If we told you about a Canadian musical trio that’s sold more than three million records, performed at the White House, won three JUNOs, and been named to the Order of Canada, you’d probably be wracking your brain to figure out who it could be (or trying to decide which president was a secret Rush fan).
You likely wouldn’t think of Sharon, Lois and Bram, the group that emerged from the Toronto folk music scene in the ’70s to enrapture children and their parents with singalong tunes about elephants, mosquitos, and salty dogs. It’s easy to take children’s music for granted, but Sharon, Lois and Bram deserve those accolades for introducing children to many different styles of music, as well as themes of peace, love, and tolerance in the lyrics.
Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienstein and Bram Morrison were folk musicians in Toronto who met through Mariposa in the Schools, an outreach program of the folk festival, that sent musicians to perform for children in schools. They recorded their first album, One Elephant, Deux Elephants, in 1978, and began touring the next year when it became a hit. That tour has continued, on and off, for four decades, fuelled by many albums and a TV show – temporarily halted by the retirement, and then passing, of Lois Lilienstein. Now, a whole new generation is coming to the shows to sing along.
“The response has been wonderful,” says Sharon. “We start to sing, and people start to sing with us. We’ve met a lot of people who grew up on us and come back with their families. And one of the sweetest things is when they’re singing your songs to their children. That’s the best you could hope for.”
The road does take a toll, however, and Sharon and Bram are finally going to call it a day – maybe – after their 40th anniversary farewell tour winds up this summer. But first they went into the studio to record some songs originally written by Joe Hampson, Sharon’s late husband, a member of the folk group The Travellers. And in September, they’ll release a book based on their most beloved song, “Skinnamarink” (originally arranged by Sharon, Lois & Bram) which has been re-recorded with new lyrics by Sharon’s daughter Randi, a Toronto lawyer.
The late creative spurt started when Sharon and Bram appeared on a children’s album by NeedtoBreathe’s Josh Lovelace, who has credited SLB with turning him on to music as a child. “Seeing them in the studio, how much they enjoyed it and how good they sounded, I asked why they haven’t recorded as a duo in all these years,” says Randi. “At the same time, ‘Skinnamarink’ was being discussed as a book project, and I said, ‘This song isn’t long enough to be a book. I think it would benefit from some additions – would you mind if I took a stab at it?’ So then we started talking about recording some of my dad’s songs, and expanding them.”
Randi added lyrics to several songs, with Sharon and Bram’s blessing. “I’ve been fiddling with other people’s lyrics for years,” she says. “In law school, I re-wrote songs for the variety show. But with ‘The Colour Song,’ I just knew it needed a rainbow verse. It just felt like the right thing to do. And to have had the trust of my mom and Bram to do this, to give my dad’s music an opportunity to be heard by other people, that’s been incredible. And to be in the audience when they’re singing my words has been unbelievable.”
The other tracks (all of the songs are being released as singles) include “The Hug Song,” “Different,” and “Talk About Peace,” which features a guest vocal by Jim Cuddy. “When I hear him on that song, it thrills me,” says Sharon. “He’s such a glorious singer.”
“Different,” which celebrates diversity with lines like “It would be an awful shame if everyone were the same,” was released to coincide with Sharon and Randi’s participation in Toronto’s Pride Parade in June. “It’s such an important message,” says Sharon. “You’d think things would get better and you wouldn’t need them, but the messages of Joe’s songs keep coming back.”
And it seems Sharon is leaving the door open just a crack to come back herself. “I won’t miss the travelling part so much, but I’ll miss getting on the stage and singing with the audience,” she says. “I don’t know what lies ahead, but I do know that we’re not done singing.”