EARLY one morning in the middle of a snowstorm not long ago, a crowd of hundreds was lined up outside a small Minneapolis store. Although the doors wouldn't open for at least two hours, everyone there wanted to be sure of getting tickets to a performance in nearby St. Paul. Once on sale, all 2,000 tickets were quickly gone. Such scenes are typical for the object of this box-office demand. He's not a rock star or name comic, but a gentle, bearded ex-folk singer whose magic way with children has made him one of North America's most popular kids' entertainers and the top-selling recording artist in that field.
He is called simply Raffi, and if the name doesn't ring an affectionate bell with you, chances are it's only because you don't have kids between the ages of 2 and about 8. But for millions of families - especially in Canada - Raffi is a familiar and well-loved figure, one of the few major children's performing artists who's a real person - not a cartoon character or TV advertising concept. He tours the United States and Canada to standing-room-only crowds. He appears at educators' conferences. Sales of his record albums are nearing an awesome 2.2 million. And many schools in the Canadian system, as well as some in the US, have made listening to Raffi albums a required experience in the early grades.
Much of Raffi's success lies in a simple but crucial fact: He takes children seriously and relates to them with dignity and joy.
``Sometimes people say to me, `Let's talk about your work for children first, and then we can talk about your serious work,''' said Raffi, who was in Boston recently for a performance. ``That kind of answer comes from not understanding that children are whole people, like you and me. Children are my serious work, and that means respecting them as an audience, the way I would respect any adult audience.''
How does this affect actual performances?
``If you approach children as if you aren't trying to put one over on them,'' Raffi says, ``that's the key. We have had many children's recordings that in tone were quite condescending - OK, kids, 1, 2, 3!' That kind of thing would drive you up a wall.''
Not a trace of that approach is detectable when Raffi is at work, which a look at his videocassette, ``Raffi - Singable Songs'' (A&M Video), will amply establish. The audience rapport is almost palpable as kids discover his beguiling repertoire of folk songs, nursery favorites, and original numbers - from ``Baa Baa Black Sheep,'' to a Negro spiritual, to his song about a whale called ``Baby Beluga.'' The numbers are all delivered in a clear, friendly, unaffected voice by a small, lone figure in a flamboyant sport shirt who sits on stage with his guitar.
And the children - often sitting with parents - react as they have for centuries to this approach, because Raffi is ushering them into a lyric folk tradition now lost to most of the adults in their society. It's a richly evocative world in which ordinary events take on a wondrous musical life - watching wipers on a school bus, brushing teeth, washing faces. In a pace beautifully gauged to the shifting tempos of young attention spans, Raffi breaks into slow rhythms or into softly conspiratorial tones that elicit ecstatic clapping and singing - or a hushed anticipation of the next number.
His link to their hearts is not gained through clownish antics or by trying to be like a child himself. Nor does he try to dominate the audience. He interacts with them - sometimes asking questions and letting them respond. In one sing-along number, Raffi actually stops his own singing and lets the kids themselves take over - a supreme test for any children's performer.
For many children, Raffi says, this kind of chemistry points up a missing element in their lives: participation.
``Children don't have as much as they used to of that joyful, spontaneous interaction that can happen when parents are able to make that time,'' he asserts. ``I think before television was so important in our culture, children's games that had been handed down were much more prevalent in the schoolyard. Now we are hearing from many teachers that much of young children's play seems to mimic what they see on television shows - such as playing with certain toys that are advertised - and all the role modeling that goes along with that.''
Raffi recalls that 12 years ago in Toronto - where he was raised by Armenian parents who had fled Turkey in the 1950s - ``I was making a very meager living as a folk singer'' when his mother-in-law, Daphne, asked him to perform for her nursery school class. Entertaining kids ``was the furthest thing from my mind,'' he says, but with this step his new career got its somewhat halting start.
Later Daphne also suggested he make a children's record, and the result was called ``Singable Songs for the Very Young.'' Raffi remembers that ``it was instantly popular in Toronto. People were buying it in fours and fives to give to their friends, saying they'd never heard anything like it.'' He soon found himself loading up his station wagon and carting records to stores.
``The record's immediate popularity caused quite an identity crisis,'' he recalls. ``What kind of a performer was I? All of a sudden more people knew me as a children's entertainer than as a folk singer. For a couple of years I tried to do both, but then I realized not only that I needn't be ashamed of giving up adult folk singing, but that something rare was happening here. Not everyone can entertain children - I learned that through canvassing the feelings of other adult entertainers. Many of the popular adult stars of the day will tell you they'd be terrified to entertain children.''
Much of the ensuing success, according to Raffi, came because children were hungering for an alternative to the kind of entertainment they were getting in the news media.
``Television shows can sometimes be 30-minute commercials for the product the show is designed around,'' he notes, ``but when the music is coming from a real person, and especially when the career of this person - I'm talking about me - is not television-based, it says that things have a value outside TV.
Raffi's concern about children's preoccupation with media includes his own video. ``I had real mixed feelings about making the video. It was suggested that I make it for a long, long time before I finally did. I never intended it to be something kids watched two or three times a day, yet that's happening a lot now. I would hope parents [would] exercise their discretion as to how often it's viewed, because I don't want to give kids another 45 minutes of viewing. I would rather they were out playing with their friends. I would rather they were out daydreaming and imagining.''