There are other songs she likes, but right now the clear favorite is “Wheels On the Bus.” I’m not convinced that this is a remarkably better song than “Little Red Caboose,” but it does have more verses, more interesting hand gestures, and endless possibilities for improvisation. (“The _____ on the bus go _____, _____, _____ ...” Seriously, you could do lots with this.) When she wants to sing in her bathtub, she wants us to sing “Wheels On the Bus.” When she wants to sit at the computer and watch songs on YouTube, the one she ultimately wants is “Wheels On the Bus.” For you parents who have shunned the time-killing powers of the internet, or for you non-parents who go to YouTube to watch Ke$ha videos and clips of monkeys eating their boogers, let me just tell you that there are quite a few video renditions of this song (and every other children’s song ever written). There’s this creepy synthpop version with a bus that seems to be a distant relative of Stephen King’s Christine. There’s this hyperactive European version where the onomatopoeic sounds are just slightly off enough to make you feel like the embassy is on the other side of town. Or there’s this frantic version animated with leftover panels from a 1960’s action comic book. The one that my little girl prefers the best is also the most palatable to my ears, and is hopefully a sign that her musical preferences are developing tastefully: a woman playing guitar while two kids sing and do the hand motions.
And she’ll do the hand gestures. Without having them mirrored, mind you; she’ll do the appropriate hand gestures just at the word that accompanies them. When I sing “The doors…” she throws her arms open and shut. When I sing, “The wipers…” she immediately starts swishing her hands in diagonal chopping motions. When I sing, “The babies…” she rubs her eyes while I “waah, waah, waah.” When I sing “The mommies…” she shushes me with her finger over her lips. And when I sing “The horn…” she enthusiastically honks the imaginary horn in front of her and squeals, “Beep beep beep!” And when I get to the refrain, “…all over town,” she joins right in, singing her own rendition of an extended long-a vowel sound. I’m aware that this is just operant conditioning, and it isn’t from watching YouTube. They sing this song at daycare, and she has had lots of opportunities to practice these hand motions with her peers. But, like all operant conditioning, she has learned it because it serves her in some way. I’m pretty sure she isn’t getting fed a dog biscuit when she performs the appropriate hand gestures, and so I wonder: what does she get out of singing this song?
Or, the question I’m really asking myself: Why does she like what she likes? Is it the hand motions? “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (“Incy Wincy Spider” if you’re British) has hand motions, and so does “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The daycare sends home CDs that they use in their classroom. As parents, we’re partial to “Wiggle Wiggle” just because it sounds silly and fun, but it doesn’t capture our daughter’s attention the way “Wheels On the Bus” does. Is there something about the melody that’s appealing to her? I suppose all of us like the songs we like because the melody is pretty or catchy or tuneful. But I also like the songs I like because of the lyrics, and I think the lyrical draw of “Wheels On the Bus” is minimal even to a toddler. I mean, she’s never ridden a bus. Although maybe that’s the appeal…
Anyway, what is the appeal? Why does she like that song above others? Why did she like “Little Red Caboose” but now she doesn’t? I’m not sure. There’s really no accounting for taste, ever, for anyone, even myself. I can argue all day about why I think My Morning Jacket’s later work is superior, but I know someone who will vehemently disagree no matter how reasonably or passionately I state my case. At the end of the day, I suppose, we just like what we like. But you know what else I suspect is at play? I think she likes “Wheels On the Bus” because she knows it.
When I moved to Winston-Salem, I attended a Moravian church worship service, I didn’t know any of the hymns they sang. The Moravian church has a rich and unique tradition of hymnody, but it was all completely unfamiliar to someone raised Baptist. But at the end of the service, they closed with “Amazing Grace.” And I was thrilled, and I sang louder than everyone else, because I knew that song.
When I go to the local nursing home to play my guitar and sing for the residents, I play Bob Dylan songs and Neil Young songs and even a pretty killer version of Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror.” And everyone smiles politely and a few people even clap when I finish. But when I sing “Tennessee Waltz” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” people clap and sing along. Because they know those songs.
The world is so full of music. Beautiful music, everywhere you turn – particularly in my house, let’s just be honest. And maybe that’s the problem. In my little girl’s twenty months on this planet, she has already heard more styles of great music in our home than many people even know exist. Just in the past week, we’ve listened to Etta James, The Beach Boys, and The Black Keys. Maybe my little girl is thrilled to hear a song she’s heard before and recognizes and can show her familiarity by doing the hand motions. She can participate in this song, can even be an active contributor to its performance. Who doesn’t love that?
This is why children’s songs are simple, repetitive, and ridiculously catchy. They are written so that children will learn to sing them by themselves. I believe this is why my little girl loves “Wheels On the Bus”, and why she prefers the video where other children sing it with her. She loves music; she smiles and dances whenever I play it for her, any type. But if she can sing along and perform her choreographed moves, then she really loves it. Because the only thing more amazing than listening to music is making music. And what is more fulfilling as a human being – young or old, still developing – than to be a creative participant in the world?