Spirit You All Music
June 7th, 2016
Frostburg, Maryland’s Jon Felton has been at the wheel of his Soulmobile band for almost a decade now, but their latest effort brings their Kingdom-heralding, punk-flavored folk to a brand-new audience: kids. The album is a companion to Mark Van Steenwyk’s book A Wolf at the Gate, which retells the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio for children with beautiful woodblock-print illustrations and the author’s characteristically Mennonite emphasis on peacemaking and non-violence; Soulmobile’s music retains those weighty themes while sharpening them with charm and humor at every turn. As the cliché goes, Songs for A Wolf at the Gate is kids’ music that grown-ups will appreciate, too.
After the wonderful opener “The Prayer of the Beggar King”, which is one of the most memorable renditions of St. Francis’ prayer yet put to music, Songs for A Wolf at the Gate acquaints listeners with its large cast. Van Steenwyk’s book turns the legend of Francis taming a town-terrorizing wolf into a society-wide morality tale, so here the different levels of the town’s social strata, along with the beasts of the nearby forest, each get a tune with its own distinct lesson. Felton goes full-Aesop on “The Song of the Raven”, where he sweetly admonishes the hoarding bird for stealing away the other animals’ food (“Raven, Raven, don’t you know that’s no way to live and grow?/Raven, Raven, it’s better to go hungry with friends than it is to be full alone”), while on “The Song of the Nobles”, the ruling class’s raucous gang vocals sneer at the peasants they casually exploit.
Though this is his first kids’ album, Felton is an old hand at playfully illuminating serious issues – he’s a founding member and performer in the Carnival de Resistance, a circus aimed at spiritual renewal and ecological justice. Many of those Carnival accomplices lend their voices to Songs for A Wolf at the Gate. Most notably, there’s Jay Beck, whose unmistakable booming baritone shows up throughout, with other contributions from Aimee Wilson, Seth Martin, members of Psalters and The Hollands!, and many more.
Another contribution is from Soulmobile’s multi-instrumentalist BJ Lewis – the hilarious “12 Days of Christmas”-style “Kneeuhmajeans”, which accrues new descriptors of the Beggars’ destitute state with each repetition: “There is a hole in the tip of my cap/Toe of my sock/Knee of my jeans…” That, along with songs like “Simple Gifts” (which has the classic accelerating chorus without which any children’s album would be impoverished) are just a few of many indications that Felton and company didn’t take the route musicians sometimes default to when creating for tykes: dumb down song structures, garnish with banjo, and call it kids’ music. Instead, they have respect for the form and, after the pattern of masters like Ella Jenkins and Raffi, a deep respect for their young audience. It’s that respect, combined with grin-inducing humor and good old-fashioned Appalachian folk music, that makes Songs for A Wolf at the Gate such a pleasure, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve read a picture book.