Do you remember Hoagy Carmichael? He had a songbook of kid’s music, and a Chicago folkie has given it a new spin

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CHICAGO — One cold winter night two years ago, the past crept up on Bucky Halker and his wife Toni as they sat sipping wine at home and listening to music.

“I got the idea that night,” said Halker. “Toni and I were listening to an old Hoagy Carmichael recording of some children’s songs he had written in the 1950s. We loved it and quickly discovered that he had several children’s songs published as an illustrated songbook.”

That book was “Songs for Children” (Golden Press), published in 1957.

“Most of the songs had been forgotten,” said Halker. “We decided that we should bring them back to life.”

And that they have done, collaborating with dozens of others on an ambitious project, “Chicago Kids Play & Sing Hoagy,” which is a book and a CD package and is, well, a flat-out delight.

Here are the lyrics of one of its 15 featured songs. It is called “Grandfather Clock.”

Grandfather clock stands in the hall,

Where he looks best, stately and tall,

All day he ticks, All day he tocks,

He is not like our other clocks.

Each quarter hour he plays a chime,

Reminding me to get to school on time;

Grandfather clock, smile down on me,

You are a part of my family.

The Halkers are a wonderfully creative pair and they did not want to merely rerecord these songs but to, as he says, “reinvent them. To mix it all up with various musical forms, new arrangements, added lyrics and to have children at the very center of it.”

So, Halker first began contacting musicians, most of whom are his friends and many with whom he has collaborated with in his long and fruitful career. He was born and raised in Ashland, Wisc., a working-class (iron ore/lumber) town on the southern shore of Lake Superior. His real name is Clark but early on he began going by a nickname he borrowed from Bucky Badger, the mascot for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He has made 15 albums, and is a historian, author and teacher, a man deeply influenced by the work and life of Woody Guthrie.

He knows the local music scene and anyone familiar with that rich territory will know the names of those on this project, including Andy Brown (jazz guitarist), Don Stiernberg (mandolin), Eric Schneider (saxophone), Dan DeLorenzo (upright bass), Gerald Dowd (drums), Carlos Mejia (Guatemalan marimba), Steve Gibons (violin), Art Davis (trumpet), Brian Wilke (pedal steel guitar), and Russ Phillips (trombone). There are many others, representing a vast array of musical styles, from jazz and folk to rock and Japanese drumming.

Most of these musicians knew of Carmichael’s work. So do you, even if you might not realize it.

Born in 1899 in Bloomington, Ind., his real name was Hoagland, named after a circus troupe called the “Hoaglands” that stayed at the Carmichael house during his mother’s pregnancy. He would become, in the words of composer Alec Wilder, the “most talented, inventive, sophisticated and jazz-oriented of all the great craftsmen” of pop songs in the first half of the 20th century. He died in 1981 and here are just a few of his hits, written in collaboration with various lyricists: “Old Buttermilk Sky,” “Skylark,” “Lazy Bones,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Heart and Soul,” “Up a Lazy River,” “Two Sleepy People,” “The Nearness of You.”

You might also have seen him on screen. He appeared and played piano is more than a dozen movies, most memorably with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who sang along with him in “To Have and Have Not” (1944) and in “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), teaching disabled vet Homer Parrish (played by real disabled vet Harold Russell) to play “Chopsticks.”

“No, not very surprisingly, none of the kids had ever heard of Carmichael,” Halker said. “But they loved his songs.”

They loved and recorded this, “Shooting Stars”:

When stars get loosened in their sockets,

They shoot off at night like rockets;

Though I stay and watch their trip

And search where they have seemed to slip,

I never ever find a chip to carry in my pockets.

The Halkers and their co-producer John Abbey gathered the children of various friends and from places Halker has performed and more than two dozen of them participated. “A couple of the narrators are four and five, the youngest singer is eight,” said Halker. “The kids loved it and we tried to make them part of everything, down to being with the adults performing to sitting in on the sound mixing. I think they all had a great time.”

The recordings took place at Kingsize Sound Lab in Wicker Park. “I have to tell you that what some of the kids seemed most excited about was riding the old-fashioned freight elevator,” says Halker

Halker and his wife have no children of their own, but he has long performed for kids, such as collaborating with the Ella Jenkins, known in some quarters as the First Lady of the Children’s Folk Song on a 1999 Grammy nominated recording titled “A Union of Friends Pulling Together.”

That title is, in its lovely way, what this project represents. The CD is a stunning and surprising mix of styles and sounds and the accompanying book, with illustrations by Mark Anderson, is charming embellishment.

“I like to think of us all as Hoagy’s children, ages zero to 75,” says Halker.


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