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Barry Louis Polisar: Old Enough to Know Better

by Craig Harris

Barry Louis Polisar

Barry Louis Polisar. (Photo by Michael G. Stewart.)

When his song “All I Want Is You” was played during the opening credits of the Jason Reitman-directed film Juno and included on the Grammy-winning soundtrack in 2007, much of the world heard about Barry Louis Polisar for the first time. For many, though, Polisar’s name and talent were no secret. Writing and recording songs for youngsters since 1975, the Maryland-based singer/songwriter has won four Parents’ Choice awards, written songs for “Sesame Street” and The Weekly Reader, starred in an Emmy award-winning TV show (Field Trip), and released a dozen albums of his original songs. His recording Old Dogs, New Tricks was named “one of the 20 best children’s recordings of all time” in Children’s Jukebox, a guide to children’s music for teachers and librarians published by the American Library Association.

As though his songs were pebbles thrown into a lake, the ripples continue to reverberate, culminating in a 60-track double-CD Polisar tribute, We’re Not Kidding, produced by Aaron Cohen, lead singer of the Orange County, California-based Radioactive Chicken Heads. “[Cohen] had my albums as a kid,” said Polisar by telephone. “Six or seven years ago, he recorded one of my songs on an EP [credited to Joe and the Chicken Heads] and mailed it to me out of the blue. I listened to it, and it was the most amazing version of ‘Underwear.’ It was funny and energetic and captured the feel of the song.”

While in Los Angeles on a concert tour a couple of years later, Polisar had dinner with the young performer, who had continued to cover his songs. “We had emailed each other,” he explained, “but this was the first time that we met. He said that he would like to do a whole album of my songs, get some other bands involved. That’s how that tribute album began.”

Polisar’s songs have been recorded over the years by a lengthy list from Big Bird and Sesame Street Live! to such folk-based artists as Bonnie Phipps, Dave Fry, Faith Petric, and Seamus Kennedy. In addition to covering Polisar’s “My Brother Threw Up On My Stuffed Toy Bunny” and “He Eats Asparagus, Why Can’t You Be That Way,” children’s performer/psychologist Peter Alsop was the first to record Polisar’s most oft-covered tune, “I Wanna Be a Dog.”

“People usually take my songs,” Polisar said, “and smooth out all the rough edges. [During ‘I Wanna Be a Dog’] for example, there’s a line, ‘Oh, I wanna be a dog, I wanna dig big holes, I wanna flirt with French poodles and basset hounds and pee on telephone poles.’ Many times, when people record that, they clean up the lyrics a little bit.”

Recruiting artists eager to record Polisar’s songs for the tribute CD proved a simple task. “A number of bands had already been lined up and recorded,” he said, “but when the Juno soundtrack album came out, not only did people want to find out about me, but also, when they went on my website, they found out about the project. There were a lot more requests from people wanting to do songs.”

As much fun for adults as kids, the 60-tune tribute covers a lot of ground. “I love [the interpretations],” said Polisar. “The funny songs make me laugh. They’re even funnier than anything that I’ve created. These performers had license to take what I had written and go from there. I’ve been typecast as a writer of outrageously funny songs for kids. But I’ve written and recorded many kinds of songs. There are non-funny songs, like ‘All I Want Is You’ and ‘With a Giggle and a Hug,’ that were turned into really beautiful songs. I feel like cashing in my chips and riding off into the sunset.”

Long known as “the bad boy of children’s music,” Polisar has consistently provided a musical voice to things that most kids only think about. “[People say that] I sing about all these edgy things,” he said, “but, honestly, I’ve never thought they were edgy. I’ve never felt that I was doing anything outrageous. When I started out, I was writing about my own experiences or the experiences of my younger brothers and sisters. Then, when I got married and had a family, I began writing about my own children—potty training and diaper rash. Every parent talks about it. I just channeled it into a humorous song. It’s just the way that I’ve looked at life, trying to find the humor in things.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Washington, D.C., Polisar was lured by music from earliest memory. “I remember watching ‘The Mike Douglas Show,’ ” he recalled, “and seeing Tom Paxton come on, and [he] sang ‘Jimmie Newman,’ an anti-war song. I remember another time seeing Joan Baez on the show.”

