by Michael Thomas
When asking a musician who their influences were on their music, it’s standard to hear responses like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits or the Beatles. Ben Bowen was influenced by Pete Seeger.
And it’s not even the songs from Pete Seeger that you might immediately think of. It was specifically the 1955 album Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Little Fishes. Of course, the path to becoming a kids’ musician wasn’t a straightforward one. It took the birth of his daughter to set him on the path.
Bowen was born in England but has been in Canada since he was just a year old, growing up in Ottawa. His household was a very musical one, with both parents influencing Bowen in different ways. While his father was a fan of classical music and folk music, his mother’s love of the Beatles and the Beach Boys gave him enough pop influence to start writing songs in that vein as he got older (although his mother was a classical music fan as well).
Trumpet was originally Bowen’s instrument of choice, and with this instrumental skill he got (and continues to get) gigs with other bands. When playing a Christmas show at the Rivoli one year, Bowen got the attention of Ida Nilsen, known more popularly as Great Aunt Ida. He has since played in her backup band frequently, and one can hear him playing on her most current record, Nuclearize Me.
“Last year was a banner year for me,” he said, referring to the fact that he played trumpet for ten albums, eight of which were released last year and two that will be released soon.
But his current focus on music isn’t playing backup. Rather, it’s on his kids’ music.
Five years ago, his daughter Abigail was born. As music was a part of his life growing up, he wanted the same thing for his daughter, even before she was born. “I was putting headphones on my wife’s belly,” Bowen said. He wanted music that his young daughter would be able to listen to, and he discovered a gold mine: Pete Seeger’s Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Little Fishes and its sequel, plus Mike and Peggy Seeger’s American Folk Songs for Children. His daughter now knows almost every song word-for-word.
What also led to his fascination with kids’ music was his getting a job giving music lessons. When the job was given to him a little sooner than he thought, he scrambled to find enough material for 14 classes’ worth of songs.
What came out of this new musical passion is Bowen’s first kid-oriented recording, The Bumblebee EP. He had help in the form of his sister and his sister’s husband who practiced the songs on weekend at the couple’s house in Guelph. A week later, the three recorded the EP in the span of one day, with no more than three takes needed per song.
The result is a wonderfully gentle and soothing collection of traditional songs, many of them based around animals (such as “Little Black Bull” and “Groundhog” among others). Even as an adult I could see myself listening to this EP more than once.
For Bowen, the ultimate draw to folk music is the sense of community. He likes the idea of singing together with people and basically plugging back into our roots. “I’m fairly misanthropic,” Bowen said. “Reaching back and finding these songs… There’s a real romance to them.”
While Bowen will still do the occasional gig playing backup for another act, kids’ music is definitely his focus right now. “I’m not a very balanced person,” Bowen said, in reference to trying and divide his time between adult and kid-oriented music.
“There aren’t really a lot of people doing this kind of kids’ music,” Bowen said. And that’s definitely a fact. A journey from backup musician to children’s singer-songwriter is a path very few take, but Bowen has made it work.