Peter Alsop

Music for Children and Adults


May 30, 2014 - 2:30pm -- peteralsop


            We know that music is a great way to pass on cultural norms to children.  Our ethnic songs tell rich stories and carry the sounds and rhythms that cling like soil to our family’s roots.  They enrich our lives by reminding us that we have come together from other countries, religions and races with rituals and customs often very different from the predominant culture in which we live.  We also have new songs grown out of our current culture that pass on the unspoken biases and echo the morality of the norms that guide our daily lives.  When we “swim” in a predominant culture, like fish who do not notice that they swim in water, we may not be aware of the powerful messages that we pass on in our songs.

            Here’s an example.  Remember that old Mother Goose nursery rhyme about little girls made of “sugar and spice and everything nice” and little boys made of “snakes and snails and puppy dog tails”?  The musical lilt of the poem doesn’t hide the fact that two hundred years ago we trained children to abide by the strict limitations of the gender roles that were so entrenched at that time.  Now we accept and delight in knowing that some little boys are sweet as sugar and spice, and some little girls are full of snails and puppy dog tails, (whatever that means!).  When our possibilities are limited, our lives are diminished, and none of us want a diminished life.

            As “singer-songwriter-storytellers” we have the ability to lift others who feel diminished.  We can expand possibilities and avoid limitations that our culture imbues within us about our gender, our values, honesty, self-worth, playfulness and treatment of one another.  It’s both an opportunity and a responsibility, but in order to do this, we must first be aware of what needs to change.  It requires a clarity about the cultural messages carried in our songs and stories.  Do our messages, like Mother Goose, limit today’s children?  When we discover a “hidden message” in a song, do we throw it away or change it?  Perhaps we explain to our audience why we changed it, so they can raise their awareness as well.  As we gain clarity about our cultural biases, all of us move closer to being a more reasonable, sustainable and caring species on this planet.

            Let’s take a look at a few of our commonly accepted cultural messages.


            Imagine you are invited to have your own television show.  Every Saturday morning you could sing new songs and bring new possibilities into the living rooms of millions of homes.  Your television producers however, aren’t comfortable with you as a ‘real person’, so they’ve developed a Daisy the Dinosaur suit they’d like you to wear.  Mattel will manufacture little plastic Daisys and toy sales will help fund your show.  So you sign on the dotted line and the next morning they want you to sing a song called “Grown-ups Know Best!”  And you suddenly remember the Little Golden Book about Tootle, the little engine that didn’t want to stay on the tracks.  He would run with his buddy the horse out in the meadow, and come back to the station happy and covered with mud.  Well, Engineer Bill and all the townspeople knew what was best.  Tootle’s behavior had to be stopped, so they hid behind bushes in the field and waved red flags at him whenever he got off the tracks, and Tootle learned that he had to “stay on the tracks, no matter what!”

            You loved that book as a child, but you now think, “That’s not a message I want to give to kids!  Kids need to take chances and explore new possibilities, to think for themselves and pay attention to their feelings, not just believe everything adults tell them.”  So you refuse to sing the song, and the producers say. “See?  This is why we didn’t want a ‘real person’!  Pick up your pay check on the way out.  Hey Charlie!  You want to be in the Dinosaur suit today?”  And we see that going against predominant cultural views can be financially costly for us, which brings up another hidden message.


            Instead of firing you, the producers might offer you more money to do their song, because our current culture taught them that everything (and everybody) has a price.  I loved talking to my old friend Utah Phillips about how everything we touch gets passed through ‘the cash nexus’.

            “They think that if something costs more, it’s better!”  Utah would grumble, “but how about ‘time’ and ‘space’?  Parents who spend time with their kids instead of money, have happier kids.  I gave my son Brendan some space in the empty bottom drawer of my bureau as a gift one Christmas.  He thought I was cheap, but I told him he could put anything in it that he wanted!  It didn’t cost me anything, but it was worth a lot to him.  And I had to remember that it was his space, and not tell him how to use it or organize it.  Good lesson!”

            If we honestly investigate why we place value on certain things around us, we can pass that clarity on in our songs.  I wanted to give my kids an allowance, and my wife questioned me, saying that our kids could get funds from us if they really needed something.  I held on to the allowance concept until I realized that my hidden reason for giving them an allowance was so I could cut them off if they didn’t do what I wanted!  I caught myself limiting their possibilities, but I got a great song out of it.

            A feminist economist told me that our values go off the tracks (like Tootle the train) when economics thinks of itself as a pure science.  In reality, our culture consists of the rules of economics as they operate within social and environmental contexts, and these contexts need to be considered before we take action.  Of course we want Daisy the Dinosaur to make a profit, but what’s the point of doing the show if Daisy doesn’t encourage kids and families to find other caring ways to interact socially or to care about the physical environment of the community in which we all live?  We want Daisy to help kids learn “how to think, not just what to think”.  (The same struggle teachers face, working in schools that focus on test scores instead of on the development of a whole child.)

            Money is not the only “bottom line”.  Social and environmental contexts have “bottom lines” too.  As singers and songwriters we can use our songs to model other diverse ways to value things in our lives, instead of passing everything through “the cash nexus”.  Families need our help to do this, because what we have now is not sustainable.  Can we play with that hidden message?


            “If you play around, you never accomplish anything!”  When little kids play, accomplishment is not their goal.  “Playing around” means you are trying out possibilities.  Football “players”, on the other hand “play” football, but it’s more about winning than playing.  Earth Ball is about playing, not winning.  It consists of a huge canvas ball in the middle of a field.  Players form two teams.  Each team tries to roll the ball over other team’s goal line, but you can change teams anytime you want, so as long as people want to keep playing, the game goes on.  Life is a game like that.  Most of us want to keep playing (sustainable) but there are others who believe they can only play to win, and like most games, when someone wins, the game ends.

            A interviewer asked one of the young women protesters at Occupy Wall Street about the lack of clear demands from the protesters.  She answered eloquently.

            “First, making a demand would mean we don’t have the ability to make changes happen ourselves, when we actually have great power to make changes, so we don’t need to ask others to make changes for us.  Second, a demand might temporarily be responded to, but as long as the same system stays in place, things eventually return to what we have now.  And third, we are here learning and educating each other.  Us younger folks need to create a world with more possibilities and hope for us and everyone else, including the police, the bankers and the 1%.”


            Fortunately chewing is a process, not a result, so we don’t need all the answers, maybe just some song revisions.  We are the bearers of the stories and songs of childhood culture.  As we build our own awareness about how best to shepherd in new visions and possibilities for the adults of the future, we help create a world with more hope.


Reprinted from Children's Music Network - Pass It On! Magazine - Peter Alsop's "Thoughts To Chew" column - Spring, 2012