Polisar’s own musical aspirations were sparked during a trip to Arizona with a friend’s guitar-playing older brothers. “We were out on the top of a mountain for a week,” he remembered. “They’d bring out their guitars, sit around the fire, and sing songs that they knew. I hadn’t yet learned how to play, but when I came back from that trip, I went out and bought a guitar. I still have it hanging on my office wall.”

Singer/songwriters of the 1970s, especially John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Loudon Wainwright III, and Townes Van Zandt, had a profound effect on Polisar’s songwriting. “They’re storytellers,” he said. “Loudon is not only a storyteller, but he has that bittersweet approach to writing about families—the failures, the foibles, as well as the good stuff. Before you find your voice as a writer, you emulate the people you like.”

Another influence came from the animated singing group Alvin and the Chipmunks. “On my very first flyer, when I was still in college,” said Polisar, “the caption read ‘where Alvin and the Chipmunks left off.’ I remember David Seville and the chipmunks sang a song about all the things that they liked to do. At the end of the song, Alvin picks up a guitar and sings, ‘I like to break the dishes, pull girls’ pigtails,’ and he gives the honesty about what he really likes to do. The truth comes out at the end. I loved that—the rebelliousness that he brought to that material.”

Though he gave little thought to performing for youngsters at first, Polisar’s future course was altered after his first performance. “A teacher at the University of Maryland saw me with my guitar,” he said, “got into a conversation with me, and asked me to perform at her school. [After the program], I overheard a teacher yelling at her kids. They were excited about the songs and laughing, enjoying themselves, and she was yelling at them, telling them to remove the grins off their faces, that they were acting like children, and needed to get back in line.”

Writing the song “I’ve Got a Teacher, She’s So Mean,” based on everything that the teacher said, Polisar found that word about the tune spread quickly. Before long, his telephone was ringing off the wall. “Schools heard about the song,” he said, “and wanted me to come to play it for them.”

Performing in schools meant creative freedom for Polisar. “I didn’t have to write about old men in diners or people in the park,” he said. “I could write about every experience that I was having. I’d be over my parents’ house, having dinner, and my mom would try to get my little brother to eat his broccoli. She’d say, ‘Look at your older brother, Barry. He’s eating his broccoli. Why can’t you be like him?’ That reminded me of what it was like growing up, being the oldest in the family. When I wrote about the things that were pent up inside of me, it did pertain to families. There was a subtext to a lot of them.”

Though it provided his first widely distributed cover, Big Bird’s recording of “I’ve Got a Dog and My Dog’s Name Is Cat” came as a surprise to Polisar. “It was a big feather in my cap,” he said, “pardon the pun. But I didn’t know about it for the longest time and had a bit of a struggle getting a royalty payment. I kept doing school concerts and little kids, when I’d sing the song, would tell me that they’d heard it on ‘Sesame Street.’ I said ‘No, no, it probably just sounds like a “Sesame Street” song.’ I was in a record store, looking through the bins and sure enough, discovered that they had recorded the song.”

Polisar’s involvement with the internationally touring show Sesame Street Live! has brought his songs around the globe. His tunes have been used for TV commercials in Australia and New Zealand. “There’s no better joy than having written songs that make their way around the world,” he said.

The ribaldry of Polisar’s songs has not always been universally accepted. In 1990, a Maryland school attempted to have his performances banned. “It turned out to be only one person, a high school teacher, who found my material inappropriate,” he explained. “He tried to get me banned. The ACLU got involved. It was a front-page news story all around the country. People said, ‘You can’t buy that kind of publicity.’ ”

Barry Louis Polisar
Photo by Michael G. Stewart

For a while, the controversy had a crippling impact on Polisar’s career. “My work dried up,” he recalled. “You can’t say censorship and children in the same breath. I ended up with lots of publicity and no work. All the schools suddenly thought I was controversial. That was the same year that I had been invited to play the White House. There were headlines, ‘Banned Singer Performing at the White House.’ ”

When the controversy quieted down after two years and he was invited to return to Maryland schools, Polisar had to think twice when he was asked to talk about censorship on a local TV show. “I had to really think about it,” he said. “I was working again. Did I want to dredge the story up? I said, ‘You know, I feel strongly about the issues of censorship and First Amendment rights.’ So I went on the show and talked about it.”

