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Ken Lonnquist: The Fifth Beatle
The Fab Four --- In One --- For Kids!
Music Review by Sally Russell, Minnesota Parent Magazine
Ken Lonnquist is the most astounding thing to happen to children’s—no, make that family—music since... well, since forever. There is no way to adequately describe the music he creates or capture the charm of his live performances, no one to whom he can be compared. Except perhaps John, Paul, George and Ringo.
I cannot imagine what our lives would be like without his music in our home, our car, as a part of our family language. And the scary thing is, I only stumbled onto him by accident.
Six months pregnant and unwilling to sit another moment watching my ankles swell at the playground, five-year-old Malcolm and I sauntered down the street a muggy summer day in search of respite. The Wild Rumpus bookstore was cool and welcoming. Part library, part animal sanctuary, part retail space, all fun; it’s the sort of bookstore where children come first in an entirely uncontrived way.
Apparently, many knew of Ken Lonnquist’s performance that day, and the excitement was palpable. When this exuberant character stepped forward with a guitar and microphone, everything I knew and believed about music aimed at children flew out the charming children’s store’s front door.
Ken hunkered down with the kids and sang songs that resonated with them about one-speed bikes, X-ray specs, elephants, and enormous cats. He stood tall, winked at parents, and spun stories of foolish children who neglect “please” and “thank you” then are whisked away by fairies to dark and mysterious fates. For an all-too-brief afternoon, filled with equal amounts of joy and fun, he held our hearts with his music.
Music has always been a huge part of our lives, all sorts: Eric Clapton, Glenn Miller, Beethoven, Cole Porter, The Doors, Patsy Cline, Mozart, Billy Holiday, those aforementioned guys from Liverpool... suffice to say our tastes are eclectic. My children also enjoy many fine geared-to-children tapes, CD’s and yes, records. From Burl Ives to the Roches; I can listen to them in managed amounts.
But grown-ups don’t play those children’s collections alone and there are firm guidelines regarding how many times certain music can be listened to in a twenty-four hour period. Don’t talk to me about Raffi (who is perfectly fine) or Sharon, Lois and Bram (also quite pleasant) and try to draw comparisons. They are The Monkees; Ken is The Beatles.
My husband and I were stunned when we started listening to our first acquisition. Where did this guy come from? Why hadn’t we heard about him before? There’s a change that comes over someone, as the transformation from passive to attentive listener occurs.
“What is this? Who is this? Did you hear that lyric? It’s really funny!”
Much of the fun of Lonnquist is the discovery. His songs contain brilliant pieces of humor, allowing children to revel and adults to reminisce about the precious and perilous aspects of childhood. And I’ve been told that the children in my home have an especially fine ability to relate to the song, “My Mother’s Snoring.”
There are story songs inspired by fairy tales, environmental ditties that speak to everything from Garbage to Rainforests, songs that praise vegetables and breakfast-food. We’ve only begun our Lonnquist collection, with Circus Kenlando, Earthy Songs For Kids, Kengos Bongos, Welcome 2 Kenland and The Lost Songs of Kenland; there’s not a lemon in the bunch. Some of his more mellow efforts can move me to tears, or bring a small soul to my side for an extra kiss.
Besides appearing around the country, he also composes for the Children’s Theater of Madison and has written ten full-scale musical theater productions. He has received—among other awards and distinctions—the Entertainer of the Year by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry, Parent’s Choice, American Library Association, and an Environmentalist of the Year from the Madison Audubon Society. He’s composed thousands of songs and recorded more than three hundred of them.
The successes of his song-writing workshops, residencies for schools, universities, teacher, and environmental conferences are evident in the liner notes, for many of the recordings come from work with the children.
Although he has some loyal and committed followers, he still hasn’t made tremendous headway into the Minnesota market. Fortunately, family connections bring him to this neighborhood with some regularity. Certainly, the crowds are getting larger every time he appears at Wild Rumpus, and word of mouth seems to be spreading the news gradually. But I can’t help feeling as if I’m keeping a delicious secret from the rest of the world.
I pondered the question of Ken Lonnquist as I listened to Junestruck: Luminous Songs and Tails. I wondered what his grown up music would be like, if it would appeal to me as much as his other work. It does, very much. And in the first song, I think he answers my ‘Why isn’t he better known? Why isn’t he bigger?’ question: “I don’t wanna be a star, just wanna pay all my dues / I don’t wanna travel far, just wanna wear out my shoes / And if you think you can / Maybe you could follow to where I am / Dreamin’ takes you into a distant land...”
