Kids’ books don’t have a “look.” Much like contemporary art, there is no unified aesthetic to children’s book illustrations. Robert McCloskey’s austere black and white line drawings conjure the steady hand of a draftsman. Vera Williams’ blotchy water colors depict childhood in a quasi-psychedelic haze. Sandra Boynton's illustrations look like infantilized Far Side cartoons. Taro Gomi’s restrained compositions oscillate between flatness and miniaturized detail. And so on.
It is not only a medium of signature styles, but signature processes as well. Does it take the eye of an artist to recognize Eric Carle’s Jackson Pollock meets Matisse, splatter-paint-on-paper-then-cut-it-up technique? As with many master artists, Carle (best known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar) has taken his style to its logical conclusion, becoming as much a brand as an illustrator or author. And like many brands, Carle has his secondary properties, his diffusion lines. Innovation from the principal lines are repurposed: illustrations are literally re-used in new books. The same splatter-painted-on-paper-then-cut-out leopard, for instance, moves from Have You Seen My Cat to Hear Bear Roar. It’s not immediately obvious—the kind of thing you might only notice after reading each book 100 times—but once apparent, amounts to cracking a code.
In essence, Carle created his own library of clip art to be spun off into new combinations. The potential is seemingly endless. He was not alone in this practice. Richard Scarry, another giant of children’s books, also has his illustrations re-purposed and versioned. Both What Do People Do All Day? and Busy Busy Town, for example, feature the same image of a personified pig accidentally shattering his car windshield with a 2x4. The latter image was published after Scarry’s death and attributed to “The Estate of Richard Scarry.” It’s likely a sanctioned knockoff, drawn by an anonymous production artist doing his best to ape the master.
Not all children’s books are products of this factory mentality. Many of the best feel like a labor of love, a labor born both from collaboration and community. Margaret Wise Brown wrote Goodnight Moon and TheNoisy Book with two different illustrators, Clement Hurd and Leonard Weisgard, respectively. She also collaborated with Remy Charlip on The Dead Bird. Remy Charlip wrote and illustrated Fortunately himself, but co-authored Thirteen with Jerry Joyner. He also co-authored Hooray for Me with Lilian Moore, but the illustrations were done by Vera Williams, who wrote More More More solo. And so on.
Despite its title, the 1976 dub reggae song “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown”—which has also been released as “King Tubby’s Meets Rockers Uptown,” “King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown,” “King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown,” and “King Tubby's Meet Rockers Up-Town”—is not “by” (which is to say “credited to”) King Tubby. It is credited to Augustus Pablo, another early dub innovator. It appears on an album of the same name, an album title that has undergone similar permutations (Tubby, Tubbys, Tubby’s, etc.) over the 61 times it has been released on various labels.
What did Pablo do that makes the track “his?” The original 1976 release on Clocktower Records credits Pablo as one of eight musicians on the album. He is credited with playing the organ, clarinet, and piano. Surprisingly, it does not credit Pablo with playing the melodica, despite the fact that the instrument, which Pablo is known for popularizing and introducing to dub, is clearly prominent within the first moments of the song. Pablo, who was born Horace Swaby, is also credited as producer under the name ”H. Swaby.” “King Tubby’s” (aka King Tubby, born Osbourne Ruddock) is credited, along with Erroll Thompson, as engineer.
Dub reggae, especially of this era, is often thought of as an engineer’s medium. As Michael E. Veal succinctly puts it in his book Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae, early dub music’s “significance as a style lies in the deconstructive manner in which these engineers remixed reggae songs, applying sound processing technology in unusual ways to create a unique pop music language of fragmented song forms and reverberating soundscapes.”
“King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” (KTMRU) is a remix of Jacob Miller’s “Baby I Love You So.” While Miller is not credited on KTMRU, Miller’s vocals are prominent throughout the song, albeit in manipulated snippets which abstract the vocal phrasing and meaning, reducing the lyrics and melody of the love song to pure sonic material.
