Bringing back the music: Children’s musician and puppeteer Tom Knight releases first new album in almost two decades

  • Children’s musician and puppeteer Tom Knight’s new album, “Look Both Ways,” is his first in almost two decades.

  • Tom Knight performs at the Green River Festival in 2019. Staff Photo/David McLellan

  • Children’s musician Tom Knight has made puppets a big part of his shows. He practices here with Wiggle Tooth at his home in Haydenville as he prepares for a show at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Knight began his music career playing alongside a puppeteer and taught himself how to make puppets after he began working on his ownum. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Here Knight displays some of the props he uses for performing the song “The Museum Mambo,” one of the cuts of his just-released album, “Look Both Ways.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • In his home in Haydenville, children’s musician Tom Knight practices with one of his puppets, Wiggle Tooth, as he preps for a show at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Children’s musician and puppeteer Tom Knight performs “Wiggly Tooth,” one of his new songs, with support from the band In the Nick of Time! at a recent release party for his new album at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Children’s musician and puppeteer Tom Knight performs “Wiggly Tooth,” one of his new song, with Tracey Freitag from the band In the Nick of Time! at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Looking the part: Tom Knight performs his song “The Solar System” at a recent release party for his new album at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Looking the part: Tom Knight performs his song “The Solar System” at a recent release party for his new album at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Tom Knight, right, performs with help from his friends in the band In the Nick of Time! at a recent release party for his new album at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Above, Tom Knight as Mona Lisa as he performs his song “The Museum Mambo” at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. Below, he performs his song “The Solar System.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 11/18/2022 3:23:43 PM

Tom Knight didn’t set out to become a children’s musician and puppeteer. But he’s built a pretty good career doing just that.

And now, almost 20 years after he last released an album, Knight has a new one on hand, “Look Both Ways,” that offers several new songs as well as fresh takes on three of his most popular tunes, initially recorded in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

And after weathering many lost gigs during the pandemic, Knight, who lives in Haydenville, is back to performing in a number of different ways: as a singer-songwriter, as a puppeteer, and as a combination of both, a rarity in the business.

“I didn’t want to be another guy playing an acoustic guitar and singing folk songs,” he said in a recent interview, reflecting on how his career began. “It’s hard to stand out like that. I wanted to find a way to make music and actually earn a living doing it.”

Knight, 59, who came to the Valley in 2009 from Ithaca, New York, has been a regular performer in the area since then, including at locales like the Green River Festival and First Night Northampton. He’s played in museums, libraries and classrooms — over 1,000 gigs by his estimate — in the Northeast and other places, including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

His focus has long been on interactive shows that get kids involved in the music and storytelling, whether through a singalong chorus or having them move around, like in “Alligator Jump,” one of the songs he re-recorded on his new album (“Alligator jump! / Alligator slide! / All the alligators like to move from side to side.”)

He offers subjects kids can relate to, like “The Garbage Monster,” a bouncy tune about a Frankenstein-like creature made of trash who looks pretty scary — till you realize you can take him apart by recycling all the paper, cans and bottles he’s made from.

“Kids tend to respond really emotionally and naturally to music, which makes them such a great audience,” said Knight.

As a kid himself — he grew up in California — he’d played violin for a few years, then switched to the trombone in high school. In college, he took up the mountain dulcimer, and after that came the guitar, a natural complement to the songs he’d begun writing.

It was while working as a pre-school teacher in a Montessori school in Ithaca in the mid 1980s that he first played for children. “I was asked to bring my guitar in and sing for the kids, and it went really well,” he said. “And I realized that I could write songs for that kind of audience.”

The Montessori school also had a puppeteer, who asked Knight to play music for her shows. That led in turn to a connection with Elizabeth McMahon, a puppeteer and songwriter with whom Knight formed a duo, Peanut Butter and Jelly Puppeteers, in Ithaca that performed for about seven years before McMahon went off on her own.

Adding puppets to a music show was something of a revelation to him, Knight says.

“I really like the way they can engage kids and be part of telling a story,” he noted. “There’s the visual appeal, from the shape and the color, and then the character and the voice of the puppet.”

When Knight began performing solo, he bought a sewing machine and learned how to make his own puppets. He’s since incorporated them into his shows in a number of ways, including playing pre-recorded selections of his music so that the puppets can “sing” alongside him. In addition, he’ll sometimes dress up in funky costumes as part of the show. 

“There are different ways to make it work, but the goal is really to get the audience engaged,” he said. “Kids, certainly, but parents, too.”

Shifting gears

Knight says his move to the Valley in 2009 came in part “to get unstuck and do things differently” and make connections with some new artists. In addition, he worked as a videographer — something he’d also taught himself to do in making his own music videos — for a range of clients, including other musicians.

The pandemic, as it did for musicians everywhere, forced Knight to regroup, so in spring 2020, he created a YouTube program to showcase his songs and puppets. He also taught some music classes on Zoom and began writing new songs.

“I think (the pandemic) kind of clarified my purpose,” he said. “I wanted to make more music for kids … and I felt it was really time to make another album.”

“Look Both Ways,” which Knight financed through crowd-sourcing, was recorded this spring in Waltham, with some Boston-area musicians joining him on keyboards, drums, electric guitar and other instruments. He had several new songs to record, like “Wiggly Tooth,” an R&B number about how a loose tooth “means you’re getting bigger … you’re not a baby anymore.”

Knight also wanted to update some older songs. For instance, “The Garbage Monster” went from folk to a more bluesy beat, while for “Alligator Jump,” Knight substituted a salsa beat and asked an Argentinian singer, Mica Farias Gomez, to add lyrics in Spanish; the full title for the song is now “Alligator Jump/¡Salta Caimán!”

He’d gotten the idea to collaborate with Gomez after learning she’d sung on an album by another Valley children’s musician, Ben Gundersheimer (aka Mister G.).

“Mica was great,” said Knight, who added that she sang her parts remotely but also made a new video for “Alligator Jump” with him when she was in the area earlier this year to visit some family relations in Franklin County.

The revamped songs and some of the newer material, like “The Museum Mambo,” also reflect some of the changes Knight has seen in children’s music in his 30+ years in the field. Latin music is more common in general today, he notes, even as the audience for children’s music has gotten a little younger.

“I think some of the older kids who used to come to my shows, like seven year olds, are less interested,” he said. “Maybe they’re a little more sophisticated, or they’re drawn more to pop music at a younger age.”

As a performer and songwriter, he says he’s also become more conscious of gender in his material: “Is there any reason this character has to be a he, or a she?” As well, he’s retired some songs, like “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” from his repertoire because of any perceived racial overtones.

“It’s not about being politically correct,” he said. “It’s about being inclusive and making sure everyone feels a part of the show.”

With his new album out, Knight is looking forward to increasing his touring — he played two shows last weekend at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst — and bringing his new songs and new puppets to audiences.

“You know, if I can make the lyrics work for the kids, then I can play almost any kind of music, and that’s a lot of fun,” he said.

More information on Tom Knight’s music is available at tomknight.com/home.


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