Ahhh, Ken-land. I get it now.
Ever since that chance meeting, his music has been a part of our family and so, naturally, has Ken. What if we hadn’t walked into the store that day? There are no accidents, only collisions of fate. Ken Lonnquist is among my happiest karmic fender benders.
~ Sally Russell is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent
Ken Lonnquist has made his mark in the world of childrens music.
By Dwight Allen Isthmus Weekly Arts Newspaper / The Culture
Early one Friday evening in November, Ken Lonnquist sang a bunch of his children's songs to an S.R.O. crowd at the Meadowridge Branch Library, out on the southwestern edge of Madison. Lonnquist wore blue jeans, a striped t-shirt, galluses, one gold-hoop earring and no shoes. He accompanied himself on a custom-made, small-bodied acoustic guitar. About halfway through the show, a boy who was sitting up front, a curious, pesky kid of about 9 or 10, asked Lonnquist what the metal thinga[ma[bob was on the floor there, next to Ken's empty boots. The boy picked the thinga-ma-bob up and examined it.
"That's called a capo," Lonnquist said, politely. "Would you like to see me use it?" The boy said he would. Lonnquist said, well, he might do that, sometime, and then he went into a song called My Mother's Snoring which didnt require him to use a capo but did give him a chance to snore noisily and profoundly.
Lonnquist, who is 35 and has lived in Madison since he was 13, has been performing for children for almost a dozen years. He has written, by his count, a gazillion songs for kids, as well as several hundred others for taller people. My Mother's Snoring is among his most popular numbers --- he recorded it on his first cassette for kids, Kengos Bongos, which was made in 1986 in his living room --- but it is probably not quite as popular as his fast, funny, Alligator Rag (Dont Get Caught With Your Pants Down When Theres An Alligator Around). This song, which Lonnquist adapted from a ditty he wrote for broad-minded adults back in the early days of the Reagan administration, appeals directly, if not unimaginatively, to children's interest in butts.
If you are Ken Lonnquist, Alligator Rag is a good song to sing if you don't seem to have a firm grip on your audience. One reason that Lonnquist didn't always have a firm grip on the Meadowridge audience was that it contained quite a few toddlers, in addition to the people whom Lonnquist regards as his ideal listeners, the Kindergarten through 6th grade crowd. "I've been told by parents and teachers that I'm very good at holding kids' attention," Lonnquist said later. "But whenever there are toddlers around, you can throw everything out the window. I dont do toddler music, the 'Wheels On The Bus' kind of thing."
Alligator Rag seemed to concentrate the minds of many of the children at Meadowridge. Lonnquist's next number, One Speed Bike, which is on a just-released cassette called Welcome 2 Kenland, got the joint jumping. One Speed Bike is irresistible rock 'n roll, a classic portrait of a red-blooded, speed-obsessed kid. Lonnquist even managed to get a boy in untied high-top sneakers who was reading a stack of Spider-Man comic books to look his way.
Then, after doing a funny, swaying song about a tree-climbing boy named Morgan Menezes who never worries about stuff like gravity, Lonnquist tried out a soft, pretty tune called Count On Me. This song includes the refrain "I love you." The first time Lonnquist sang the refrain, a kid sitting up front --- the boy interested in the capo, it turned out --- said, "Oh, gross!" This comment led to others --- "Yuck!" and "Euuuu!" being the chief ones. Lonnquist absorbed all of this calmly, and converted the refrain into "I love yeeuuuu," thereby acknowledging the kids feelings and deflating them a little, too. But these kids were a tough audience, or, perhaps, simply a forgetful one; they didnt applaud when the song was over. Lonnquist pulled a long face and said, "Hey, did you know that if you dont clap the performer will have to go through years of very expensive therapy?"
A Little Dreamin'
A week or so later I met Lonnquist for lunch at Monty's Blue Plate Diner, on the east side, his stomping grounds. He was wearing shoes --- high-top canvas sneakers (tied). He had an artiste's beret on his head, and a few days worth of whiskers on his face, and some burrs on his sweater which suggested that he'd been messing around in nature. He hadn't, he said, unless you considered walking the dogs in the park messing around in nature. However, he had been working on a new cassette collection of his environmental songs for kids. And later that afternoon he was going to perform some of those songs at Glendale Elementary School, which was having a Science Extravaganza Day.
