Review of ButterflyFish Music CD

From Faith and Theology- Review of Butterflyfish: songs for children

As a parent of young children, I often gripe about the abysmal quality of products made for kids – especially that dismal cacophony of books and music that is marketed each year to young children. Bright sparkly sticker-infested books, bursting at the seams with bad grammar, colourless characters, incoherent plots, hackneyed illustrations, and all those endlessly repeated psycho-spiritual-gender banalities which have come to constitute The Disney Worldview (a worldview that is infinitely more malignant and more destructive than anything Lars von Trier could ever dream up).

Similarly, where children’s music is concerned (I won’t even mention television shows), the ruling principle seems to be: Any old crap will do; after all, they’re only kids. No need for lyrical imagination; no need for creativity; no need for musical talent or versatility. Just rhyme a few words, grunt out a few lines, bang out a couple of chords on your cheap electric keyboard – it’s good enough for the kids.

CDIf you have young children in your home, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Which is why it’s so refreshing when occasionally you come across a piece of real music for children. That was how we felt when Roger Flyer (a regular friend here at F&T) sent me a copy of one of his wonderful CDs for children: a CD that I know very well indeed, since my kids have been listening to it almost every night for the past 18 months!

Anyway, while I was in Princeton last month, one of the highlights was getting to know the brilliant young Harvard theologian, Matthew Myer Boulton. Not only is he the author of a superb book on Barth and worship, but he’s also the singer-songwriter for a sweet and groovy children’s band, Butterflyfish. He gave me a copy of their brand new debut CD, Ladybug – and after listening to it dozens (hundreds?) of times now, I’m pleased to report that this is the real deal: an album that kids adore, and that grownup folks will also continue to enjoy after countless hours of repeat listening.

The album is musically vibrant, surprising and exciting: it blends styles as diverse as bluegrass, country, jazz and gospel, in a way that brings out that characteristic joy and lilt and humour of American folk music. And the lyrics (all written by Matt Boulton) are quite wonderful: linguistically inventive, poetically playful, and at times also theologically serious and reflective. Where so many kids’ CDs are characterised by attitudes of patronising banality, it’s a tremendous pleasure to hear music like this: music that takes children seriously, music that respects its audience, music premised on the assumption that young children are capable of lively joy, honest reflection, and exuberant aesthetic delight.

The songs range from the light-hearted jollity of “Ladybug” to the fast-paced rollicking bluegrass adventure of “What Jonah Learned Inside the Whale” (“He learned that whales have no teeth, but they do have great big tongues; / God is underneath everything and everyone”), to the delicate and imaginative “Noah’s Lullaby”, the jubilant a cappella celebration “Deep Down in My Heart”, and the rich smoky-jazz-bar groove of “There Is a Love”.

But the real highlight is the extraordinary track, “All Sad Songs.” I’ve never heard a children’s song quite like this – and without getting too carried away in autobiographical pathos, I might also admit that it’s probably the only song from a children’s CD that has ever made me cry. Here are the lyrics:

It’s been all sad songs since you’ve left
I’ve cried and I’ve kept my sorrow so deep inside
And I’ve swept up all of my pride
Sad songs since you died

It’s been all sad songs since you went away
I’ve been lost, and sleeping right through the day
This has cost me all that I had
Now the songs are all sad

Something deep inside of me
So wanted to believe
But that cost me all that I had
Now the songs are all sad

(Male voice: La la la…)

But then Mary came to our house of shame
To proclaim that you were alive again
And the grave was as empty and dark
As my broken heart

Something deep inside of me
So wanted to believe
That the grave is as empty and dark
As my broken heart

(Female voice: La la la…)

I know all sad songs have another verse
It’s the one the heavenly choirs rehearse
For that day when the broken will mend
And the sad songs will end

Not that we’ll forget, we’ll sing those songs yet
In a different key, we’ll sing differently
In the music God has arranged
All the sad songs will change

(Both voices: La la la…)

God will wipe away all our tears
Banish the fears we’ve collected for all these years
On that day when the broken will mend
The sad songs will end

Something deep inside of me
Can’t help it but believe
In that day when the broken will mend
The sad songs will end
In the music God has arranged
All the sad songs will change

A remarkably poignant and sensitive meditation on death, grief, and the triumph of resurrection. The song reflects on music itself as an eschatological metaphor: God is writing another verse for our sad songs, and arranging the score in a different key. In the day of redemption, we will still sing our sad songs – nothing will be lost or forgotten – but these same songs will be translated into something new, utterly sublated so that they become songs of grace and redemption.

This metaphor is evoked very vividly in the song’s own arrangement. After describing his grief in the first verse and chorus, the lead voice sings a melancholy wordless tune, singing only the syllable “la la la…” But then after Mary’s announcement of the empty grave, a female voice enters the song. Again, she sings a wordless tune to the same music, but the melody has subtly changed so that those syllables now convey hope and light and sweetness. Then finally, after the verse describing the eschatological sublation of grief, the male and female voice join their wordless tunes together. Now the two distinct voices and melodies combine to produce a single harmony of redemption: the sad grieving voice is overlaid with a voice of hope and healing; or rather, the sad voice is lifted up into a harmony which fully includes the sad tune, yet utterly transforms it.

The female voice slips into the song so gently, so unobtrusively. The voice alights like a dove, then rises again, leading the male voice upwards. I’m reminded of George Herbert’s poem, “Easter Wings”, where God is depicted as a bird in flight, helping us to fly when our own wings are broken, so that we are raised up together and “combined” in one harmonious song. (As you can see in the picture below, the poem is itself shaped like two birds together in flight.) “With thee / Oh let me rise / As larks, harmoniously… With thee / Let me combine / And feel this day thy victorie: / For, if I imp my wing on thine / Affliction shall advance the flight in me.”

The harmony of the two voices in “All Sad Songs” is like the movement of two birds in flight. The song’s whole theology of resurrection and hope is conveyed most powerfully here, in this simple monosyllabic harmony. My sadness has not fled, but another voice now sings with me, bearing me up, supporting my broken wing, lifting my mournful melody and translating it into a hymn of redemption. The same song – but how different now!

Not that we’ll forget, we’ll sing those songs yet
In a different key, we’ll sing differently
In the music God has arranged
All the sad songs will change.

My wife and I love this album just as much as our kids do. If you’re looking for some good music for your children, then why not grab a copy of Ladybug.

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