In Montreal during the First World War years there were various kinds of music. The place where my family was living was out in the sticks and it didn’t even have sidewalks. It had houses that sort of stood in mud flats. Across the field was a military school; they blew their bugle calls morning and night. I couldn’t have been very old because I was in a baby carriage bundled up and I was put on the porch. I remember seeing the sun go down. Nobody told me this stuff. I told the adults. I heard the bugle calls. I looked forward to them every day.
—Henry Brant, 2002
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Henry Brant. There was something invigorating about the diversity of Brant’s careers: the teenaged acolyte of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell; the expert professional arranger and orchestrator for radio and film; the omnivorous devotee of musical styles both esoteric and popular; the merry, prolific guru of spatial music. But there is one other corner of his catalog that doesn’t get mentioned much: his music for children. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Brant wrote three original scores for records produced by Young People’s Records and its successor, the Children’s Record Guild. (He also arranged music for releases by singer and educator Charity Bailey, and probably had some part in the music for what was one of the Guild’s more beloved records, an adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s book The Carrot Seed.)
Young People’s Records was the brainchild of Horace Grenell, a Juilliard-educated pianist, record producer, and entrepreneur in New York. Grenell’s musical efforts were wide-ranging and restless. He was, for a time, chairman of the music department at Sarah Lawrence College; he had a stint conducting the leftist, pro-union Jefferson School choir; he was connected to the folk revival of the 1940s, alongside such figures as Pete Seeger and Tom Glazer.
By the late 1940s, most of the major record labels had jumped on the children’s record bandwagon—”kidisks,” in trade parlance—some of them backed by serious talent. (Composers Paul Creston and Alec Wilder, for instance, wrote scores for children’s records; Capitol Records released a series of such records with music by the noted bandleader Billy May, the best being the ingenious Rusty in Orchestraville.) But the Young People’s Records label was unusual. They operated under a subscription model, mailing subscribers a new record every month, an innovation in the recording industry; by the early 1950s, according to one report, the number of subscribers exceeded a million. The records Grenell produced were sophisticated and progressive. In 1947, YPR recorded Jazz Band, putting jazz on the same music-appreciation footing as classical, and recruiting Teddy Wilson’s quintet (with Buck Clayton on trumpet) to provide the music. Seeger and, especially, Glazer would feature on numerous YPR releases. Folksinger and broadcaster Oscar Brand recorded a series of folksong collections. Walter Hendl—then the associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic—led samplers of music by Stravinsky and Copland. YPR got Groucho Marx into the studio for an anti-bullying tale called The Funniest Song in the World. At its height, Young People’s Records was turning out, in the best sense of the word, some of the hippest children’s records ever made.
Brant’s first YPR effort was based on his prowess on the tin whistle, a skill that landed him occasional performing work in radio and film. Penny Whistle, based on a story by Erick Berry and narrated by legendary voice-over artist Norman Rose, tells the tale of a child who can only play one note on that instrument; his mother sends him out of the house to play, and each of his encounters with a variety of sounds along his way—a truck horn, a bullfrog, a cricket, etc.—adds another note to his repertoire, until he has an entire diatonic scale, which he proudly demonstrates to his mother. “After that,” Rose adds, “he found a big string of new notes, and played all kinds of tunes on his penny whistle”—a cue for Brant to do a little showing off:
Penny Whistle is charming, in its bare-bones way. Brant’s other two YPR projects were more elaborate. Kitchen Music spends its first side talking kids through the construction of a few homemade instruments: how to tune water glasses and pop bottles, how to make a tin-can string bass. Flip the record over, and there’s a mini-suite by Brant that wrings a lot more music out of household artifacts than might be expected. (This was right up Brant’s alley; he had, as a child, written some of his first music for such DIY instruments and had revisited the idea in his Music for a Five and Dime Store, which surrounded a piano and violin with a small clutch of percussive cutlery and glass.) A nifty, bouncy “March” is followed by “Swinging,” which puts some vaguely modernist chromatic parallel harmonies into waltz time. The finale, “Jumping,” puts Brant’s bright jazzy sense on display:
The dish rack qualities of Kitchen Music may have inspired Brant’s third album. The Lonesome House was conceived by Douglas Moore, the opera composer whose greatest hit, The Ballad of Baby Doe, was still several years in the future. (Moore had been associated with YPR from its earliest days; his children’s opera treatments of Puss in Boots and The Emperor’s New Clothes, for instance, were both YPR commissions.) Moore wrote the libretto with Brant in mind as the composer; the story wonders what a house does when its inhabitants are away, along the way encouraging a Cagean appreciation of everyday sounds—a dripping faucet, a hissing radiator, a squeaky shutter. The brilliance of Brant’s score is that none of these are illustrated with standard sound effects. Rather, Brant deploys a pair of flutes, a pair of double basses, and a pair of pianists—armed with a full array of preparations, inside-the-piano glissandi and pizzicato, and buzzing, scraping bass strings—to provide evocative imitations. Like Kitchen Music, the music coalesces on the second side, as the house puts on a concert for itself:
The Lonesome House was ultimately issued by the Children’s Record Guild, a label Grenell developed for Greystone Press (a direct marketing publishing company) after a falling out with the ownership of the Young People’s Records. In the meantime, YPR had become ensnared in one of America’s great this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-cultural-things spasms, the Red Scare of the late ’40s and early ’50s. As early as 1947, Walter S. Steele, anti-communist publisher and pundit, was telling the House Un-American Activities Committee that the label was “exploited by the Communists.” By 1948, the California Senate Fact-Finding Committee On Un-American Activities was calling YPR a Communist front organization—”The Communist Party does not overlook the indoctrination of children. The Communist book stores recently have been handing out folders advertising Young People’s Records”—which was enough to land it on the HUAC Guide to Subversive Organizations three years later. Red Channels, the infamous one-stop-shopping blacklist of entertainment professionals published by the newsletter Counterattack in 1950, included a host of names common to YPR credits: Grenell, Seeger, Glazer, Brand. (They were in good musical company: Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland, and Artie Shaw were also listed in Red Channels.)
With libraries and schools boycotting the McCarthy-bruised YPR, the company soon recombined with its successor, CRG. Most of the YPR records were re-issued by CRG, but a few—including Kitchen Music—were not. (David Bonner, whose book Revolutionizing Children’s Records is the standard history of the YPR/CRG enterprise, speculates that the master recordings had deteriorated too much in the interim.) That’s probably why Brant published the score to Kitchen Music. But the others remain unpublished, the recordings long out of print.
The Lonesome House, especially, seems unjustly forgotten. It’s one of the few children’s records that not only understands a child’s point of view, but actually privileges it over that of adults—Brant’s avant-garde extended-technique enthusiasm is childlike not in the adult-vantage, simplistic way, but in the complex, intricate, far-out fashion of actual childhood imagination. “Awaken your child to music,” the YPR logo suggested. Brant was an ideal alarm clock, himself always happy to discover a new musical day.