Tom Knight did not want to become a children’s musician and puppeteer. But he’s built a pretty good career doing just that.
And now, nearly 20 years after he last released an album, Knight has a new one on hand, “Look Both Ways,” which features several new songs as well as new versions of three of his most popular tracks. , originally recorded in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
And after weathering many lost gigs during the pandemic, Knight, who lives in Haydenville, is back on stage in a variety of ways: as a singer-songwriter, as a puppeteer, and as a combination of the two. , a rarity in the sector. .
“I didn’t want to be another guy playing acoustic guitar and singing folk songs,” he said in a recent interview, looking back at the start of his career. “It’s hard to stand out like that. I wanted to find a way to make music and make 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 venues like the Green River Festival and First Night Northampton. He has performed in museums, libraries and classrooms – more than 1,000 concerts by his estimate – in the Northeast and elsewhere, including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
It has long focused on interactive shows that involve children in music and storytelling, whether through a chorus or getting them moving, as in “Alligator Jump,” one of the songs that he re-recorded on his new album (“Alligator Jump!” / Alligator slide! / All alligators like to move from side to side.)
It features topics kids can relate to, like “The Garbage Monster,” a bouncy song about a Frankenstein-like creature made of trash that sounds pretty scary – until you realize you can. disassemble by recycling all the paper, cans and bottles he made from.
“Kids tend to react very emotionally and naturally to music, which makes them such a great audience,” Knight said.
As a child himself – he grew up in California – he played the violin for a few years, then switched to trombone in high school. In college, he learned the mountain dulcimer, then the guitar, a natural complement to the songs he had begun to write.
It was while working as a preschool teacher at a Montessori school in Ithaca in the mid-1980s that he first performed for children. “I was asked to bring my guitar 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 his shows. This in turn led to a connection with Elizabeth McMahon, a puppeteer and composer with whom Knight formed a duo, Peanut Butter and Jelly Puppeteers, in Ithaca who performed for about seven years before McMahon went on her own.
Adding puppets to a musical show was something of a revelation for him, says Knight.
“I really like how they can engage kids and participate in telling a story,” he noted. “There’s the visual appeal, 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 to make his own puppets. He has since incorporated them into his shows in a number of ways, including playing pre-recorded selections of his music so the puppets can “sing” alongside him. Additionally, he will sometimes dress up in funky costumes as part of the show.
“There are different ways to make it work, but the point is really to engage the audience,” he said. “The children, of course, but the parents too.”
Knight says her move to the Valley in 2009 came in part “to break away and do things differently” and connect with new artists. Additionally, he worked as a videographer – something he had also learned to do by making his own music videos – for a range of clients, including other musicians.
The pandemic, as it has done to musicians around the world, forced Knight to band together, so in the spring of 2020 he created a YouTube program to showcase his songs and puppets. He also taught a few Zoom music lessons and started writing new songs.
“I think (the pandemic) kind of clarified my focus,” 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 crowdsourced, was recorded this spring in Waltham, with Boston-area musicians joining on keyboards, drums, electric guitar and vocals. 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 fat…you’re not a baby anymore.”
Knight also wanted to update some older songs. For example, “The Garbage Monster” went from folk to a more bluesy beat, while for “Alligator Jump” Knight replaced a salsa beat and asked an Argentinian singer, Mica Farias Gomez, to add lyrics. in Spanish ; the full title of the song is now “Alligator Jump/¡Salta Caimán!”
He had come up with the idea to collaborate with Gomez after learning that she had sung on an album by fellow Valley children’s musician, Ben Gundersheimer (aka Mister G.).
“Mica was awesome,” 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 render. visiting family relations in Franklin County.
The revamped songs and some of the new material, like “The Museum Mambo”, also reflect some of the changes Knight has seen in children’s music over his 30+ years in the field. Latin music is more common in general today, he notes, although audiences for children’s music have become somewhat younger.
“I think some of the older kids who came to my shows, like seven-year-olds, are less interested,” he said. “Maybe they’re a little more sophisticated, or they’re more into pop music at a younger age.”
As a performer and songwriter, he says he’s also become more gender-aware in his material: “Is there a reason for this character to be a he or a she?” Additionally, he removed certain songs, such as “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, from his repertoire due to any perceived racial overtones.
“It’s not about being politically correct,” he said. “It’s about being inclusive and making sure everyone feels part of the show.”
With the release of his new album, Knight is looking forward to increasing his touring — he played two shows last weekend at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst — and introducing his new songs and puppets to audiences.
“You know, if I can make the lyrics work for kids, then I can play almost any type of music, and it’s a lot of fun,” he said.
More information about Tom Knight’s music is available at tomknight.com/home.