Young at Heart

John Flynn’s songs with a conscience appeal to children of all ages.

By: Daniel Shearer


Photo: Dan Rottenberk
"I’m always astonished by the good that we’re able to do, in ways that we can’t even imagine," says John Flynn, who will perform a family concert in Newtown Jan. 24.

   A career performing concerts and workshops for youngsters is nothing to sneeze at, unless you happen to be a marine mammal living in Florida.
   Listeners familiar with WXPN 88.5-FM radio’s Kids Corner, broadcast Sunday through Thursday at 7 p.m., might recognize John Flynn as the voice behind the child-friendly tunes "Roadkill Café" and "A Manatee Sneezed on Me."
   In addition to two critically acclaimed albums for the younger set, Mr. Flynn has lots of "grownup music" under his belt, which helped him earn a standing ovation following his first main-stage appearance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival nearly a decade ago. In the early ’80s, he cut his teeth writing songs as a staff writer for Combine Music, a Nashville-based independent music publisher. More recently, Chris LeDoux dusted off Mr. Flynn’s cowboy ballad "Old Paint" for a recording on Capitol Records.
   Still, Mr. Flynn had his doubts when he turned his attention away from penning tunes like "Don’t Make Fun of Middle Aged People" toward an equally humorous take on Attorney General John Ashcroft’s intolerance for one statue’s "lewd alabaster pulchritude," published in Sing Out! magazine.
   He also wrote "I Will Not Fear," an emotional response to the Sept. 11 attacks, and examined the inconsistencies of the Bush administration’s war on terror with "Osama Who?" Mr. Flynn’s latest album, Dragon (MettaFour Records), addresses the perils of religious fundamentalism, looks at the use of scare tactics as a political tool, and affirms his stance as an opponent of capital punishment. Featuring backing vocals on several tunes from Kris Kristofferson, a fan of Mr. Flynn’s work since the late ’90s, the 12-track CD resonates with the power of hope.
   "I had been struggling for a while with whether I would continue in children’s music," Mr. Flynn says, calling from home in Wilmington, Del. He’s used his music career to support four children of his own: ages 7, 12, 15 and a 17-year-old recently accepted at the University of Delaware.
   "While I had a great time singing for young people," he says, "I felt that those songs might be compromising my ability to be taken seriously."
   Guitar in hand, Mr. Flynn will perform at the Bucks County Community College Library Auditorium in Newtown, Pa., Jan. 24. He’ll choose the content for the show once he sees the audience.
   "If there are kids in the front row, I’ll sing songs they want to hear," he says, "but I don’t separate it out so much anymore. I have some pretty hip kids who are fans and some grownups who are very young at heart. They kind of blend together for me."
   Mr. Flynn had put his children’s music on the shelf for more than a year, until the Delaware Museum of Natural History recruited him to perform at the unveiling of a manatee exhibit. He told planners that if they hired him, they would "get the whole package." They replied that as long as Mr. Flynn played his manatee song, he could sing anything he wanted.
   "I ended up walking out on stage in front of 900 kids and realizing that I wasn’t going to talk about the death penalty," he says. "I got into the spirit of it and found that I had a wonderful time. I missed the joy and excitement of singing to children, and it started my thinking process all over again.
   "The other thing that happened was I played all over the country last year, and I realized that out of the Philadelphia region, I’m not known at all for children’s music, so I was working with a clean slate."
   Mr. Flynn has dealt with his share of tough crowds. One particularly nasty reception occurred at a Phillies game at Veterans Stadium, when the sold-out crowd heckled him after he climbed onto the roof of the dugout to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
   The action had just taken a downturn for the home team, and unknown to Mr. Flynn, broadcaster Harry Kalas had already delivered an impromptu pregame rendition of the song. Regardless of what sparked the outpour, a chorus of boos rained down on him from the stands.
   "I had sung at Phillies games many times," he says, "but I had always done patriotic songs, and it’s very easy to have people love you when you sing those songs. I had always misunderstood a little bit of the ovations that I would receive as being somehow directed toward John Flynn, as well as the red, white and blue.
   "When I walked out on stage without the flag and just sang this silly, lovely old song, they were in no mood. As a matter fact, they wanted Harry Kalas to sing it, which is why they booed me. So I learned that your danger lies in straying a little far afield from the stars and bars, yet sometimes you have to do that. My reaction to the fiasco was to sing it twice, which probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done."
   Looking back, the incident was important for Mr. Flynn in at least two ways. It stimulated him to write a good song about facing adversity, and it helped him find the courage to push his career in a new direction.
   "I was standing there on the dugout thinking, first, this is every performer’s worst nightmare but it isn’t going to kill me," he says. "And second, if you’re gonna get booed for singing a song, why not take your lumps for singing something that actually means something."
   In the end, the team didn’t hold the incident against Mr. Flynn. In fact, he became the last person ever to sing at Veterans Stadium when the Phillies invited him to perform during the seventh-inning stretch in September, before the team moved to its new home at Citizens Bank Park.
   A native of Ridley Park, Pa., Mr. Flynn started his journey toward a career in music at age 12, when his uncle, Yardley, Pa., resident Kevin Flynn, showed up at his house with a guitar.
   "He used to sit around the table playing, and he sketched out some guitar chords on a napkin with a ball-point pen," Mr. Flynn says. "He left the napkin and the guitar when he went home one night, and I was off and running. He was a big Kingston Trio fan, so we did a lot of their stuff, ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore,’ ‘If I Had a Hammer.’
   "My mom played the piano, my dad messed around with the violin, and we had some good neighbors who played guitar, so there would be Friday-night hoot sessions sitting around the kitchen table playing everything from old gospel and Bob Wills tunes to Hank Williams, probably even John Denver."
   Flashing forward a few years, Mr. Flynn enrolled at Temple University as a political science major. He had intended to enter law school after graduation, but instead decided to see what people thought of his songwriting. Shortly before departing for Nashville, he met Livingston Taylor backstage at a club in Philadelphia. After hearing some of Mr. Flynn’s original material, the famed performer delivered a frank assessment of his songwriting.
   "He was very kind in the way that he was honest," Mr. Flynn says. "He said, ‘We’re only given so much time, and there’s so many great things to do. Do any of them. Take a walk. Watch a good movie. Read a book. Do anything but write a mediocre song, because it’s a waste of a gift, this precious time.’ He was basically saying you gotta aim higher, and I took him at his word and I did. I began to aim higher. I haven’t had a chance to talk with him since then. I hope someday I’ll get a chance to play a couple more songs. He’ll probably say keep aiming."
   Mr. Flynn is still writing songs, and he’s certainly not shy about sharing his opinions about world affairs.
   "Sometimes I find the introductions last longer than the songs," he says.
   When Mr. Flynn sings his song about the death penalty, he addresses his introduction not to the people who are for or against the issue, but to the people like him, who "never really gave it much thought."
   "We owe it to ourselves, and our country, to give it thought, and not just go blindly accepting the platitudes," he says. "Hopefully, people hear it and they’re smacked in the heart. I’ve had people walk out, and I’ve been booed, and maybe that’s my job, but I’m always astonished by the good that we’re able to do, in ways that we can’t even imagine."
John Flynn performs at the Bucks County Community College Library Auditorium, 275 Swamp Road, Newtown, Pa., Jan. 24, 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $17, $13 under age 12, students, seniors and military personnel. For information, call (215) 968-8087. To purchase tickets on the Web: John Flynn on the Web: