Since my childhood years in the back half of the ’70s included the presence of my younger sister, that meant we got to share a lot of Canadian childhood favourites, like Mr. Dress-Up, The Friendly Giant, Raffi and the homegrown segments of Sesame Street.
But occasionally, even though I didn’t automatically appreciate everything my sister Colleen did (which is probably a relief for both of us to this day), I still smile when I think of the exposure I received to some of her childhood experiences.
By the time my parents brought that album home for Colleen, roughly two years after its 1978 release, we’d both had a pretty steady diet of kid-oriented music and TV from either side of the 49th parallel. And yet One Elephant, Deux Elephants quickly nestled into our ears, minds and hearts, entertaining us on several different levels.
On one hand, Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienstein and Bram Morrison came off as those funny aunts and uncles that perked up a dull afternoon by coming over to your house and starting a party. But on the other hand, the musical arrangements for that 1978 debut were actually pretty sparse; several songs were completely instrument-free, which helped influence a love of a-capella singing for both Colleen and me in our childhood days.
Not content to merely sing syrupy schmaltz for the pre-school set, Sharon, Lois and Bram drew from a wide range of musical genres and styles for their landmark first album. Of course, some of these songs had a familiar ring, including the trio’s snappy arrangements of well-worn kids’ favourites (most notably “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain” and “Turkey In The Straw”) and quick little one-shot rhymes famous around any Canadian schoolyard (“In The Land of Oz,” “Going To Kentucky”). But Hampson, Lilienstein and Morrison also introduced some peppy new numbers to the mix, most notably “Cookie Jar,” “Is There Anybody Here,” “I’m Not Small” and the album’s bilingual title track, which later served as the opening song to their first CBC-TV series The Elephant Show from 1984-88.
One Elephant, Deux Elephants also featured an eclectic mix of songs from around the world, including the Jamaican donkey tale “Tingalayo,” jazz numbers like “Candy Man, Salty Dog” and “Yes, Sir, You’re My Baby,” and the group’s inescapable signature song, “Skinnamarink.”
Now, before we go any further, let me set the record straight: I actually like “Skinnamarink.” Yes, it’s a repetitive earworm, but at least it comes equipped with some fun hand/arm movements and a little bit of swing (especially when placed alongside the dreary dreck seen by many as the song’s successor, “I Love You, You Love Me,” from the ’90s abomination Barney and Friends).
Viewed from the vantage point of a Canadian that grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, “Skinnamarink” has the comfortable feel of a favourite old chair or a worn-but-warm pair of fuzzy bedroom slippers. I wound up playing and singing it, by request, with a surprising number of people singing along, at a 1990 Christmas party during my first year at Halifax’s University of King’s College; eighteen years later, a table full of friends sang it at my wedding dinner to get me to smooch my bride Cathy. (We insisted that, rather than clinking glasses, guests had to sing a TV theme song to prompt a puckering-up; we’d prolong the kiss if the song contained the word “love.” Since that word appears in “Skinnamarink” seven times, it worked on both counts.)
Even the inevitable parodies of the song were done with a wink to the group that made it famous. A 1990 Royal Canadian Air Farce radio sketch, “Celebrity Whack,”played the song’s first line before interrupting it with an abrupt spanking noise; a few years later, during the Farce’s second (and most successful) crack at a CBC-TV series, troupe member Luba Goy’s children’s-entertainer character “Taffy” gaily announced the release of her new album Skinnamarink My Ass. More recently, This Hour Has 22 Minutes featured the song in this faux-documentary involving Neil Young’s (fictional) membership in Sharon, Lois and Bram; the spoof must have left 22 Minutes veteran Cathy Jones with an odd sense of deja vu, since she also participated in a 1988 fake ad for “Sharon, Lois and Bran” during the first season of the CBC comedy series Codco. (“Featuring such favourites as ‘Dead Dad Song’!”)
Besides, few satirical skewerings of “Skinnamarink” could prove as bizarre as the song’s actual origin story. According to that airtight, always-infallible resource Wikipedia, the song began its life in 1910 as “Skiddy-mer-ink-a-dink-a-boomp,” a collaboration by lyricist Felix F. Feist and composer Al Piantadosi for the Charles Dillingham Broadway production The Echo. Set on “Boola Boola Isle, where the mermaids chant,” it tells the tale of “Big Chief Crocodile” and how he “loved a sea-nymph selfishly,” with the chorus bearing a distinct resemblance to the song beloved by two generations’ worth of Canadian kids. (The sea-nymph is so taken by the chief’s wooing that she rejects the advances of “King Fish Kokomo” in the second verse.) The same Wikipedia article claims that Lois Lilienstein picked up the song from her cousin’s daughter, who had heard a variation of the chorus at a campfire sing-a-long; the piece has always been credited to “Traditional” on every Sharon, Lois and Bram album that featured it. Personally, I think the trio missed a glorious opportunity to celebrate the original song on a “Special Underwater Edition” of The Elephant Show (or their ’90s follow-up series, Skinnamarink TV), but hey, they did just fine with the new version.
Since I didn’t discover the trio until I was starting to inch out of its target audience, I didn’t really keep up with Sharon, Lois and Bram’s activities beyond the mid-’80s. But they kept up their touring, TV appearances and recording projects, eventually releasing an astonishing two dozen albums. Lois left the group in 2000, unable to keep up with its hectic touring schedule and struggling with the death of her husband. However, while the group reformed as Sharon, Bram and Friends (and most recently Sharon and Bram), Lois returned for the trio’s induction into the Order of Canada, presentations of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal and Diamond Jubilee Medal, and (as seen below) the 2014 unveiling of the Sharon, Lois and Bram Playground in midtown Toronto.
In 2016, the park held another opening ceremony, this time for the Sharon, Lois and Bram Music Garden, complete with an elephant statue. Only two of the garden’s three namesakes were on hand for that ceremony, though – Lois Lilienstein had passed away the previous spring at her home in Toronto, a victim of endometrial cancer at the age of 78.
Even as time marches on, I’ll always be grateful for everything Sharon, Lois and Bram have given me – from the catchy melodies that entertained me and my sister in our younger days and helped me entertain others as a part-time children’s musician in my teenage and adult years, to valuable lessons about the importance of celebrating fun, colour and variety in our daily lives.
And, of course, a whole new appreciation for elephants.