It was noon rush hour at the Blue Plate, which, earlier in the day, serves as the broadcasting site for WORT's Breakfast Special. Lonnquist, whose association with WORT goes back to 1978, hosted The Breakfast Special in the late 80s, when it emanated from Cleveland's Lunch on Wilson Street. (Last winter, he filled in as host, while WORT looked for a permanent replacement). Though Lonnquist describes himself as a morning person, he doesn't especially enjoy rising at 4:30 AM and spending the hours after 9:00 AM, when the show was over, as a zombie. However, he enjoyed being a radio host much more than the only other day job he has held. In 1989, when he had, as he put it, "album debts up the wazoo," he taught debate and acting at Middleton High School. He wore a tie and tight-fitting shoes. "The job really reinforced my desire to be an itinerant musician," he says.
Unlike many itinerant musicians, Lonnquist makes a living, nowadays, at his trade. He gives about 250 concerts a year, most of them for the K-12 crowd, which means, among other things, that he gets to perform in a smoke-free, alcohol-free environment and is able to go to bed at a decent hour. Children's music has become a big business, and though Lonnquist isn't well known beyond the upper Midwest, he has managed, by dint of talent and energy, to stake out some territory for himself. "If I weren't occupying the unique niches I occupy," he told me, "it would be impossible for me to make my living solely from music."
Lonnquist ordered a Blue Plate veggie burger and a tall glass of milk, and told me about his parents and his seven older brothers and sisters. His father, who was born in northern Wisconsin, was a corn geneticist, one of the key figures in the so-called Green Revolution which led to improved grain production in Third World countries. Like everybody else in his family, his father played an instrument (guitar) and sang a little (cowboy songs). He was also a champion snorer, a fact that isn't obvious in My Mother's Snoring.
"When I wrote that song," Lonnquist said, "my father had been dead for several years, so I decided to make my mother the snorer. It's more fun to tease the living."
Lonnquist composed his first song one day when he was 7, walking home from school in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he lived until he was 10. He made up a melody for some lyrics he found in a book called "The Ghost Of Dibble Hollow". Many years later, he re-used that simple, bouncy melody in his version of The Princess And The Pea, which is on Kengos Bongos.
n 1967, when he was 10, he got his first guitar. (His family had since moved to Mexico City.) Soon thereafter, inspired by The Beatles ("I was a Beatlemaniac, and still am") and his own problems as a budding adolescent, he began to make a habit of writing songs. He wrote so much that his sister Peg, who is three years older, decided to prove that there was nothing mysterious about songwriting. She produced a one-verse nonsense song called Be-Boppa-Doodley-Oppa. Later, Lonnquist added a verse of his own and put the song on A Little Dreamin', his second kids' collection. The liner notes say: "Music and goofy words by Peg Lonnquist, normal words by Ken Lonnquist."
As the last of eight children, the smallest in a pile of achievers, Lonnquist had to make a lot of noise in order to be heard. "It was a Horton Hears A Who kind of thing for me," he said, and then recited, in a small, faraway voice, the Who's pleas for recognition: "We are here! We are here!" As a result of his status at home, Lonnquist became something of a ham. But his hamminess didnt extend to his songwriting, which, in its adolescent phase, was mostly serious and romantic, indebted to early Paul Simon.
Lonnquist believed that singing his own songs and those of people he admired defined him, and he was reluctant to do it in front of his peers. He said that the first time he performed in public --- at an open mike night at the University of Wisconsin, which he sporadically attended between 1975 and 1980 --- he forgot all the words to Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind, which he had sung in private thousands of times. "I think I was paralyzed because it mattered so much to me that I be, um, okay in peoples minds," he told me.
In the late 70s, Lonnquist played in a country-rock band called Rowdy Yates. The experience of performing in bars for big bags of bloatation equipped with pool sticks and whatnot made the idea of writing and singing for kids seem desirable. In the early 80s he started composing songs for Childrens Theater of Madison. He also traveled around the state as a balladeer in the employ of Environmental Decade, an education and lobbying group. "I was supposed to be their 'Pete Seeger'."
At the same time, he was knocking out all kinds of adult songs, many of them as the Breakfast Special's composer-frequently-in-residence. "Listeners would call in and suggest topics, and then when we broke for news Id go write a song and perform it later in the show," Lonnquist said. (Some of those songs, including The Kiss Your Ass Goodbye Polka, appear on The Late News From Clevelands Lunch, a 1990 recording full of manic parodies.
Doug Brown, a Madison-based musician who has worked alongside Lonnquist since 1978, says that the quality that impresses him most about his friend is his spontaneity. "There is something almost magical about the way he can conjure up a song on the spur of the moment. Hes a real creative spirit."