The reason KTMRU, a Jacob Miller (singer) song remixed by King Tubby (engineer) is credited to Agustus Pablo (producer and musician) is due in part to a particularity of Jamaican music: the riddim. Jamaican music has a long tradition of considering the instrumental version of the song (the “riddim”) and the vocal accompaniment (the ”voicing”) separate entities. In this model, the same riddim may have hundreds of voicings and versions, sometimes spread out over decades.
KTMRU’s riddim dates back at least to 1971, when Herman Chin Loy recorded Jah Jah Dub, a song that would eventually appear on his 1975 album Aquarius Dub. Chin Loy ran the label / studio / record store Aquarius, and enlisted (as was common at the time) a rotating cast of house musicians to record songs under his name as well as several aliases. One of these musicians was the young Augustus Pablo. Pablo put his own name on the riddim in 1973 with his version “Cassava Piece.” This was eventually released on several labels, including the one he co-ran with his brother, Rockers. The “Rockers” in the “King Tubby Meets Rockers” is metonym: this is King Tubby’s encounter with Pablo and this particular riddim.
Such issues—of who made what, who gets credit, who is the author—are not unique to dub reggae. The idea of who actually made something, what “work” and what credit is involved in creation, is often an issue in creative fields, with different assumptions and systems across different regions and disciplines. In visual art, the standard is to ascribe work to singular artists / geniuses, ignoring the assistants, interns, and fabricators that work behind the scenes to make the art. In the movie industry, division of labor is carefully codified, credited, and subject to union regulations. American pop songs are generally attributed to a band or singer, while other contributions (studio musicians, producers, engineers, etc.) are acknowledged through financial arrangements and liner notes. Special situations (cover songs, sample clearance, “guest” vocals, etc.) have nuanced and specific precedents, both artistically and legally. In children’s books, both the writer and illustrator get equal billing (and frequently receive an equal share of the profits).
These issues, however, are often more complicated in Jamaican music. This is not only due to the structural particularities of the music (dub’s engineer-as-musician, riddims, versions, etc) but also the business practices within the Jamaican music industry. Musicians are often left powerless, while executives control how music is packaged and circulated, who is credited, and how the various players are compensated.
While the spacey minimalism of dub might suggest epic jams, KTMRU (like many dub songs) is quite short, about 2:30 long (various recordings are a few seconds shorter or longer). It somehow surprises me every time I hear it, existing both as a pop song with a predictable A/B structure built around 8 bar phrases, and a perpetually shifting soundscape, where elements come in just long enough for you to begin to understand and appreciate them, before exiting the scene. The effect is like a parade.
For the past year I’ve been workshopping an idea that goes something like this: the demands of parenting have done more to convince artists of the merits of conceptual art than all the writings of Joseph Kosuth or Sol Lewitt. Being an artist-parent often means sacrificing studio time for time with your child, and relegating much of your practice to the thinking that can happen while you’re playing with blocks, changing a diaper, or reading Have You Seen My Cat? for the 100th time. Likewise, for the parent of a toddler, culture is smuggled in through brief moments of looking at the phone or activities that can run parallel to parenting, like listening to music.
A question comes into focus: how do you tend to your own mind while tending to a young child?
All of that looking, analyzing, thinking, obsessing, and doing gets sublimated—popping up in the stuff of parenting or the parts of yourself you can sneak into the periphery. You start to think about how things are made, who gets to make them, how labor and time gets leveraged. What constitutes making something? Am I doing it right now? Is this stack of blocks a sculpture? Are the blocks themselves sculptures? Is this bedtime story a poem? Is my son’s crayon drawing a painting? Is it my painting?
You might begin to view kids’ books with the passion of a cultural critic, or obsess over authorship in dub songs. And this is partially because it’s all you can do: cram the square peg of your mind through the round hole of parenting. But it might also be a real shift in your identity, because nothing is the same anymore, you’re tired all the time, and you’re growing too.
Michael Bell-Smith is an artist and educator based in New York.
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