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Singer Gives Kids the Gift of Lyric Poetry

September 07, 2000|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"When the bloom was on the clover, and the blue was in the sky, and my happy heart brimmed over, in the days gone by."

--From "The Days Gone By"

by James Whitcomb Riley

*

Ted Jacobs is doing something that may seem quixotic in this age of slick, big-concept,hyper-hip and hype-happy entertainment. An independent record producer, musician and singer-songwriter, Jacobs is turning 19th century British and American poetry into music for children and families.

His first CD was last year's "A Child's Garden of Song," poems from Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses." With encouragement from his label, Music for Little People, long respected for its quality family albums, Jacobs did a second poetry CD, "The Days Gone By, Songs of the American Poets, Volume 1," released in August.

"Volume 2" is on the horizon, and Jacobs is eagerly delving into British and early 20th century American poetry for new projects.

His creative efforts may not be as far below kids' radar as you might think. When he and his band have performed songs from both CDs, reaction has ranged from "nice, quiet attention" to "mosh pits at our shows," Jacobs said with a laugh, "where children are right down in front dancing."

He has also been contacted by parents telling of 7- and 8-year-olds memorizing the words of Stevenson, Longfellow and Dickinson, unintimidated by the richly varied language and drawn in by "peppermint canes with stripings of scarlet or gold," "the little waves with their soft white hands" and worlds of railway carriages, lamplighters, country meadows, gallant knights and mysterious travelers.

Jacobs, 37, isn't doing this as an academic exercise. It's a full-blown passion. "I didn't know poems growing up. It was 'Green Eggs and Ham' at our house."

He was bitten by the poetry bug four years ago, when a friend introduced him to "The Land of Counterpane," the Stevenson poem about a sick child, stuck in bed, imagining that his bedspread is a land of cities, soldiers and giants.

"I was hooked. It was goose bumps," Jacobs said. "What hit me as a songwriter was what incredible lyrics these were. And then the stories, the things that children did in Stevenson's book, children are doing today: wondering where the wind comes from, playing with their shadows. The perfect remembrances of childhood in that book just completely captivated me."

He found the same resonant spark in poems by James Whitcomb Riley, Eugene Field, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson that became "The Days Gone By" album.

The poems were chosen with help from friends, family and colleagues, including Jacobs' younger brother Rob--"my best friend," co-producer, collaborator and percussionist--and Amy Deegan, a lead singer on the CD and Jacobs' wife of one month.

After several readings of each to internalize rhythm and "emotional intent," the melodies came easily. "The work was already done. The imagery, the part of the song that takes you away, was done 100 years ago. I just had to give it something [musical] that felt good."

It never occurred to Jacobs to simplify the poetry to young listeners. His intent was to complement the poems' moods--joyful, haunting, playful and nostalgic--and to capture the individual voices of the poets.

Alone, and with his band, Jacobs created multilayered instrumentation and vocals that reflect not only the essence of the poems but also his earliest musical influences, courtesy of five much older sisters: "It was Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Cat Stevens and James Taylor that I loved growing up."

Silkily blended harmonies and arrangements for guitar, bass, violin, mandolin, viola, bodhran, pipes, recorder and percussion, are shaped with Celtic, country, 1960s folk-pop or cowboy ballad accents. Lead vocals range from Jacobs' own light balladeer's baritone and David Vidal's Randy Newman-like rasp to Deegan's warm, velvety alto; Laura Dallavo's classically trained clear soprano; Michael Sherwood's whispery depths and 16-year-old Tahkus Ekedal's unself-conscious sweetness.

The words, however, were "absolutely Job One," Jacobs said. "The main thing here is to honor the poet."

Some adults point to media hype as the reason for the "Harry Potter" reading phenomenon, but it began with the magic of author J.K. Rowling's words. Jacobs' journey off the creative beaten path, though on a smaller scale, is another opportunity for children to discover how word magic opens doors to another time and place.

* "A Child's Garden of Songs" and "The Days Gone By," Music for Little People, (800) 346-4445; http://www.mflp.com/.

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