintings of animals illustrating a brief history of ragtime, written by R4 co-founder and musical director, William Pemberton. And while Pemberton’s notes are totally age-appropriate, he does not shy away from describing the virulent racism that many of ragtime’s African American creators faced at the turn of the 20th century in America.
But despite, or perhaps in response to that culture of prejudice and segregation in which the music and the musicians grew up, ragtime in general, and certainly most of the animal titled pieces on Animal Fair, are often lighthearted, even joyous. And R4 is clearly having a blast playing them. They rip into nearly century old tunes like Rooster Rag and Barnyard Blues, or brand new ones like R4 co-founder William Hayes’ Elephant Rag and R4 pianist, Catherine McMichael’s Warthog Stride, with energy, ease and a great sense of fun.
Their instrumentation, the standard one for orchestras of ragtime’s period, is comprised of a string quartet, plus flute/piccolo, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, piano, banjo and drums. R4’s impeccable research, and their reliance on original scores of the period allows them to prominently feature the huge variety of tonal colors available from these instruments.
Ragtime is arguably America’s first popular music, the first that was not primarily a European import, and the music that became one of the primary precursors of jazz. It is heartening that R4 is preserving and presenting ragtime, and now with the Animal Fair CD, for all ages, as lively, living, music that can serve both as a reminder of our past and a celebration of our present.
The River Raisin Ragtime Revue’s 3rd Annual Ragtime Extravaganza, which William Pemberton rates at, “about a PG13” due to some burlesque, will take place at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater on January 18 at 8pm. There will be a free children’s show at noon in the Michigan Theater lobby featuring the Moanin’ Frogs and Zeemo the magician/juggler to introduce kids to the vaudeville era.