Natalie Merchant Sets Children's Poetry to Song

Review by Julie Swarstad
Leave Your  Sleep by Natalie Merchant
Natalie Merchant is an American singer-songwriter who has been actively releasing records since 1982.  Merchant was originally a member of the alternative-rock band 10,000 Maniacs until she began a career as a solo musician in 1993.  Her most critically-acclaimed albums include Tigerlily (1995) and Ophelia (1998).  Leave Your Sleep (2010) is her first album since 2003's The House Carpenter's Daughter.  Visit her official website at: http://www.nataliemerchant.com/.

Leave Your Sleep marks Natalie Merchant's first foray into the world of poetry.  "I'm a late arrival to the party," Merchant said in an interview about the album as she discussed her connection to poetry.  Despite her late introduction to the genre, Merchant's latest album--a two disc collection of children's poetry set to music--is a testament to the power of language and story in children's lives.  The collection includes children's poetry from well-known poets Edward Lear, Jack Prelutsky, e.e. cummings, Ogden Nash, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, along with a host of nursery rhymes and nonsense songs from more obscure writers.

Merchant says the collection started as songs for her young daughter; "I tried to show [my daughter] that speech could be the most delightful toy in her possession and that her mother tongue is rich with musical rhythms and rhymes."  However, the collection is just as much a celebration of music, including an incredible range of musical styles.  The album is the end result of the contributions of 130 different musicians, including such notables as Wynton Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, and the Klezmatics.   

Merchant's project is an ambitious one, and while the end result is largely successful, the double album doesn't entirely satisfy.  The album is heavy on children's poetry from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, and while these poems are interesting choices, Merchant's rendering of Prelutsky's "Bleezer's Ice-Cream" is so much fun that it's hard not to wish for more modern offerings.  Additionally, Merchant's musical settings sometimes suffer from excessive sentimentality and gentleness, and the album slowly sinks into a lull from which it never quite recovers.

Without question, the best tracks come when Merchant takes more risks, both musically and lyrically.  The first disc starts out with some of the collection's best songs; "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience" with its wailing Celtic pipe accompanying Merchant's dramatic rendering of the poem and the rollicking, bluegrass interpretation of Edward Lear's "Calico Pie" are two of the highpoints of the entire album.  However, the first disc stalls about halfway through but is saved in the end by the inventive Dixie-land version of "The Peppery Man," and Merchant's taunting rendition of "The Blind Men and the Elephant."

The second disc, although it features a few good songs, never quite seems to make it off the ground.  "Adventures of Isabel" and the jazzy "The Janitor's Boy," stand out for their playfulness, wit, and musical energy, but the rest of the disc suffers from a distinct lack of forward momentum, primarily caused by a predominance of slow, lilting songs that are sugary sweet.  "The Land of Nod" is just one example of the over-sentimentalism with which some of these poems are treated; with swelling string accompaniment, Merchant does little to reinterpret Stevenson's poem, or to even bring it to life in an original way.

In the end, Leave Your Sleep includes some truly innovative and interesting interpretations of great children's poetry, despite the nearly equal amount of renderings that bring little new to the table.  Leave Your Sleep is certainly worth a listen, and many of the songs contained within are worth listening to again and again, because they really do show the best that music can do for language.  Although the collection would have benefited from greater selectivity and brevity, there are a number of gems that have the potential to inspire children to see the possibilities of rhythm, language, and song.

How do you use music in the classroom to teach poetry and/or language?  We'd love to hear from you!

Created on: 
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents