Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Sharon, Lois and Bram’s earworm children’s song “Skinnamarink” is – at last – a picture book!
If you’ve grown up with the well-known trio’s music (as my children did and my students have), you know this song by heart. Just reading these words has started you singing it in your head. Your hands are twitching, as you curb the itch to launch them into the movements you know so well.
That, in a nutshell, is the magic of Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienstein, and Bram Morrison, or simply “Sharon, Lois and Bram”. For 40 years, the group’s music has been adored by people around the world. It’s been a soundtrack of lively arrangements and melodic harmonies to grow up with . . . and, once grown, to raise the next generation to.
The trio first formed in Toronto in 1978. They shared widely the joy of music with families through:
They have won numerous awards, and were appointed to the Order of Canada in 2002. They end every concert with “Skinnamarink”, their anthem of love and friendship. Audiences of all ages unite in belting it out with abandon, inhibitions shed in a moment of unself-conscious collective joy. To no one’s surprise, Sharon and Bram’s appearance in Toronto’s 2017 Pride parade was greeted with a spontaneous chorus of the song by parade watchers along the route. Perhaps Springsteen’s frequent concert closer “Shout” approaches this phenomenon . . . but only just.
Given this affection, the arrival of Skinnamarink the picture book has been met with a tidal wave of enthusiasm. “You notice that the name of the book is Sharon, Lois, Bram’s Skinamarink because it is based on the song that we did on our first album, One Elephant, Deux Elephants,” Bram points out. He explains that Lois learned the song from a cousin of hers in Chicago in the summer of 1978. She brought it to the group, who thought it was “darling”. They included it on the record – nondescriptly, in the middle – having no notion of it as more than “just a nice song”. Yet by some inspired coincidence, they decided to end their first concert with it. Sharon recalls that the response made them take notice. It was “so lovely, with the song and the actions that we said, ‘okay, well, the next concert we do, let’s do the same thing’. And we have ended everything that we’ve ever done with that song! And so it it has certainly become ingrained with us and also with our audience now – three and four generations.”
In a similar vein, the book was born out of another suggestion brought to the group. Eleanor LeFave, owner of iconic Toronto children’s bookstore Mable’s Fables, first floated the idea to Sharon many years ago. Finally, just a couple of years ago, LeFave hosted a meeting for Sharon and Bram at the bookstore with an editor from Penguin Random House, along with their distributor. The outcome, perhaps inevitably, was the decision to create “Skinnamarink” as their first picture book.
Since the song is not long enough on its own to yield a picture book, they realized immediately that they would have to add verses to it. Enter Sharon’s daughter Randi Hampson, who wrote the extra verses and is credited as a contributor. “We knew the kind of message that we wanted to carry forward with the book because the song is about love,” Sharon stresses. “And we also wanted to carry a message about diversity – that love is for everyone, in whatever combination it happens to work. And so the book now reflects all of that kind of message.”
Bram adds that even before the book’s release at the beginning of September, the response has been “just terrific. People see it, and they love it.” In many cases, readers and reviewers have remarked with appreciation for the specific messages included in the book. “We’re thrilled that they talk about what makes up a family, the fact that there are different kinds of families and different kinds of cultures. They really get it, and that’s just thrilling to us.”
“Thrilled” is the best word to describe how they feel about with the end product. While they have created books before, they had never worked on a picture book, which made for a fascinating collaborative process: “The fact is that we never spoke to Qin Leng who is is the wonderful illustrator. She’s done a fabulous job! We talked to her through the editor, and she to us through the editor… the ‘back and forth’ things all happened with the editor in the middle.” And the result, declares Bram, is “lovely” – and Sharon adds that it is full of “lots of little surprises”: “You can go through the book that first time, but the second time or the third or the tenth time, you’re going to find something that you didn’t notice earlier!”
A book titled Sharon, Lois and Bram’s Skinnamarink is sure to recall fond remembrances of Lois, who stopped touring with the group years before her death in 2015. When asked about Lois, Bram forthrightly states that “Lois decided after 20 years or so that she had had enough of touring, and she wanted to be able to spend some time at home with her dog, Rosie.” He explains that the group’s agreement from the start had been to “tour for as long as it stays fun, that’s how long we’ll keep doing it. And it stopped being fun for her because she had a bad leg.” Sharon adds that “Lois was an incredibly creative person. She was a woman full of ideas.” Chuckling, she recalls how “Bram used to tease her, saying that what Lois really needed was a good editor because where you normally have three ideas, she’d have 30. She was such fun. She was creative. She was a wonderful cook and a wonderful baker. She loved children, and she loved music for children. And she loved our philosophy, which was music for the family, engaging young and old.” And despite having stopped touring, Lois “contributed immensely to the creative process and to all that we did.” Sharon and Bram stay in touch with Lois’ son, who has been involved in the creation of the book. They regard him and her granddaughter like “members of our family. . . . We’re lifelong friends…and she would be very, very, very, very proud of this book”.
Toronto-based fans should save the date September 22. At 11 am, Sharon and Bram will perform a concert “Sharon & Bram Present Skinnamarink” at Toronto’s Word on the Street literary festival – one of just a final few shows before they retire from touring. There will be several events related to the release of this book – in addition to Word on the Street, they will also perform in Uxbridge on November 3.
They might be retiring from the road because “it’s just too hard”.“But we will never stop singing,” smiles Sharon. “The singing is part of who we are, and that will never end.”
And happily, the duo have recently recorded a half-dozen new songs, which will be released in the fall on an EP. The songs were written by Sharon’s late husband Joe Hampson, who was a member of folk group The Travelers. “We thought that they were very good songs and deserve to have a fresh exposure to the public,” Bram notes. “So we went back, and we gave them our musical interpretation.” After twenty years of touring without recording, “it was very exciting to get back into the studio”, and they pronounce themselves “delighted” with the recordings. Several of the songs are now available to stream or download on SharonandBram.com (the site, incidentally, was designed by a grown-up fan!)
Sharon and Bram should expect a large crowd on Sunday’s Word on the Street concert and book signing. Some children will come to see them perform live for the first time, and others – children and generations of former children – will come for the last time. Some will be hoping to meet two people synonymous with the wonder and whimsy of their childhood. Sharon and Bram remain worthy of these wishes. Their career success is the stuff of pop-star dreams, yet they remain warm, friendly and down-to-earth.
“When we started doing this, what we really hoped was that we would bring music into the lives of our audience, and that it would be there for them forever. Music would be part of their lives. So it’s very exciting to meet people and discover that that truly is the case, that the music that we sent them, they love and they hold on to, and they have other ways of having music in their lives, as well. We’re very, very gratified by all of that.”
News You Can Use
What: Sharon and Bram Present Skinnamarink at Word on the Street
When: Sunday, September 22, 2019, 11 AM
Where: Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West, Toronto, ON
Read and Sing: Sharon, Lois and Bram’s Skinnamarink, written by Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienstein and Bram Morrison | Illustrated by Qin Leng | Contribution by Randi Hampson | Published by Penguin Random House, 2019
Explore and Learn: SharonandBram.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine, 2019