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Teaching With Musical Honey

July 11, 2002|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"There's gum on the hammer and gum on the broom/And gum on the milkman's shoe.... " From "American Gum," by Dan Crow.

Singer-songwriter Dan Crow is silly. And sneaky. For more than 25 years, this former educator has been making kids laugh with wacky songs and stories that are actually language lessons in disguise.

With his crinkly grin lines, Harpo Marx-ish comic expressions and childlike exuberance--"I'm 55, but I'm really still 11," he says--Crow turns letter sounds and grammar lessons into zany tales about joking giants; sandwich-eating witches with itches; kissable cows; and bubble-gum trouble.

Guitar in hand, he tours nearly 11 months of the year across the United States and overseas, alone or with veteran musicians Dennis O'Hanlon and Fred Sokolow; upcoming local stops include concerts Sunday at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum and July 24 at Descanso Gardens.

"I just want to get young people excited about words and language and communication," Crow said from his Palm Springs home base.

"If you get 'em excited about words, then they're gonna be excited about reading, and then they're going to be excited about writing and being creative and expressing themselves better."

A speech therapist in the mid-1970s in Appalachian Virginia, Crow began writing songs to help his students more readily grasp language arts and vocabulary development. "It was like using a jingle to sell a hamburger," he said. "I was selling basic skills and educational concepts."

Influenced by the music and storytelling he heard "in the hollers" of Virginia and later in Montana, where he worked with Native American children, Crow honed his own storytelling style. An accomplished acoustic guitarist, his repertoire includes songs and poems that he wrote as an 11-year-old with his first guitar ("I could play two chords") and a passion for words, especially funny ones.

He took his act on the road in the late 1970s. Since then, Crow, while not a household name, has made a comfortable living, unlike many children's artists. He's augmented concert bookings with extensive work for Disney as writer, director and producer of educational video and film-strip programs, and as staff songwriter for the preschooler TV shows "Welcome to Pooh Corner" and "Dumbo's Circus."

Riding the currents of an ever-changing fan base--"The children's music biz is so peculiar; you're essentially rediscovered every five or six years by new kids and parents"--Crow has his own label, Alls House Family Entertainment, and his Web site is busy with CD sales and bookings.

In performance, Crow's unforced, big brother-ish joviality is key to winning new fans. Playing his guitar, he goofily serves up such sing-along signature songs as "Oops," "Kiss a Cow" and "I Had Ham" and sparks giggles of recognition with comic tales of his own childhood misadventures.

His songs are a staple of English as a Second Language programs in Japan, Germany, Spain and South and Central America. He tours at overseas Dept. of Defense Dependent Schools on U.S. military bases, something that took on new meaning after Sept. 11. He was in Germany last December, performing for children whose parents were shipping out on active duty.

"That was the one that really got me," he said. "The kids were so hungry to be entertained and to laugh--mainly to laugh."

Judith Mayo, a DoDDS principal in Germany, considers Crow a find, booking him regularly.

"His ability to quickly gauge the needs of each audience and adapt his performance in such a way that he has adults and children smiling and joining in the fun," she said, "is what makes him such an excellent teacher. The kids don't even realize they're learning something new. It's a real gift."

*

"Dan Crow in Concert," Sunday, 11 a.m., at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Road, Topanga, $7, (310) 455-3723. Also July 24, 6 p.m., at Under the Oaks Theatre, Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Canada Flintridge, $7-$9, (818) 949-7980.

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