Wayne Rhoden is a professional musician best known for his work as Father Goose, a persona he adopted when he started to perform for children about 2000. A native of Jamaica, Rhoden's career began as a rapper and disc jockey in that country's "reggae dancehall" tradition. His work for children, however, has encompassed a wider variety of Caribbean musical traditions, including ska, a precursor to reggae; calypso, a style most closely associated with the islands of Trinidad and Tobago; and traditional folk songs from across the region.
Relatively few details are available regarding Rhoden's early life. Born in Jamaica in 1966, Rhoden developed an interest in music as early as the age of four. In a 2007 interview with Billy Heller in the New York Post, he recalled that his older sisters were not allowed to turn on the family's stereo. "House rules," he told Heller. "So they dared me to do it." Intrigued both by the stereo's electronics and by the music it produced, he soon obtained the job of playing records when his parents entertained. "They'd get up and dance and sort of forget I was supposed to go to bed."
In 1981 Rhoden moved with his family to New York City, settling in Brooklyn's East Flatbush neighborhood, where there was a large and vibrant West Indian community. While a student at Brooklyn's Erasmus High School, he played music for friends and neighbors at parties and organized a band, the JJ Crew, to provide entertainment at dances and other school events. Rhoden's high school career coincided with the explosive growth of dancehall, a variety of reggae that, like American hip-hop, featured rhyming lyrics, a heavy bass beat, and vocalists who combined their lyrical duties with the astute management of turntables, synthesizers, and other electronic equipment. While still in high school, Rhoden built up a formidable sound system and, under the name of Rankin Don, performed with the swagger and bravado considered indispensable for dancehall performers. At his first major gig, at Brooklyn's Biltmore Ballroom, he turned his speakers up so much that, according to Rob Kenner in the New York Times in a 2008 article, "some of the Biltmore's ceiling tiles fell down."
As Rhoden's popularity increased, he began recording singles for release in Jamaica and the United States. In the late 1980s and 1990s he had a series of hits, including "Baddest DJ" and "Real McCoy"; the latter, according to Heller in the Post, sold more than 250,000 copies, a remarkable number for a single produced without the marketing and distribution resources of a major label. It was also in this period that Rhoden began a series of fruitful collaborations with some of reggae's best-known artists, including Grammy winners Shabba Ranks and Beenie Man. Then, in 1999, Rhoden met Dan Zanes, the man who would lead him into children's music. Zanes, who had risen to prominence in the 1980s as the lead singer of the Del Fuegos, a pop group, was a friend of Joyce Rhoden, Wayne's mother. The two men quickly bonded over their love of Jamaican music. As the father of a five-year-old daughter, Zanes in 2000 began recording some music for children and asked Rhoden to contribute. "On the spur of the moment," wrote Kenner in the Times, "they came up with a skit about a Jamaican Mother Goose who sends her cake-loving husband to the studio as a last-minute replacement. They called the song ‘Father Goose,’ and Rankin Don was soon reborn."
The transition from dancehall to children's music was difficult in some ways. The lyrics Rhoden composed and sang as Rankin Don, for example, were not what most people would consider appropriate for young children. Though his songs were often less explicit than those of his rivals in the dancehall world, references to sexuality and violence were still frequent. While the lyrics proved relatively easy to change, there were other, more serious challenges; Rhoden was initially intimidated, in particular, by the thought of performing in front of children. Unlike dancehall performances, which feature elaborate, highly ritualized call-and-answer exchanges between vocalists and audience members, concerts for youngsters tend to be extremely informal, even free-form. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that, as Rhoden told interviewer Michele Norris for National Public Radio's All Things Considered in 2008, "I didn't know what to say or how to act" when performing for children. As he overcame this hesitation, however, he found that they responded enthusiastically to the call-and-answer technique, and it has become a prominent feature of his Father Goose performances.
Between 2000 and 2006 Rhoden recorded five albums of children's music with Zanes and a number of other musicians. Released under the name Dan Zanes and Friends, the albums offered an eclectic mix of acoustic folk songs, rock and roll, and Rhoden's Caribbean rhythms, which Zanes considered essential to the music's multicultural appeal. As Zanes remarked to Kenner in the Times, "I always wanted music that sounded like my neighborhood, and my neighborhood had a lot of West Indian people in it." Discernible in Rhoden's contributions are elements of dancehall; ska, dancehall's quieter, more traditional precursor; and calypso, a style most closely associated in the United States with the singer Harry Belafonte.
All five albums did well critically and commercially, particularly the fifth, 2006's Catch That Train!, which won a Grammy Award as the year's best album for children. Several months later Zanes produced Rhoden's first full-length solo album for children. Titled It's a Bam Bam Diddly!, it reached number seven on Billboard magazine's reggae chart, an unprecedented achievement for a children's album. Rhoden followed the album's release with an extended concert tour that included shows at New York's famed Lincoln Center, the Sylvan Theater in Washington, DC, and MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. While he performed in these shows exclusively as Father Goose, Rhoden has not abandoned the Rankin Don persona; indeed, he released an album, It's Time, under that name as recently as 2004. As of the summer of 2008, however, it seemed clear that children's music—and the Father Goose character—would be dominating his time, talent, and energy for some years to come. As he told Heller in the Post, "When you see those kids and you bring joy to their lives, it's a beautiful thing in the world."
At a Glance …
Born in Jamaica in 1966; son of Joyce Rhoden; immigrated to the United States, 1981; children: one daughter.
Career: Has performed as a disc jockey and vocalist since the 1980s; member of musical group Dan Zanes and Friends, 2000—; known professionally by the names Rankin Don and Father Goose.
Awards: Prominently featured on Dan Zanes and Friends' Catch That Train!, which won a Grammy Award, 2007, for best musical album for children.
Addresses: Office—c/o Festival Five Records, 323 Dean St., Ste. 2, Brooklyn, NY 11217-1906. Web—http://www.fathergoose.net.
With Dan Zanes and Friends (as Father Goose)
Rocket Ship Beach, Festival Five Records, 2000.
Family Dance, Festival Five Records, 2001.
Night Time!, Festival Five Records, 2002.
House Party, Festival Five Records, 2003.
Catch That Train!, Festival Five Records, 2006.
Color with Father Goose (as Father Goose), Goose Hut, 2004.
It's Time (as Rankin Don), Goose Hut, 2004.
It's a Bam Bam Diddly! (as Father Goose), Festival Five Records, 2007.
New York Post, October 20, 2007.
New York Times, February 17, 2008.
"About Father Goose," Father Goose, http://www.fathergoose.net (accessed July 26, 2008).
"Father Goose Entertainment," myspace.com, http://www.myspace.com/fathergooseent (accessed July 26, 2008).
Norris, Michele, "Father Goose: ‘It's a Bam Bam Diddly,’" All Things Considered, National Public Radio, January 1, 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/player/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=17765006&m=17764940 (accessed July 26, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler