Listened to at low volume, with attention focused on sounds -- not words -- Natural Selection makes what sounds almost like normal music. Permanent Teeth, its debut recording, abounds with airtight, verse-chorus-verse melodies that fit the pop-song formula with airtight precision.
But listen more closely. Amid the electric, acoustic and pedal-steel guitars, the mandolins and banjos, the drums and percussion, singer-songwriter Mark Ledwig's lyrics are a dead giveaway: "Take it away and call it subtraction/Put more in...when you add," he sings on "The Math Song," the disc's opening track. "Split it just right and call it division/This times that, multiply like mad."
This is not music for grownups. Ledwig's target audience is a group whose members, by and large, aren't tall enough to reach the average record-store counter, not even on their tippy-toes. The seven-song-long Permanent Teeth is full of whimsical, instructive lessons in the areas of language ("Punctuation Marks," "The Backwards Alphabet," "Prepositions"), self-esteem ("There's No One Like Me") and eco-awareness ("Mama Earth") -- schoolhouse fundamentals with a beat. Whereas a lot of music produced for little ones -- from Barney to Raffi and every Mister Rogers record in between -- veers toward a simplicity of sound that mirrors its subject matter, Ledwig's is often positively rockin'. The Irie, island vibe of "There's No One Like Me" seems almost suited for the indoor adult activities associated with traditional reggae music, and "Prepositions," with its garagey guitars, rambunctious chorus and agitated vocals, sounds downright subversive. When Ledwig barks out "BEFORE and AFTER, all ALONG/You need a preposition to get INTO this song," he's singing about grammar, but he may as well be decrying the monarchy.
"Yeah, I guess that song probably works better with older kids," Ledwig says, laughing. "That's kinda like our Who song. I've always done a lot of good-timey, Beatlesy type stuff. But when we got that Who vibe in there, all the other stuff kind of got kicked to the curb."
If Ledwig occasionally pushes the boundaries of what's considered "kids' music," it's because he knows his audience. Permanent Teeth is the result of eleven years Ledwig spent playing for children in Los Angeles, where he lived and worked as a bilingual elementary-school teacher. For approximately fifteen minutes at the end of each school day, Ledwig would break out an acoustic guitar and guide his students -- many of them Hispanic children in English as a Second Language programs -- through the pop canon; songs like the Grateful Dead's "Ripple," the Beatles' "Hello, Goodbye" and the Romantics' "What I Like About You" were staples in Ledwig's class, as were his own tunes. And when he found himself with a particularly musically adept group, he'd put some of the sessions on tape. Those recordings -- raw with the noise of recess and the calamity of a second-grade classroom -- nonetheless burst with infectiously joyful readings of sometimes difficult material. The sound of 25 seven-year-olds offering a nearly flawless "Octopus's Garden" is enough to suggest that Ringo Starr should have cut his losses with the Fab Four and written soundtracks for cartoons instead.
"Kids have a sophistication of understanding that a lot of adults don't appreciate and don't have themselves," Ledwig says. "When the song stops on a downbeat and the kids are right there with it -- stopping on a dime, all perfectly in sync -- well, that's because the band is tight."
Watching students react to music-based lessons led Ledwig to think that his own songs could serve a legitimate educational purpose. And though his content was simple by design -- even borderline silly sometimes ("The Halloween Song," he admits, is "just for fun") -- Ledwig found inspiration in serious places. He became a disciple of psychologist/linguist Harold Pinker, whose book How the Mind Works set forth the theory that music is a useful tool in fostering language acquisition. By using music to teach fundamental concepts, Ledwig says, he introduced students to two worlds at once.
"We always had a lesson before learning a new song, where we would talk about the words and try to figure out what the composer was trying to say," he says. "When you hear the kids picking up on the nuances of the melody and sensing where the emphasis should go -- when to be quiet, when to be loud -- you know that they are really getting an idea of what the words are saying and what the music is doing."
Encouraged by his friends and educator-heavy family, Ledwig decided to record his music professionally in 1999. Although he considered himself an average singer and guitarist (he learned guitar as a Spanish and Latin American studies student at Colorado State University in the mid-'80s and then had plenty of time to practice as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras following graduation), Ledwig kept good musical company. When Natural Selection came together as a band, it included his friend John Jakubek, who was a member of the now-defunct Zoo People, an L.A.-based rock band that had been courted by Atlantic Records in the mid-'90s. Keyboardist John Nau, who appeared on the first two Hootie and the Blowfish records (including the mega-seller Cracked Rear View), was also a Zoo person. Flutist/clarinetist Richard Hardy, who'd recorded with Lowen & Navarro and Kenny Loggins, among others, currently toils in the Vibe Experience along with producer/drummer Jim Doyle. Ledwig even called on a couple of his students to provide childlike choruses here and there.
Permanent Teeth wasn't Ledwig's first studio endeavor. With a couple of musician friends and a handful of talented students, he'd recorded some of the songs onto a four-track in 1990; the resulting cassette, L.A.mentary Rock & Roll, was distributed to his class -- and a couple of record labels -- but was a poor rendering. Permanent Teeth, on the other hand, sparkles with clean sound and attention to detail. Although Ledwig's songs are written with a simplicity that translates well to an acoustic treatment, they spring to life under Doyle's production. Beyond its obvious novelty factor, the disc is an enjoyable listen, even for those who already know that "when you subtract you call it the difference/Call it the sum to add the end."
Of course, it's probably more enjoyable for those who don't know that yet.
"I remember the day I took the CD and played it for my class," Ledwig says. "These kids had been singing the songs all year. When I put it on, their eyes just popped. They were like 'Whoaaah.' But I told them, 'C'mon. You're just as good as the musicians on this disc. You're as much of a band as they are. Now, let's play!'" (Permanent Teeth's song list also confused a few kids, who wondered why Ledwig had neglected to include some of their favorites. "They asked me, 'What happened to "Hello, Goodbye"? Where's "Dear Prudence"?'" he remembers. "They thought I'd written those songs, so I had to set them straight, as much as I would like to take credit.")
The recording is Ledwig's pièce de résistance, even if it is for the preschool set. And although he acknowledges that the specifics of his target demographic might complicate things on a marketing level -- little kids don't buy that many records, and parents tend to stick to the Disney edict in their music-buying -- he's confident the disc will eventually pay off in more than an artistic sense. Ideally, Ledwig would like to license his songs to a production company like the Children's Television Workshop; he's also working on an instrumental version of the album that he hopes to sell to educators and parents who can then incorporate the material, karaoke-style, into their own lessons. The album is good enough, he believes, to not only make him happy -- but to make him some money. In fact, he's banking on it.
At the end of the 1999 school year, Ledwig quit his teaching job and moved back to Colorado, where he found work in the bilingual-education program at Colfax Elementary School, a predominantly Hispanic school on Denver's northwest side. As he had in L.A., Ledwig incorporated music into his lessons, and, like their counterparts in California, the Colfax students loved it. But Ledwig butted heads with the school's administrators -- as he also had in L.A. The problem, he says, stemmed from ideological differences between his teaching methods and the school's: He was discouraged from using certain English-language materials, like Dr. Seuss books, in his classes, he says. Aware that he was breaking protocol, Ledwig continued using English works, including songs. Eventually, when tensions between teacher and administrator accelerated, he was asked to leave his guitar at home. Ledwig took that as his cue to leave, and he did. (Mary E. Romero, Colfax's principal, declined to discuss Ledwig's employment.)
"Really, all I want to do is change the world with music. But the way I wanted to do it wasn't part of the program at the school," he says, acknowledging that Colfax Elementary does have a formal music program. "It just kind of goes against my idea of teaching when someone tells me the music is creating too much of a distraction. When I first started teaching in Los Angeles, I relied on all the help and advice I could get from people I knew who were or had been teachers. People sent me all kinds of stuff: crafts, lesson plans, you name it. My aunt was a teacher for many, many years, and I remember a letter she sent me when I had my first job. It said, 'Be sure you sing to them a lot.' I always kept that in mind."
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These days, Ledwig is working sporadically to fund a full-throttle promotional campaign for Permanent Teeth. So far, assorted press types, school-board members, some of Ledwig's former students and a recently excused American president are among the chosen few who have received copies. (Permanent Teeth may now be obtained through the Denver-based Master Works Studio, where the album was recently re-engineered.) But soon Ledwig will begin a new job with the Denver Housing Authority, where he'll teach English and life skills to adults of varying ages.
No doubt his guitar will make an occasional appearance in his new classroom. It's easy to imagine the excitable instructor encouraging his mature students to join him in song: "Thinkin' 'bout how it's gonna be when I get really old/I'll be 97 and my grandson only six/I'll tell him 'bout pollution and he'll think I'm playing tricks," Ledwig might sing, overemphasizing the lyrics to "Mama Earth."
And then maybe he'll wrap up his lessons with the lyrics that seem closest to his heart: "He just won't believe we didn't keep the water clean/He will love his mother, and he'll learn to sing."