One typical 1970 afternoon, Thérèse Williams, nicknamed "Tres," and her best friend Kitsy Christner gathered for their usual after-school guitar lesson. The two Webster Groves fifth-graders were in a silly mood. While waiting for their guitar teacher, Jim Curran, they discussed a Christmas party that Kitsy's parents were planning. Tres wasn't yet sure if she could stay over that weekend.
"Be sure to ask your mom!" Kitsy reminded Tres.
"I will," said Tres.
"Be sure to ask your grandparents!"
"I will, Kitsy! I'll even ask my dog, Tuffy! And he'll say, Arf arf arf arf!"
Then Tres began strumming her guitar, landing on a two-chord pattern, and began improvising lyrics:
Arf-arf-fa-farf, that's what Tuffy will say
After I ask him,
Can I go to Kitsy's house?
I'm gonna run away from home and go to Kitsy's party!
As Kitsy joined in, Curran arrived, overheard the cheerful singing and playing, and asked, "What was that you were doing? You know you were writing music?"
"What do you mean? We were just goofing around!"
"No, that is making music! Keep going. This is today's lesson. I'm not teaching you anything else. You're going to expand this."
This is how Tres and Kitsy, two ten-year-olds from St. Louis County, wrote their first song. Before they graduated sixth grade, they made an album called Dandelions under the band name Children of Sunshine, sold 300 copies to friends and family, appeared on local TV and radio, and — thanks to a garage-sale rediscovery by a local record collector — inadvertently created a collector's item that now sells for upward of $500 on eBay. There is currently no other way to hear it besides the gray-market world of Internet file sharing.
It also happens to be a wonderful album. Dandelions' ten short songs are clearly influenced by the folk music of the time — Judy Collins, Carole King, James Taylor — but the melodies are so memorable, the performances so strong and unjaded, the vocal harmonies so shaky but effective, that it's utterly charming even now. Tres and Kitsy sing about family friends, pets, the world around them, God and each other. There are silly songs with inside jokes, but there are also confused observations on a Vietnam-era world ("War") and a resigned, almost heartbroken look at divorced parents ("They Call It Love"). It's very intimate music, not meant for an audience beyond themselves and their close friends and classmates.
Despite this — or, more likely, because of it — Dandelions has struck a chord with a discerning class of musicians and record collectors. When Beth Sorrentino, the former lead singer/pianist of 1990s alt-rock band Suddenly, Tammy!, heard Children of Sunshine, the duo immediately reminded her of "the untouched and authentic sound" that she loves in her own music students. "They seem to understand music on a very different level. It's fresh in their ears. Kids, I find, don't sing or play music unless they completely feel it. The experience for them seems incredibly in the moment. It feels almost like you are eavesdropping on them. [The music is] just pure and clean, full of flowers and sunshine, and just a dash of edge."
"When music is this special, we want to share it," suggests British rock critic Everett True, who featured Children of Sunshine on his website, collapseboard.com. "It's so understated, so human. I love singing where you can hear the personality of the singers. The music is fantastic, the way it's so nearly not there. There's such untroubled joy there."
Everett heard about the album from Ben Ayres, a founding member of the band Cornershop. "The album puts me in mind of artists like Beat Happening, the Shaggs, the Vaselines and many other musicians I love who aren't afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves and put musical ideas and emotions before detailed technical ability," Ayres says from London. "I deeply believe that most great music is on the boundaries of the so-called rules of music and more in the spirit and emotion-led area."
It's lofty praise for an LP that, almost accidentally, is only now worming its way into eager ears. It's certainly taken the creators off-guard. They occasionally get calls from curious fans, asking if it's really them.
"You have to understand, when we listen to it, there's a part of us that's very proud and profoundly moved," says Thérèse Williams. She lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico, now, but took time out of her vacation in Oregon to discuss Dandelions. "But there are other parts where I'm just in pain at the sound of my voice, or how simple it was. Very childish. Immature, almost."
"For a long time, it was sort of an embarrassment," says Kitsy Christner Sheahan, who still lives in St. Louis and works as a real estate agent. "Now I'm thinking: 'You know what? It's OK to come back to this now. It was always a fun, exciting time, but it's OK to be proud about it.'"
The College School of Webster Groves was originally founded in 1963 as a teaching school for undergraduate education majors at Webster College. Then, as now, the school was known for its program of "experiential" education, with emphases on direct experience and theme-based learning. "The school was extremely supportive of students exploring learning on their own," says John MacEnulty, who was one year behind Tres and Kitsy in school. "There was a specific curriculum in math and science, but everything else was sort of loosely guided. Students were encouraged to come up with projects of their own to explore things."
Kitsy began attending the College School in the fall of 1970, at the beginning of her fifth-grade year. "My parents, especially my mother, would seek out the most creative teaching styles and had learned about the College School," she recalls. "So she moved my siblings and me from the public-school system." Her father played a few instruments, her siblings took lessons, and both her parents were fans and patrons of the arts.