Kenny Aigen, a keyboardist who has played on all but one of Lonnquist's recordings for children, says that the reason Lonnquist is able to reach kids is that he can remember what it is like to be one. "Ken doesnt write children's music as an adult trying to figure out what kids want," Aigen, who is a professor of music therapy at New York University, told me. "Nor does he try to figure out what parents want their children to hear. He isn't moralistic and he isn't cutesy-wutesy." Lonnquist himself has said of his kids music, "I try to write songs that are fun for me, because I have to sing them forever."
Lonnquist chased his glass of milk with a cup of coffee, and then we headed off for Glendale Elementary, in southeastern Madison. We traveled in the environmentally incorrect California style: he in his Toyota, I in mine. I listened to Welcome 2 Kenland, one of his two new children's cassettes. The other is Old Befana, a retelling, in song and narrative, of an Italian Twelfth Night folktale. Unlike his first two albums for kids, the new ones were recorded in a studio --- Butch Vig's --- and have high quality sound.
Kenland is a lively and varied collection. It includes the aforementioned One Speed Bike, two gentle environmental songs, a do-wop-ish tune about TV, Old Witch (which Lonnquist heard long ago on a Burl Ives record), a jungle-beat number about a girl with messy habits, and a song about the composer's two dogs (Blue and Moon), who howl when the same girl plays her saxophone. The girl is Natalie Richter, the 13-year-old daughter of Lonnquist's partner, Joanne Schilling. Natalie has appeared on all of Lonnquist's recordings for kids. "But," Lonnquist said, "she's not into my stuff anymore. She's into whats hip."
At the Blue Plate, I had asked Lonnquist if he ever listened to other performers of children's music --- I was thinking of Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Taj Mahal, Maria Muldaur, Dave Van Ronk --- and he said, "No, hardly at all." Nor, for that matter, did he listen to much folk music --- or, rather, to what echt folkies call folk music. He said he was more likely to find inspiration for his kids songs in rock or folk-rock or Tex-Mex or reggae or other impure forms of pop music. And, he said, he often re-read the books that excited him as a boy --- Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet series, for instance. "I want to remember the feelings I had then, so I can impart them to kids now."
Inside Glendale, Lonnquist sniffed the air and said, "Cleaning fluid. Every school in North America has the same smell." He got directions to the gym, and then went back outside and drove his car and me through the school playground, where recess was in full swing. "It sure would be bad publicity if I hit one of these kids," he said, as a girl with pigtails double-dog-dared him, or seemed to. He took his equipment into the gym, and was met there by Renee Forrest, Glendales music teacher, who told him that he would be the culminating act of all-science day. He had been preceded by a man known as Mr. Science, whose show featured a couple of chemical explosions.
Lonnquist had an audience of 550. He led off with One Speed Bike --- a song with very modest scientific content --- and got everybody clapping. He then did songs about more conventional matters --- recycling, whales, water, solar energy, garbage. Some of the songs were funny, and the serious ones werent sappy or preachy. A few of them were participation songs. The effect of 550 children in a small gym shouting "Garbage!" every few bars was galvanizing.
Two days after Thanksgiving, Lonnquist performed in the Marquee Room of the Civic Center. He was celebrating the release of his two new cassettes, and the room was decorated with balloons and streamers. Natalie was there, taking tickets. Her mom was there, too. Peg Lonnquist had come down from her home in Minneapolis. Her brother had asked her to lead the audience in a kind of stretching exercise called the Banana Cheer, and also, at the end of a song called I Sold My Cat, to make the sound of an elephant trumpeting. She did both tasks with flair.
When Lonnquist started to sing I Sold My Cat, a girl sitting up front, a fan, said, "I know this song."
Lonnquist stopped, and then said, "I know this song, too. That's something we have in common."
Hard at work in Kenland
Ken Lonnquist never stops entertaining kids -- and everyone else
By David Medaris, Isthmus 08/21/2009
Free-spirited and spontaneous, imbued with boundless energy, driven by a relentless creative impulse. A cross between Dylan, Cheech & Chong and Elmo
That's how his closest friends describe Ken Lonnquist.
Spying himself in the mirror, the singer-songwriter, musical-theater composer and cornerstone of not one but four local bands, describes a conundrum. "When I'm brushing my teeth," says Lonnquist, "I see a guy that I'm getting used to seeing, but for the last five or six years I've wondered: Who's that guy in front of my mirror, and what is he doing there?"
Good question. The answer involves feeling pretty while dishwashing, the Elvis of corn breeding, The Wizard of Oz and serendipity: Throughout his career, Lonnquist, 52, has been dogged by fortuitous opportunity and blessed with the instinct, when serendipity nips at his heels, to bite back.
Sitting at a table in the east-side bungalow he shares with his life partner, the artist Joanne Schilling, Lonnquist in a rare idle moment between the May release of Awaken, his most recent children's album, and this fall's scheduled release of another album of children's songs, as well as two CDs for adult audiences pending next spring, and a demanding performance calendar recounts an example.
A couple summers ago at the Willy Street Co-op, "this guy comes up to me and says, 'Ken, I'm John Penner,'" Lonnquist recalls. "'I just want to say hello. I love your work.'" New to town, Penner asked whether he had a bass player. Lonnquist said he was about to need one.
Lonnquist asked Penner who he played with. The answer: Greg Brown, the prolific, Grammy-nominated Iowa singer-songwriter.
"And I'm like, 'I've opened for Greg Brown. I'm a great admirer of Greg Brown.' I'm gonna need a bass player, I haven't started looking and out of the sky drops not only a bass player but a really good bass player." Greg Brown's bass player. "Total serendipity."
So is this: "At one time, people asked me how famous would you like to be, and I always told them Greg Brown would be perfect."
The youngest of eight siblings, Lonnquist was born in Nebraska, where his father began his career as a plant scientist. His three sisters and four brothers introduced him to acts like the Kingston Trio and "pounded on the piano" that now stands in Lonnquist's living room.
"My sisters were always singing 'I Feel Pretty' while doing the dishes, and we would just sing all these musical songs." Gordon Lightfoot's music and Tom Lehrer's satirical songs were also early and enduring influences, but four guys from Liverpool left the biggest imprint of all. "I was absolutely inspired by the Beatles," Lonnquist says. "They completely blew my 6-year-old socks off when I saw them on the Sullivan show, and I've never gotten my socks back on."
Lonnquist is prolific. May's release of the CD for Awaken, a musical adaptation of the Aztec folk tale "The Lizard and the Sun," was accompanied by stage performances of the show. Awaken followed 2007's release of Hamelin, based on the classic Pied Piper story. In the first five months of 2008, Lonnquist did seven artistic residencies and "was just cooking," he says.
But not all his material is for children. "When it's flowing well while writing with kids, it's generally flowing well writing about whatever," he says. "Sarah Palin."
He's referring to "Brain to Nowhere," one of those topical songs that spring from the outrage simmering behind his smile much of it lingering from the Bush administration, but also directed at fresh targets. "Brain to Nowhere" got some YouTube notoriety with its unsparing satire ("I been carefully explainin' / No such thing as global warming / Teachin' teens to cross their legs and pray").
"A lot of Republicans weren't laughing at that one," Lonnquist admits, "but then again, they have no humor. 'Brain to Nowhere' was fun for me."
The population of Kenland includes some of Madison's most prominent musical residents: Gomers singer-pianist Dave Adler; multi-instrumentalist Doug Brown; Lou and Peter Berryman; Rousers singer-harpist Frank Furillo; Latin jazz percussionist Tony Castañeda; keyboardist John Chimes; trumpeter Dave Cooper; vocalist Kelly De Haven; bass virtuoso Jeff Eckels; Maggie and Sims Delaney-Potthoff of Harmonious Wail; percussionist Dane Richeson; and violinist Jon Vriesacker.
Brown has collaborated in almost every aspect of Lonnquist's career while tending to his own. "The main thing that strikes me is how brilliantly and consistently creative he has been," Brown observes, adding, "Ken has a real verve for putting bands together."
Three of those bands include Adler, who remembers being "maybe 12" when he met Lonnquist in the late 1970s. They were working on a show for Children's Theatre of Madison. Adler now plays keyboards for the Kenland Band (the vehicle for Lonnquist's songs for kids) and the Whateverlys (who perform his adult-oriented fare and a variety of covers, including Dylan), and washboard for O'Darby, an ensemble devoted to Irish music.
Adler emphasizes that when he likens Lonnquist to a cross between Cheech & Chong, Dylan and Elmo, he means this respectfully using Elmo as shorthand for Lonnquist's ability to reach young audiences. "He was a really inspirational figure for me," Adler recalls, "a free-spirited person who let the music use him as a medium."
A self-described free thinker who takes "great pleasure and joy" in aspects of his friends' faiths but adds that Bill Maher's movie Religulous "restores me," Lonnquist was raised Catholic and "pretty solidly middle class." Also a bit Mexican: When he was 10, his father took a job with the International Center for the Improvement of Corn and Wheat in Mexico City.
