Graded on a Curve:
The Serendipity Singers,
Don’t Let the Rain Come Down: Best of The Serendipity Singers

People of a certain age get all choked up when they listen to commercial folk of the sort produced by The Serendipity Singers. People of a younger age tend to just choke.

You have to cross a seemingly insurmountable generational divide to understand the toothless appeal of this relentlessly cheerful nonet, whose anodyne choir spiel had nothing whatsoever in common with the raw-boned school of folk personified by Woody, Lead Belly, and Bob.

Slick, choral, and tending towards the abominably cute, the Serendipity Singers’ roots stretched back not to the Appalachian Mountains or to some shotgun shack in rural Mississippi but to “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window.” And they were anything but a bunch of Wobblies-loving protest types–far from singing out against President Lyndon Baines Johnson as the Vietnam War ratcheted up, this very square crew of shameless opportunists serenaded him at The White House.

Yet love them people do, and if there’s one thing I love it’s a mystery. What really became of Amelia Earhart? Why do I have to go the whole way to Asia to eat at a Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant? And what the hell do people like about this shlock?

Determined to find out, I did something truly dangerous–I sat back, poured myself some Sleepytime Tea cut with rat poison, turned on 1998’s Don’t Let the Rain Come Down: The Best of the Serendipity Singers, and actually listened to them.

And guess what? I’m still mystified. The best I can come up with is that the Serendipity Singers evoke memories of a simpler time, when dad went off to work, mom stayed in the kitchen, and everybody’s tastes in music were for shit.

This 25-cut compilation–culled from the group’s five LPs with the Philips label–offers up a few serendipitous surprises, but otherwise it’s strictly from nowheresville, the kind of stuff I’d throw my kid out of the house for if I caught him listening to it. While screaming, “Why can’t you huff airplane glue like a normal kid? This shit is going to rot your brains!”

The good stuff first. The Serendipity Singers’ take on Fred Neil’s “Another Side of This Life” is a groovy, electrified treat, and a million miles away from their toddler-friendly semi-hit “Beans in My Ears,” which begins (all together now) “My mommy told me not to put beans in my ears/Beans in my ears/Beans in my ears.”

And then there’s their dreamy cover of Buddy Holy’s “Maybe Baby,” which carries uncanny traces of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” Also nice is the Shel Silverstein cover “Some Days” (love that homely piano), although the big choral arrangement gets on my nerves a bit. And I’m irrationally taken by “Run, Run, Chicken Run,” with its way-out sax, groovy tempo and funny-if-you’re-not-a-chicken lyrics.

A few of the jaunty banjo-fueled numbers–which include the likes of “Six Wheel Driver (Sunshine Special)” and “Freedom’s Star”–ain’t bad, but they’re ruined for me by the group’s overly fussy superlungs vocal approach, and the same goes for a lot of the non-banjo numbers that aren’t impossibly saccharine in the first place. This is children’s music for adults, which is why some contemporaries of mine actually have a soft spot for these songs–they heard them as children, and the songs struck home with them in a way that the other old fogies’ in their parents’ record collections didn’t.

I can certainly understand why a kid would love “Little Brown Jug” with its silly lyrics and funny horns, and the same goes for the Serendipity Singers’ big hit “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down (Crooked Little Man),” with its mock-alarmed refrain, “Don’t let the rain come down/My roof’s got a hole in it and I might drown.” And the same goes for the rollicking (and wonderfully non-choral) “Plastic,” which in its good-natured way comes as close to a protest song as this very go along to get along bunch ever got.

That said, I will never understand what prompted grown adults to not only listen to, but tap their toes to, these songs. And talk about the uncanny–it simply boggles the mind to imagine that the Serendipity Singers reached their peak not during that horrible lull before Beatlemania, but during it. I mean, imagine that. People were digging this shit in 1965!

But hey, let it never be said that the hopelessly nerdy Serendipity Singers were untouched by taint and scandal. Because, get this–the subversive ”Beans in My Ears” was banned in Boston! And Pittsburgh! And red-listed by Ed Sullivan himself! Because, get this–”beans” was obviously a code word for marijuana!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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