On her first day at her new school, Kitsy met Tres, who had been at the College School since the second grade. She lived right across the street with her mother. Her father, Jimmy Williams, was a well-known local jazz pianist and an integral part of the Gaslight Square scene. "He was right in the middle of it," Tres Williams remembers. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler, but she retains almost subliminal memories of Williams' presence in the home. "He watched me when I was a baby. He used to play classical music for me all the time. There's a passage of Mozart's Requiem that makes me just melt. Even though I don't have a memory of him in my household, I apparently have this cellular memory relating to music."
Tres and Kitsy went through the first school day together and signed up for extra courses — including Jim Curran's guitar class. "He was not a teacher per se at the College School. It was part of his coursework at Webster College to teach us," Sheahan recalls. "I don't remember that I had picked up a guitar more than a couple of times beforehand."
"I had taken guitar classes with [Curran] the previous year, and Kitsy and I, just by chance, were going into class together," adds Williams. "We played beautifully together, sang together and liked each other."
Through school and guitar class, the two became best friends. Tres would spend weekends at Kitsy's house; the two would ride horses together at the Christners' farm in Dutzow, about an hour west of St. Louis. "You seldom spoke of them separately," says MacEnulty. "They were always 'Kitsy and Tres.'"
It was at one of these weekend sleepovers that the idea arose to make an album.
"Kitsy's parents had a lot of music parties, and we'd always do 'shows,'" Williams remembers. Uncle Scott and Aunt Judy, two of Kitsy's relatives, were in town from Kansas City. After an impromptu "concert," Uncle Scott said, "You two are good! Why don't you make an album?"
That was all the encouragement the precocious pair needed. With support from the College School, pre-production began. They had taken pictures of themselves in a field of dandelions at Webster College, so Dandelions became the album title and photo. Williams still marvels at the ease and enthusiasm with which her College School teachers took to the project: "As soon as it was clear we were on this track, they completely supported us to the point where we would get out of school to do performances. We would take school time to write music, perform on TV and radio. The whole school as well as our parents were totally supportive. They allowed us to be in control of the entire process."
Under Curran's tutelage, they wrote enough songs for a ten-song LP. There were no outtakes or unreleased tracks. To get comfortable with the recording process, they gave a concert at the College School — their first performance outside of practice sessions and spontaneous shows for family and friends. For the recording, they rented a church on Big Bend Boulevard and hired two backing musicians, Wendy Katz on acoustic bass and Mike Kieffer on drums. They rented the church for an entire week, but Tres and Kitsy, being kids, finished the songs in two days and were too restless to spend time overdubbing or doing extra takes. "If we've recorded everything, can we be done?" they begged. There are two tracks of between-song chatter on Dandelions, and you can actually hear them arguing about song endings, and their audible relief after finishing the last track.
They mixed the tracks with Kent Kesterson at KBK/Earth City Sound Studios. Later a world-class studio and rehearsal space — Welders' drummer Jane Fujimoto recalls it as "like being aboard a giant spaceship" — it was then a tiny basement studio.
"He was recording high school choirs at the time," Sheahan says. "When we had to make decisions, we all met in his basement. And the adults let us decide." A total of 300 copies were pressed, and Tres and Kitsy sold them for five dollars apiece. "Jesus Christ Superstar was really big at the time," Williams says. "It was ten dollars for a double album, so we figured we could sell ours for five."
While waiting for the albums to arrive, the Children of Sunshine found themselves sought by local media. They appeared on two radio stations, KMOX (1120 AM) and a college station that neither now remembers. The Post-Dispatch wrote them up on the front page of the Sunday entertainment section underneath the headline "Songwriting Not For the Young at Heart." Most exciting, they appeared twice on Corky's Colorama, a long-running children's show hosted by Corky the Clown, also known as KSDK-TV (Channel 5) weatherman Clif St. James. "[Corky] had Tuffy's Pet Foods as a sponsor, so he had us sing it and then held up a can of dog food," says Tres. Their parents printed up business cards that said "Tres and Kitsy — Guitar Entertainment" on yellow card stock with raised orange lettering.
"Oh my gosh, we felt larger than life," Sheahan recalls with a laugh. "It was so fun and exciting."
And then it was over. By the time the albums arrived, Tres and Kitsy were in sixth grade and on to the next phase of their lives. There were no Children of Sunshine concert tours. In fact, both of them were a little embarrassed by the whole thing. "When you're ten or eleven, you're still a little girl," explains Sheahan. "When you get into the early teen years, you want to make sure you're still seeking approval from the people around you. And all of a sudden, we went through this transition where we had felt like what we had done was so wonderful, and then we thought it was babyish."
"By sixth grade, Kitsy's brothers were all into rock music," adds Williams. "No sooner was the album released than we were ashamed it wasn't hard rock. We had a psychological block to it for many years."
The pair graduated sixth grade and stayed together one more year — some of the College School parents from their grade started the Satellite School at Nerinx Hall High School. Then Tres moved onto Webster Groves High School, and Kitsy to Ladue Horton Watkins High School. The pair kept in touch but did not do any more songwriting or recording.