Those three years were "a magical time," Lonnquist says. His father directed the corn program there; future Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug ran the wheat side. "My dad was like a hero in South America because corn is the thing," Lonnquist says. "He was the Elvis of corn breeding."
The sons revered their father's clandestine LP. "My dad had a record that he had to keep hidden from my mom," Lonnquist confides. It was an album by Oscar Brand, the devotee of bawdy folk songs. "The one my brothers loved was, 'Oh, dear, what can the matter be'" Lonnquist sings, conducting with his hands "'16 old ladies locked up in the lavat'ry...' Silly stuff, but my mom disapproved."
When his father joined the UW faculty, the family settled in Middleton in time for Lonnquist to finish middle school there. Graduating from Middleton High, he enrolled at the UW to study communication arts. With three of his brothers embarking on legal careers, "everybody assumed I was going to be a lawyer."
Serendipity intervened, vetoing those assumptions during his junior year. Walking in a cold March drizzle after breaking up with his girlfriend over dinner, "I felt like I was in my own movie," he says. "Out of the misty rain, I see a poster on one of the lampposts: auditions for Wizard of Oz, Children's Theatre of Madison. I thought, that's exactly what I'd like to do right now, be in the Wizard of Oz."
Landing the role of the Tin Man, he dropped out of school (he would later complete degrees in comm arts and Spanish), setting off a cascade of happy happenstance. One of his co-stars in that production would introduce him to Joanne Schilling, and Lonnquist's Wizard performance soon led to a year touring with Kids Participation Theater.
"It seemed like every step I took, I was bumping into opportunities," Lonnquist says. He and some collaborators asked WORT-FM Breakfast Special host Michael Feldman if they could join him on air to promote a show. "One thing led to another, and soon I was doing my schtick topical songs weekly with him." Lonnquist would later host the show.
He began writing musicals for Children's Theatre of Madison, first adapting Alice in Wonderland for the stage, then A Christmas Carol and, later, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and a few more. Environmental Decade, the advocacy group, hired him as its minstrel for the environment, which led him to write a new album. "It was an ignorance of riches, to twist the phrase," Lonnquist says. "I had no idea how fortunate I was. I was like, doesn't everybody do this?"
He does have fun. "I might be sitting at my dining room table, thinking about Paul McCartney's divorce, and a song falls out about that," Lonnquist says, reaching for his guitar and performing the result, "Foolhardy in Love." (For a video of Lonnquist's dining-room performance, see TheDailyPage.com.)
At home, in familiar surroundings, Lonnquist looks relaxed. He and Schilling have eight years left on the mortgage for their house, which appears suited for two members of the creative class: tidy, lived-in, comfortable, furnished for function, decorated with Schilling's exquisite hand-crafted ocean drums, rainsticks and other art.
There are fish in a large aquarium, and photos of Natalie Richter, Schilling's daughter, now 30 and pursuing an acting career in L.A. Lonnquist considers her his daughter, too. She has been the muse for many of his children's songs, including "Nattie of the Jungle" and "I Sold My Cat," and she has lodged in the minds of his young audiences. "Natalie is forever 8 years old to the kids who listen to my CDs," he says.
What Lonnquist wants to do is keep writing songs, to chase the elusive gratification that comes with writing a good one.
"Pete Seeger told me once, you have to write 100 songs to get a good one," he says. Having written thousands of songs, Lonnquist has experienced the feeling "a number of times, where I thought for me and for what I can do that was a good piece."
Ken Lonnquist — A Madison Gem
The Capital Times, Editorial Page, Friday, June 2, 2006
I'm an instructional assistant in a high school special education program in Winston, Oregon. I teach a sign language class and a few months ago checked out a "Sign Songs" video from our county library to share with my class. My students instantly fell in love with the video and its star, Madison singer-songwriter Ken Lonnquist. My students began asking me if we could go see Lonnquist in concert.
Long story short, as a surprise to my class, my co-workers and I arranged to have Ken come and perform at our "Evening of Appreciation."
The purpose of my letter is to inform anyone in Wisconsin who may not know of the treasure they have in their own back yard. I warned Ken his arrival would equal that of Elvis, and indeed it was.
Ken entered our classroom to be greeted by very excited special needs students who eventually rushed to hug him. The ease and comfort this man showed was overwhelming! His connection with our students was immediate and sincere.
He later gave a truly entertaining concert that included inviting our students to join him up front. Even Evan, who has autism and rarely says anything, turned to me after the concert and said: "I sat right there and he did sing One Speed Bike.' He did." Proof of the magic Ken performed that night.
For sharing great music, great fun, human kindness and a little miracle, thank you Ken Lonnquist from all of us at Douglas High School!
~ Raphael Powell, Sutherlin, Oregon
Welcome to Kenland:
A visit with musician Ken Lonnquist
by Georgia Beaverson, 50 Plus Lifestyles (June, 2007).
Singing has been part of Ken Lonnquist's life since his birth in Lincoln, Nebraska. The youngest of eight, Ken followed happily in the trail forged by his older siblings.
"Everybody played a little guitar or piano," he remembers. "We sang together --- the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary --- whatever was on the radio. We loved to sing together as a family --- we still do."
All eight, Ken recalls, had Type-A personalities --- a sharp contrast to his mother's quiet correct Catholicism and his professor dad's buttoned-down scientific style. But even Mom and Dad were known to loosen up. Mom sometimes played piano, and Dad pulled out a guitar and strummed a few funny cowboy songs. How could they help it with kids who, in Ken's words, "were giddy, funny, loud in a fun, goofy way"?
"I had to make some noise," Ken chuckles, "just to be noticed."
South of the border
Eventually, Ken's family emigrated to Mexico City, where Dad Lonnquist worked as a professor. The country made a huge impression on the youngest Lonnquist, who was 10 at the time.
"The culture and the language!" Ken says with enthusiasm when asked what about Mexico influenced him most. "I soaked it up! At that age, youre really spongy."
It was also the place where the magic of his adopted country converged with the magic of an earlier occurrence. On February 9, 1964, he'd been gobsmacked by the Beatles when he saw them on television. He'd been just 6 years old at the time.
"That was the trigger," he declares.
Mexico was the place where he found his instrument, too. "I bought my first guitar there."
Ken took off in earnest with that first guitar. "The guitar was my adolescent journal. I could pour my heart out."
By the time Ken turned 13, his father had accepted a new position as a corn geneticist and researcher at the UW-Madison. The family moved to Middleton and the half-rural, half-suburban life it offered.
Rooted in music
After graduating from Middleton High School and attending the UW-Madison, Ken spent class time writing lyrics instead of taking notes. One class in particular had a strong influence on his music: The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, taught by Professor Nils Ingwersen. Andersen's dual-level tales struck the fledgling musician as having a little subversion, a little rebellion, a little elbow-in-the-ribs --- something he found attractive and intelligent.
So when Ingwersen set the class to write a ten-page paper on Andersen, Ken approached him with a proposition. He would write three songs based on Andersen's tales instead of the paper. "Go for it," responded Ingwersen.
Ken had written his very first song at age 7. "The melody stuck in my head," he explains. That old melody became the basis for one of the songs for that assignment, and eventually became the Princess and the Pea song on his disc Lost Songs of Kenland.
So, while clearly preoccupied with music during college, why didn't Ken major in music instead of communication arts? "I was so used to just doing," he says. "I wasn't ever concerned with being real facile [as a guitar player]." The idea of studying music felt antithetical to him. "[Music] came out of the air and out of my imagination."
Mature musician for kids
Although today he sometimes regrets not having gotten that music degree, he's been able to live as a musician --- something that isn't easy to do, especially in Madison. And it's that fanciful, imaginative approach to music that gave him a successful career.
"That's what many people like about my music," Ken says. "I can make up songs on the spot. I wanted it to stay simple and innocent."
And it has --- but with a twist. Many of his songs have that Andersen-esque wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality, making him popular with children and adults.
Among his many albums and performances, Ken has also written a dozen or so musicals, most for the former Childrens Theatre of Madison. Among them are favorites like A Christmas Carol, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and The Magicians Nephew. And while he was commissioned to write specific musicals, Ken counts them as rare opportunities.
"They picked the subjects," Ken says. "But it was a rich experience. I loved doing it."
Of course, living a musician's life isn't all rich and rare. "I write the songs, I record the songs," he shrugs. "I book the gigs, I perform the gigs. I'm a one-horse operation."
With no agent, it's difficult to publish his musicals. "I would love that!" he exclaims. "It's hard to know where to start. You're always running up against the 'gatekeepers' who don't allow you in to see the 'Wizard'."
So, for the most part, he's left the Wizard behind the curtain and concentrates on the here and now. One yearly project is his holiday favorite, Old Befana, which he performs around the Midwest, especially in venues close to Madison.