Polisar’s appearance was so well received that the CEO of the TV station, who also owned an ABC-affiliated station, asked if he had any interest in doing a children’s television show. “I said, ‘I don’t watch much TV for kids,’ ” he said. “ ‘I find it too scripted. If you could do a behind-the-scenes kind of thing, I’d be interested.’ I really pitched them the idea.”

A couple of years later, Field Trip made its debut, remaining part of ABC’s schedule for four years. “It was a PBS-quality show,” said Polisar, “but it was done on network television. They didn’t know what to do with it.”

In addition to writing and recording his songs, Polisar has authored several books of poetry and a chapter book about the Amistad slave rebellion. His book Don’t Do That!: A Child’s Guide to Bad Manners, Ridiculous Rules, and Inadequate Etiquette was translated into Spanish and published as Eso No Se Hace! Guia Infantil Sobre Malos Madales, Reglas Absurdas Y Etiqueta Inadecuada in 2004.“When I started writing books for kids,” he explained, “I got a legitimacy that I never had as a songwriter. As a songwriter, I was seen as a bad boy, an outsider, and an outlaw. But as a published author, I was invited to go into the schools.”

The success of “All I Want Is You” has had a similar effect. “People who know that I wrote that song, “ Polisar said, “are open to everything else that I’ve done. That song was recorded in 1977. I sold 350,000 copies of my work cumulatively and thought that was pretty good. After Juno came out, it sold more than 600,000 copies in four or five months and opened my work to a lot of people.”

Polisar’s most recent album, Old Enough To Know Better: The Worst of Barry Louis Polisar, is a career-spanning compilation of previously unrecorded songs and recorded songs Polisar considered failures. “I joked that I’ve written so many bad songs,” he said, “that it had to be a double CD. I rewrote them all and turned them into pieces that I really liked. A number of the songs ended up on the tribute album, as well.”

A family collaboration, the album was inspired by Polisar’s daughter, Sierra, and featured her twin brother, Evan (who recently released his own album of original songs), on clarinet and saxophone. “[Sierra] discovered a trove of my songs that she hadn’t heard,” said Polisar, “and asked me why I didn’t sing them. They were written when I was really young. They were sloppy. There were things that I didn’t like. She suggested that I rewrite them. It was an interesting challenge.”

Polisar not only met the challenge, but he surpassed all expectations. With Old Enough to Know Better: The Worst of Barry Louis Polisar and We’re Not Kidding, he looks forward to new challenges, knowing that old dogs can, indeed, learn new tricks.

Barry Louis Polisar
Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Discography

We’re Not Kidding! A Tribute to Barry Louis Polisar (2009)

Old Enough to Know Better (2005)

A Little Different (1999)

Old Dogs, New Tricks (1993)

Teacher’s Favorites (1993)

Family Trip (1993)

Family Concert (1990)

Juggling Babies (1988)

Off-Color Songs for Kids (1983)

Stanley Stole My Shoelace and Rubbed It in His Armpit and Other Songs My Parents Won’t Let Me Sing (1982)

Songs for Well Behaved Children (1979)

Captured “Live” and in the Act (1978)

Naughty Songs for Boys and Girls (1978)

My Brother Thinks He’s a Banana and other Provocative Songs for Kids (1977)

I Eat Kids and Other Songs for Rebellious Children (1975)

Books

Curious Creatures: Animal Poems (2010)
Something Fishy (2010)

Stolen Man: The Story of the Amistad Rebellion (2007)

Telling the Story: A Passover Haggadah Explained (2007)

Noises From Under the Rug: The Barry Louis Polisar Songbook (2006)

A Little Less Noise (2001)

Insect Soup: Bug Poems (1999)

Don’t Do That (1995)

The Haunted House Party (1995)

Snakes! And the Boy Who Was Afraid of Them (1994)

The Snake Who Was Afraid of People (1994)

Peculiar Zoo (1993)

The Trouble With Ben (1992)

Dinosaurs I Have Known (1989)

[www.barrylou.com]

© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.

[Editor’s note: The following corrections were made to this article: The song “I’ve Got a Teacher, She’s So Mean” was erroneously identified as “The Meanest Teacher in the World”; “My Underwear is Everywhere” is actually called “Underwear”; and “Old Enough to Know Better” is not just “previously unrecorded songs” but “previously unrecorded songs and recorded songs Polisar considered failures.”]

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