And that would have been the last anyone had heard of Children of Sunshine. Except for a little invention no one but a few computer scientists could have predicted in 1971: the Internet.
There have always been record collectors seeking out the most obscure recordings available. From old blues recordings and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music to the present day, private, ultra-limited-edition pressings have always been valued for their scarcity and odd charm. "Obscurity itself will not sustain collector interest," suggests Irwin Chusid, a long-time DJ at Jersey City, New Jersey's WFMU (91.1 FM) who has produced reissues by the likes of Lucia Pamela and the Langley Schools Music Project. "However, obscurity and some musical magic, however raw, can spark cult appeal, especially if there's a back story and existing copies are rare."
Chuck Warner surely had this philosophy in mind while browsing a west-county garage sale some time in the mid-1990s. Now based in New England, Warner is a collector of some renown. His Hyped to Death label has unearthed literally hundreds of obscure punk, pop and post-punk one-offs and obscurities. He claims to have been one of the first to discover the Shaggs' Philosophy of the World, a strange but beguiling album by a trio of New Hampshire sisters that has spawned cult fame, a musical and a possible biopic. Through trial and error, he's trained himself to sift the vanity projects from the gems. "There are hundreds, if not thousands, of private-press LPs with promisingly crude artwork that turn out to be high school and college glee club and show bands, or religious records," Warner says. So when he happened across Dandelions at this particular garage sale, he was naturally suspicious. But, hey, it was only a quarter — so he bought the album and took it home.
"Of course, when I listened to it, I was blown away by both the musical sophistication and the lyrics." Warner recalls. And thus began the search for answers, in time-honored collector fashion: Who are these people? And what are they doing now?
Warner began sleuthing. He called the College School's alumni office, which would not give out contact information. When he realized that they had friends in common, he put out a request for information and a fresh, unopened copy of the album — only to find out, "Kitsy and Tres did not seem to want anything to do with the record and were not willing to sell copies to me at any price."
"We just didn't want to claim it anymore," Sheahan recalls. "The man I ended up marrying, his family had dear friends that went to the College School with me. While I was out of town, his mother had our record album in her living room and said, 'You're not going to believe who this is!' Even then, I was still embarrassed."
Warner played Dandelions for a few select contacts. One was ex-Dead Kennedys' vocalist Jello Biafra, known for his passion for "incredibly strange music."
Another was a long-time friend of Warner's in California. Said friend finally traded a pile of punk records for Warner's copy of the album, did his own research and found Williams on the Internet.
She was annoyed that someone had sold Dandelions at a garage sale.
"My instant reaction was, 'Who's the jerk who sold our album when they could have called and given it back to us?'" Williams remembers.
By this time, both Williams and Sheahan were happily going about their adult lives. Sheahan stayed in the area, married, had three children and began selling real estate. Williams married, divorced after fifteen years and eventually found her way to New Mexico. There she became active in music once again — this time playing percussion in Brazilian samba bands — and started working in "permaculture," or sustainable land-use design. Her organization has helped set up agricultural systems throughout Latin America. (When it's suggested that she's come full circle from Dandelions to permaculture, she laughs. "If you're growing shallow-rooted crops, leaving the dandelions actually brings nutrients up to the surface," she says. "So dandelions are very valuable.")
Warner's friend convinced an initially skeptical Williams to sell him a batch of unopened albums, and from there the recordings traveled around the world.
In April 2009, the blog swanfungus.com provided a download link to a digitized copy of Dandelions. "I listened to it yesterday for the first time and can't really think of a good musical comparison, but the songs are actually really cool, and the recording doesn't smack of kitsch in any way," wrote the Webmaster. This is the link that rock critic Everett True posted to his faithful readers and promoted on Twitter.
It's been a long, strange trip: from a west-county garage sale to a collector in California, to a musician in England to an English writer currently living in Australia and now back to St. Louis. It took a complex tangle of technology — a medium that some believe is destroying the music industry — to bring these low-key, isolated acoustic recordings to an audience that no one, least of all ten-year-olds Tres and Kitsy, could have imagined existed.
Even so, the pair is making plans. In between writing a book about her father, Williams is fielding offers and talking to record labels about reissues. There have been a few offers, and they're considering how to best preserve the innocence and legacy of the original project. She and Sheahan have even discussed a "reunion" concert — maybe a potluck dinner for their family and friends, maybe even at the College School itself.
There's one bittersweet part of the story: Jim Curran, the man who taught them guitar and inspired the whole project, is nowhere to be found. They're still looking for Curran, and both were adamant that he be mentioned in this story.
"We cannot find him, and we want him to be part of this resurgence," stresses Williams. "If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't even be writing music. He was our protective bubble through the entire process."
But Williams and Sheahan would be crazy not to keep hope alive. If the story of Children of Sunshine teaches us anything, it's that we're all interconnected in complex and seemingly random ways. The concept of "six degrees of separation" is now as outdated as eight-track tapes. If a Webster Groves duo's fifth-grade school project can reach across the decades to find an audience, perhaps their teacher is closer than they think.