And his recordings demand a lot of attention, too. Right now, he's working on two sound recordings and a DVD. The first CD is a long-cherished project called Hamelin, a Ken-style two-act opera based on the Pied Piper story. He began the opera in 1983, and pulled it out of storage in 2002 for a recording. It's performed by a cast of Madison luminaries such as Lou Berryman, Peter Berryman and Kelly DeHaven. The second CD, called Awaken, goes back to his Mexican influences as it's based on an Aztec folk tale. Both discs will be out this fall.
His DVD, titled Sign 'n Songs is a collaboration with John Kinstler of National Theatre of the Deaf. It incorporates Kens simple animation against his hand-rendered backgrounds.
So, when you think about it, who cares about 'gatekeepers' and 'wizards' anyway? Along with his partner of 23 years, Joanne Schilling, and 28-year-old daughter Natalie (better known to fans as Nattie of the Jungle), Ken has created quite a country in Kenland.
"I love where I live," he reflects. "I love what I do. I'm lucky."
Want to learn more about Ken Lonnquist? Then visit www.kenland.com and find the answers to these burning questions:
1. Who came up with the name Kenland?
2. What organizations have recognized Ken with awards?
3. What famous folk singer has Ken opened for?
4. What cause does Ken educate his audiences on in his oh-so-not- preachy style?
5. At what annual Spring Green festival does Ken appear every year?
Note: Okay, if youre not up for searching Ken's web site for the answers, they're found below.
Answers to Ken quiz:
1. Daughter Natalie, age 6, on the occasion of yet another visit by best friend and longtime collaborator Kenny Aigen. Upon opening the front door for her favorite out-of-town guest, she exclaimed, Welcome to Kenland!
2. The American Library Association and the Audubon Society, to name two.
3. Pete Seeger.
4. The environment.
5. Bobfest, the celebration of all things Dylan.
A Hit At All Levels
Lonnquist entertains both young and old listeners
By Bill Liveck, The Janesville Gazette, August 19, 2004
Ken Lonnquist sings about clean water and clean air. He also sings about dirty politics and hypocritical politicians. At other times, he dons his children’s-entertainer hat and performs songs that amuse both kids and their parents.
Like a chameleon or a shape shifter, Lonnquist has the ability to change his stage persona to fit the situation --- the environmental folksinger that morphs into the performer of political satire or, as the need arises, the consummate family entertainer.
But he'’s not especially fond of mixing the three roles in a single performance.
"It’s hard to try to sing about the seasons or the woods and maybe some topical political songs, and then suddenly veer into ‘The Jaws Of A Crocodile’", Lonnquist said. "This is just a dilemma I keep having to work out.”
These days, Lonnquist is best known for his witty, family-oriented songs.
For the past decade, he’'s been one of the state’'s most popular performers of children’s music, although his multi-tiered lyrics also appeal to adults.
“You don’'t have to be a kid or have kids to enjoy my kids’ songs,” Lonnquist said. “They're songs with messages that kids would miss. Frankly, if I did'n’t write kids’ songs that have at least a little bit of multi-tiered lyrical content, I think I would just be bored out of my skull.”
“I think that’'s what makes the parents enjoy what I do, as well. There’'s usually something going on that they laugh at that the kids aren'’t getting, and that’'s what keeps me entertained. It’'s really fun to delight the kids, but it’s even more fun to have this kind of multiple-dialogue going on and see the adults laughing and winking and elbowing each other, and it’'s all over the kids’ heads.”
Lonnquist was better known back in the late 1980’s and early ‘90s as an environmental performer and writer of political satire. He was a frequent guest or show host on WORT Community Radio in Madison, where his banter could be as entertaining as his earthy songs and clever topical material.
But sometime in the early ‘90s the acoustic club scene in Madison “began to sort of dry up,” Lonnquist recalled. A fire destroyed the popular Club de Wash and there seemed to be less demand for folk music. At about the same time, Lonnquist released two albums of children’'s music, “Welcome 2 Kenland” and “Old Befana”.
“ "Those were so popular," Lonnquist said. “They really struck a chord with the family audience, and that’s where the demand was. It just seemed that I got fewer and fewer calls for the adult stuff and more and more calls for the kids’ material. And the more I answered those calls, the more I was seen doing that stuff.”
"When you're seen doing something, you get more calls for it, and maybe your identity shifts," he explained. “I have people now who are surprised to hear that I do more than just the children'’s music.”
Lonnquist added he’'s not complaining. He loves performing family material. "It'’s a good problem to have. I don'’t ever want to be ungrateful for having some material that somebody really wants to hear. That’s a good thing.”