Is today's music making you wince while doing little to teach your offspring about good musical taste? Robbie Robertson to the rescue. The former Band member and successful solo artist and film composer/producer has put together a beautifully illustrated coffee table book to introduce kids to some of the greatest artists of all time.
Alongside his manager Jim Guerinot, son Sebastian Robertson and A&R man Jared Levine, the lifelong music fans co-wrote Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed The World (Tundra Books), an easy-to-read history book that also includes two CDs.
The 27 chosen ones — such as Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Carole King, Beach Boys and Bob Dylan — are each given four pages, complete with a mini bio (that doesn't whitewash their stories from drugs to plane crashes), a recommended playlist, a quote from another great, and brilliant portrait art. The book is actually as much for adults and the CDs contain ageless songs for all ages.
The original idea stemmed from something that your son said off-handedly to you.
Robbie: It was just that. It was very off-handedly. It was a fluke of an experience that he saw young kids react to great music stronger than he saw them react to music that was supposedly made for them -- kiddies music. And it's kind of dumbed down this music, because you think, "Oh, it's all they can handle." But he found out that if he played a great song -- whether it would be Johnny Cash or James Brown -- that a light went on and something happened and there were parents there, too, and he said "Oh my God, dad, everything just moves into an higher place. And the kids are moving different; they seem to be having more fun in what they’re doing."
It was fascinating, scientifically, how subconsciously great stuff was affecting these little minds. And it sparked the idea of isn't this terrific to really do something, share something, with young people that gives them a grasp that they can carry around forever, and they'll just know what the real deal is.
"Wheels On The Bus" never made me a me a true music fan; that didn’t come until 13, 14 when I heard the Stones. It seems many parents feel they shouldn't play adult music for children.
Jim: It's changed a lot though because parents are generationally different than my parents. But the other thing is my kids know Leonard Cohen songs from "Shrek" and it’s like, "Whoa!" You know? And I think you [Robbie] had something to do with that [he was executive producer for Dreamworks Records]. Or [Bob Marley’s] "Three Little Birds" [in "Shark Tale"] — you're finding music placement in these high-priced animation films. You're starting to get that stuff introduced younger and people are spotting it and saying, "That's working. That's OK."
Do each of you remember the music that you listened to when you were age three, four, five, six?
Jim: I can't remember that far back.
Robbie: I do remember some of it because it was brought back to my attention later on what I was reacting to. My mother told me when I was a toddler and in the crib that they would have music playing and the thing when I lit up was boogie-woogie or something out of the Louie Jordan period of sometimes big bands, and then all kinds of things. Just something happened. It's the same thing Sebastian is talking about.
Jim: You didn't respond to the Wiggles when you were a little nipper? [Laughter all around]. I do remember now that you’re saying it, I was five when the Beatles came out and I had an older sister so I listened to whatever she was listening to.
Let's talk about whittling down to these 27 legends. How did that go?
Jim: We never started with any concept of writing anything. It was like, "What playlist are we making?" We started it from a purely musical point of view.
To be a CD or you always knew it would be a book?
Robbie: There was the idea of putting together a collection of music for young people. We'd talk about it like it would be a fantastic journey through music and that kids could learn something from that. They could interact with their parents through this music, and grandparents, and uncles and aunts. It would be like a family thing. And we'd say, "Oh my God, listen to that one! Oh, this is even better!”
Jim: Nobody buys CDs. But books! They buy books! It’s like a moral imperative.
Robbie: But then the stories! The stories, the insight into these artists became as important as those songs were, and so these things just started coming together like that. They classify this for young readers because they can read these stories themselves and they're also at an age where they can understand that all these stories don't have happy endings. These aren't fairy tales. This is real life, and real music, and real stuff. The idea for this information on these artists it isn't always just the obvious; it's not Wikipedia. It has soul to it and it gives you insight.
There's personal elements to this and it just all rises to a surface and you think, "Boy, this is such a beautiful thing to share,’ and then to have amazing artwork to go with this and all of the pieces of this puzzle to add up to something like this!” You say, "Okay, that’s a piece of work there!" Hopefully, we've opened up a door and we can, hopefully, in the future swing that door wider, but in the meantime if somebody — some kid or some parent — knows this stuff, they’re set.
Even a music journalist learned a thing or two — like the fact that Merle Haggard was in the audience at San Quentin when Johnny Cash came to perform and pursed music after he got out of prison.
Jim: Shel Silverstein! Shel Silverstein wrote [Cash's] ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ Really? The Giving Tree guy?
Must have been tough getting it down to 27 artists. There are so many not covered. No Robert Johnson, BB King, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix…
Robbie: Volume 2.
Jim: three, four, five.
Robbie: The Stones aren't in here. The Band isn't in here. This is just opening the door and laying that foundation. These are the kings and queens.
What is your ultimate hope with this? Would you like it to be in school libraries or part of a school curriculum?
Jim: I've taken it to my kids’ school and shown it to people and with the funding cut in schools, there is very little available for music education and things like this. The dream, where the genie pops out of the bottle, would be that every school library has this, that people start it up in classes, that they say, "Hey, we want to teach this," and that becomes a parent's tool too. It’s the Christmas gift that you give everybody because you feel like you've done something great for them. That would be the dream.