Wednesday 29 July 2009

Butterflyfish: songs for children

As a parent of young children, I often gripe about the abysmal quality of products made for kids – especially that dismal cacophony of books and music that is marketed each year to young children. Bright sparkly sticker-infested books, bursting at the seams with bad grammar, colourless characters, incoherent plots, hackneyed illustrations, and all those endlessly repeated psycho-spiritual-gender banalities which have come to constitute The Disney Worldview (a worldview that is infinitely more malignant and more destructive than anything Lars von Trier could ever dream up).

Similarly, where children’s music is concerned (I won’t even mention television shows), the ruling principle seems to be: Any old crap will do; after all, they’re only kids. No need for lyrical imagination; no need for creativity; no need for musical talent or versatility. Just rhyme a few words, grunt out a few lines, bang out a couple of chords on your cheap electric keyboard – it’s good enough for the kids.

If you have young children in your home, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Which is why it’s so refreshing when occasionally you come across a piece of real music for children. That was how we felt when Roger Flyer (a regular friend here at F&T) sent me a copy of one of his wonderful CDs for children: a CD that I know very well indeed, since my kids have been listening to it almost every night for the past 18 months!

Anyway, while I was in Princeton last month, one of the highlights was getting to know the brilliant young Harvard theologian, Matthew Myer Boulton. Not only is he the author of a superb book on Barth and worship, but he’s also the singer-songwriter for a sweet and groovy children’s band, Butterflyfish. He gave me a copy of their brand new debut CD, Ladybug – and after listening to it dozens (hundreds?) of times now, I’m pleased to report that this is the real deal: an album that kids adore, and that grownup folks will also continue to enjoy after countless hours of repeat listening.

The album is musically vibrant, surprising and exciting: it blends styles as diverse as bluegrass, country, jazz and gospel, in a way that brings out that characteristic joy and lilt and humour of American folk music. And the lyrics (all written by Matt Boulton) are quite wonderful: linguistically inventive, poetically playful, and at times also theologically serious and reflective. Where so many kids’ CDs are characterised by attitudes of patronising banality, it’s a tremendous pleasure to hear music like this: music that takes children seriously, music that respects its audience, music premised on the assumption that young children are capable of lively joy, honest reflection, and exuberant aesthetic delight.

The songs range from the light-hearted jollity of “Ladybug” to the fast-paced rollicking bluegrass adventure of “What Jonah Learned Inside the Whale” (“He learned that whales have no teeth, but they do have great big tongues; / God is underneath everything and everyone”), to the delicate and imaginative “Noah’s Lullaby”, the jubilant a cappella celebration “Deep Down in My Heart”, and the rich smoky-jazz-bar groove of “There Is a Love”.

But the real highlight is the extraordinary track, “All Sad Songs.” I’ve never heard a children’s song quite like this – and without getting too carried away in autobiographical pathos, I might also admit that it’s probably the only song from a children’s CD that has ever made me cry. Here are the lyrics:

It’s been all sad songs since you’ve left
I’ve cried and I’ve kept my sorrow so deep inside
And I’ve swept up all of my pride
Sad songs since you died

It’s been all sad songs since you went away
I’ve been lost, and sleeping right through the day
This has cost me all that I had
Now the songs are all sad

Something deep inside of me
So wanted to believe
But that cost me all that I had
Now the songs are all sad

(Male voice: La la la…)

But then Mary came to our house of shame
To proclaim that you were alive again
And the grave was as empty and dark
As my broken heart

Something deep inside of me
So wanted to believe
That the grave is as empty and dark
As my broken heart

(Female voice: La la la…)

I know all sad songs have another verse
It’s the one the heavenly choirs rehearse
For that day when the broken will mend
And the sad songs will end

Not that we’ll forget, we’ll sing those songs yet
In a different key, we’ll sing differently
In the music God has arranged
All the sad songs will change

(Both voices: La la la…)

God will wipe away all our tears
Banish the fears we’ve collected for all these years
On that day when the broken will mend
The sad songs will end

Something deep inside of me
Can’t help it but believe
In that day when the broken will mend
The sad songs will end
In the music God has arranged
All the sad songs will change

A remarkably poignant and sensitive meditation on death, grief, and the triumph of resurrection. The song reflects on music itself as an eschatological metaphor: God is writing another verse for our sad songs, and arranging the score in a different key. In the day of redemption, we will still sing our sad songs – nothing will be lost or forgotten – but these same songs will be translated into something new, utterly sublated so that they become songs of grace and redemption.

This metaphor is evoked very vividly in the song’s own arrangement. After describing his grief in the first verse and chorus, the lead voice sings a melancholy wordless tune, singing only the syllable “la la la…” But then after Mary’s announcement of the empty grave, a female voice enters the song. Again, she sings a wordless tune to the same music, but the melody has subtly changed so that those syllables now convey hope and light and sweetness. Then finally, after the verse describing the eschatological sublation of grief, the male and female voice join their wordless tunes together. Now the two distinct voices and melodies combine to produce a single harmony of redemption: the sad grieving voice is overlaid with a voice of hope and healing; or rather, the sad voice is lifted up into a harmony which fully includes the sad tune, yet utterly transforms it.

The female voice slips into the song so gently, so unobtrusively. The voice alights like a dove, then rises again, leading the male voice upwards. I’m reminded of George Herbert’s poem, “Easter Wings”, where God is depicted as a bird in flight, helping us to fly when our own wings are broken, so that we are raised up together and “combined” in one harmonious song. (As you can see in the picture below, the poem is itself shaped like two birds together in flight.) “With thee / Oh let me rise / As larks, harmoniously… With thee / Let me combine / And feel this day thy victorie: / For, if I imp my wing on thine / Affliction shall advance the flight in me.”

