Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Albums of Influence: My Brother Thinks He's a Banana and Other Provocative Songs for Children by Barry Louis Polisar

Before YouTube, Pixar movies, and other oceans of content designed to engage kids, parents resorted to records.

My parents brought Barry Louis Polisar's record "My Brother Thinks He's A Banana and Other Provocative Songs for Children" home for me in 1977, not long after it was released. A precocious child of single-digit age, I was both allergic and resistant to "entertainment for kids", because it was pandering, stupid garbage. And like many kids, I was also immediately suspicious of anything my parents suggested I might like.

But I always wanted a new record, and there was something about the album cover that intrigued me. The design was simple, but had a vibe I would later know as "underground" or "indie". The title was already more complex and literate than you might expect from a "kid's record". A stark black and white photo of a friendly, hippy-ish looking guy, holding a fruit bowl with a banana in it. His somewhat sardonic grin made me want to hear these "provocative songs".
The original album cover

I was not disappointed. Barry's songs were catchy. I haven't listened to them in decades, but I can still sing the hooks of many of them. Barry's songs were also smart and clever. The title track name-checks the Bhagavad Gita, for example (which naturally prompted me to track down a copy from the local public library and read it). There's a song on the record called "For my Sister, Wherever I May Find Her", which brought a knowing smile to my Simon and Garfunkel-loving Dad's face. 

Another of his songs about "child solidarity" ("Marching Shoulder To Shoulder", from "Naughty Songs for Boys And Girls") asserts the movement "won't trust anybody who is over thirteen", a hilarious take on Jack Weinberg's statement "don't trust anybody over thirty". 

Some of his work shades a little dark, but that works for kids (see also:  John Mulaney's "Sack Lunch Bunch"). 

I managed to get my parents to buy me Barry's other records ("Naughty Songs For Boys and Girls" and "I Eat Kids and Other Songs for Rebellious Children"). I wrote Barry fan mail. I asked him to come and play my grade school. 

And he did! Somehow my school got in touch with him, or vice versa, and there was an assembly where he came and played songs for the whole school, just him and his guitar, playing for a legion of kids sitting cross-legged on the floor. My first concert, I suppose. Seeing someone hold an entire school of fidgety kids rapt was transformative. 

Most of Barry's albums also had one really sweet song. For "...Banana", it was a song called "All I Want Is You". This would turn up years later as the stunning opener for the movie "Juno", and allowed me the ultimate hipster cred of claiming that I was into him before anyone, and that I had original vinyl, AND that I had seen him live. When my cousin Claire asked me to play a song at her wedding, I chose "All I Want Is You".

With the hindsight of many decades, I can see how this album and Barry's other work affected my life. He wrote and sang his own material, and performed. 

Barry's songs are also playfully subversive. In a recent Facebook post, he noted:

...Sesame Street asked me to write three songs for an album they wanted to release of songs from a kids perspective.  I remember reviewing my early drafts with them and they had words like “molotov cocktails” and “kids liberation front” circled in red marker with exclamation points and question marks. They quickly realized my ideas were a little too weird and they dropped the project. 

(Eventually Sesame Street did use some of his other material)

He was too radical for Sesame Street (and, perhaps, for the mainstream). Smart, literate, clever. Hooky. And totally independent, making and releasing these records himself. Getting his message out, one school at a time. D.I.Y. personified. And kinda punk rock, in his own way. Pete Seeger for kids.

The world eventually caught up, and Barry has won Grammys and Emmys. He's played some big venues, including The White House, The Smithsonian, and The Kennedy Center. A few years back, he was the subject of a double-album tribute CD -- all those musical seeds he planted over the decades have sprouted.

Barry still lives in Maryland. He is still performing for kids (and adults), still writing songs, and still making records. He is one of the nicest people I have ever written to. He remains an inspiration. I hope to write songs as pure and beautiful as his some day. 

I hope to be like him when I grow up.

Thank you for the music, Barry. 


Barry Louis Polisar's music is available on all the big streaming services and download stores. You can also stream them all at his website, read his lyrics, watch episodes of his TV show, and read his books.

If you have kids old enough to listen to music but young enough that they'll still listen to YOU, they should be exposed to the music of Barry Louis Polisar as soon as possible.

"My Brother Thinks He's A Banana"

"All I Want Is You"


[Author's Note: About 2 years ago, I was tagged in one of those Facebook posts to share some albums that had affected me. This week, I was tagged again by 2 different people. Given the oceans of time the CoVID-19 pandemic has given us, I thought i would write about some more records that mattered to me.

I am trying to choose interesting and non-obvious records. I hope these are surprising and enlightening for you to read.]

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