The harmony of the two voices in “All Sad Songs” is like the movement of two birds in flight. The song’s whole theology of resurrection and hope is conveyed most powerfully here, in this simple monosyllabic harmony. My sadness has not fled, but another voice now sings with me, bearing me up, supporting my broken wing, lifting my mournful melody and translating it into a hymn of redemption. The same song – but how different now!

Not that we’ll forget, we’ll sing those songs yet
In a different key, we’ll sing differently
In the music God has arranged
All the sad songs will change.

My wife and I love this album just as much as our kids do. If you’re looking for some good music for your children, then why not grab a copy of Ladybug. And while you’re there, be sure to download the Butterflyfish colouring pages: because everything’s better in crayon.


John H said...

Will check it out.

A firm favourite with our children is the Australian singer-songwriter (and children's TV presenter) Colin Buchanan. Eclectic, well-written/performed music with sound, Jesus-centred lyrics.

Justin said...

Also 'Bullfrogs and Butterflies' (they've both been born again).

Evan said...

Thanks for the recommendation, we'll have to check into it. A friend had recommended Elizabeth Mitchell to us, and we like her a lot (

roger flyer said...

Ah...I'm humbled and appreciative of your kindness, Ben. Say hi to your beloved ones from me and I will be sure to check out Butterflyfish for my grandchildren as they have worn out A Ram Sam Sam.

And I see the polar extremes of the human condition in the last two posts...?

As my all time favorite Bruce (the man) Cockburn sings: "...Now we know the extremes of what humans can be.."

roger flyer said...

Just to clarify that last comment by me...

Children, innocence and redemption, depravity, violence, misogyny....

They both can make for great art, yes? Nein?

(Or bad art) in the eyes and ears of the beholder? And this is my point...who is the one beholding?

ken oakes said...

why not let them chew on a little m. ward? or panda bear for that matter? (full disclaimer: spoken as a man with little to no experience with children or children´s music)

Anonymous said...

Hasn't Richard Baukham written a story book got children?

roger flyer said...

Dear Ken-
As the great Raffi (for the uninitiated--The Boss for pre-schoolers in the 80's) said: (something like this, it isn't fly-papered to him)

"Children are not little adults."

but as I might say--neither are they idiots.

Ben Myers said...

Ken: oh yes, my kids know all about M. Ward, Bright Eyes, Iron and Wine, Bob Dylan... And Sufjan Stevens is one of their favourites...

kim fabricius said...

... everything’s better in crayon.

Now there's a point about an artistic medium worth exploring.

Also: at the end of his splendid book (which Ben mentions) God against Religion (2008), Boulton writes: "There are a thousand ways to authentically say 'Hallelujah!' so the liturgical designer's first question is always an ethnographic one: How do we best say 'Hallelujah!' around here?"

From liturgists to the writers of children's songs to ...

janicer said...

Come on Ben, surely you are moved by this

Fruit Salad,
Yummy Yummy
Fruit Salad,
Yummy Yummy
Fruit Salad,
Yummy Yummy
Yummy Yummy
Yummy Yummy
Fruit Salad!

Ben Myers said...

"Fruit salad, yummy yummy." Oh yes, I've been moved by that Wiggles song on thousands of occasions. My youngest boy, nearly two, doesn't talk much yet: but I'm sure it's a bad reflection on my parenting that one of his earliest (and most frequently used) phrases is "Big Red Car"...

Christopher said...

Thanks Ben. All Sad Songs sounds wonderful!

roger flyer said...

Ben-You mean my neighbor's Little Red Corvette...

bruce hamill said...

Ben, your kids listen to Bright Eyes... great, that'll challenge their emotional repertiore. Do they like the one with the plane crashing into the sea?

Erin said...

Wow, great find, thanks!
And the graphics are great, too. I really treasure the kind of theological reduction that something like this does, and you can tap your toes to it, too.

On a related note, Sr. Flyer does this as well?! My world keeps getting bigger :)

bruce hamill said...

downloaded it, loving it... even teenagers hum along

Anonymous said...

What a poignant song. Thankyou for sharing the lyrics and Boulton's talent. I'll keep this in mind for young relatives.

I was more a colour pencil fan than crayons, but i defiitely agree with the sentiment ;)

roger flyer said...


The'theology'in my songs is nowhere near as carefully articulated as that of the 'Butterflyfish' music.

I find it hard to improve on 'He's got the whole world in his hands' as a text for exegesis for a 4 year old.

I have always admired Raffi's 'All I really need is a song in my heart, food in my belly and love in my family' theological statement, and of course Dr. KB's 'Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so...' Dr. Seuss is often quite astute, but as for me--

The deepest foray into theology for pre-schoolers I've made is this:

'Two by two Brother Noah, two at a time...

Very bald eagles, balanced on beagles and rabbits multiplying.

A couple hippopottami sleeping top to bottom and poor Noah sighin'-

All aboard...

Two by two Brother Noah, two at a time...'

Ben has already linked me. Would love to hook you up with my merch.

melissa f-b said...

Great post! Also, want to mention "The Welcome Wagon" album (not specifically for kids but my 11 month old loves it). Patty Griffin also has an album of Gospel songs coming out called Downtown Church.

Any good recs for theologically on-track kids books? We've got a lot of rhyming Bibles filled with pictures of Anglo cartoony Bible folk but that's about it....

Ben Myers said...

Melissa, my kids love the Welcome Wagon too: it's a great album.

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