Songs For Junior Rangers: An Interview With Jeff Wolin

Have you heard about the new award-winning Songs for Junior Rangers CD? Written by Ranger Jeff Wolin of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, this collection of kid-friendly songs was released recently by the National Park Service, and will have kids singing, dancing, and laughing as they learn fun facts about history and nature.

The songs cover a variety of subjects, including elk in “Wapiti Hoppity,” caving in “Spelunka Funka,” glaciers in “Frozen Bulldozin’,” and Mount Rushmore in “Four Presidents.” Musical elements include hip hop, reggae, blues, jazz, rock, zydeco, funk, and even polka. The CD was made possible through a grant from the National Park Foundation and is distributed and marketed by Eastern National. Song samples are available on Eastern National’s YouTube website, here.

The 20-song CD includes a poster map with a special Junior Ranger game, and a booklet with the lyrics to each song, so kids can sing along. Proceeds from the sales of Songs for Junior Rangers support educational and interpretive programs in national parks.

Along with Ranger Jeff Wolin, Rangers Matt Hampsey and Bruce Barnes from New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park appear on the album, as well as many talented New Orleans musicians. Navajo singer/songwriter Krishel Augustine and the Youth Ambassador Program from New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park are featured on the CD, in addition to celebrity guests such as the A Capella group Committed, Grammy Award-nominated children’s group Trout Fishing in America, and PBS personality Aaron Nigel Smith. The CD has already won several prestigious awards, including the National Park Service’s Freeman Tilden Award and a top honor from DadNabbit, a popular children’s music blogger. Songs for Junior Rangers also recently won the Parents’ Choice Gold Award®.

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Jeff performs for visitors at Florissant Fossil Beds. NPS photo.

“These witty songs are a great way for children to discover the wonders of national parks,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “The official motto of the Junior Ranger Program is ‘Explore, Learn, and Protect’ national parks and I think this music will certainly inspire children to do just that.”

We recently interviewed Ranger Jeff Wolin to learn more about his music and how the Songs for Junior Rangers CD came to fruition.

Hi Jeff, and thanks for talking with us today. We love the new Songs for Junior Rangers CD!

Thanks! We are all really excited about it too.

Where are you from originally? Which college did you attend?

I was born and raised in Elmhurst, Illinois a suburb of Chicago. I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and studied Geography.

What inspired you to become a park ranger? How long have you been with the National Park Service? What is your favorite part of the job?

I did an internship through an organization called the Student Conservation Association at Isle Royale National Park. After a summer living on an island in Lake Superior and hanging out with lots of moose I had no doubt that I would be a Park Ranger for the rest of my career. I’ve been a Park Ranger for 18 years. It’s really hard to pick one “favorite” part of the job. I LOVE my job. All I can do is give you a list of favorite things: working in beautiful and historic places, the sense of mission to protect the beautiful and historic places, that passionate and fun people that I work with, and the amazing people I meet in the visitor center and out on the trails, and finally being able to tell the stories of these powerful places.

How long have you been at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument? Which other parks have you worked? Which park was your favorite and why?

I have been at Florissant Fossil Beds for 10 years. Again, a tough one to nail down…so here is another list for you. Wind Cave because it was my first park as a seasonal and I got married there! The Everglades because it was so ALIVE, Canyonlands because of the magic landscape, and Florissant because of the fun and creative things we are doing.

How long have you been a musician? Which instruments do you play and how did you get started playing?

My mom would tell you that I began my musical career singing in the shower when I was little. I started playing guitar when I was in college but not seriously. I began writing children’s music in 2002 with my guitar teacher and friend and we made a science album called, “In Your Backyard.” The National Park music started in 2009. I still continue to take guitar and vocal lessons. I’m still learning. I feel like I’m barely a musician. I mostly play guitar, but I’m learning blues harmonica.

How did you go about initiating the Songs for Junior Rangers CD? Did it start with one song?

Yes, in fact, Songs for Junior Rangers started with just one song. I wrote Explore, Learn, and Protect for my son who was working on his Junior Ranger book one day in our living room. The Washington Office supported the recording of the song and it was put on WebRangers. Then we decided to have a Junior Ranger Concert on the Mall and I wrote 6 more songs to have a set. The floodgates opened and songs kept coming. At some point, I proposed the album idea to Julia Washburn (Associate Director of Interpretation and Education, NPS) and she liked the idea. She helped connect me to Eastern National and the National Park Foundation. At about the same time, I met Ranger Matt Hampsey from New Orleans Jazz. He said to me, “We can produce your album, that’s what we do at JAZZ!!!” The partnership formed and it was awesome!

What was it like to collaborate with other rangers and musicians?

It is probably one of the most fun things I have ever done in my life. It was also a great honor to be amongst such great musicians. I really have to thank Ranger Matt Hampsey again and again because he produced the album and helped take the songs I wrote to amazing levels. All of the rangers at New Orleans Jazz are amazing. There were so many guests and contributors, there is hardly enough time to thank them all. I’m a real extrovert and people person so I loved making millions of phone calls and making connections all over the country.

How does it feel to hear Grammy Award winning artists performing your songs?

Again, it was a great honor to have amazing guest musicians on the album. Trout Fishing in America is a four- time Grammy nominated children’s group, Aaron Nigel Smith is an award winning musician and PBS personality, Committed won NBC’s Sing – Off and an NAACP nomination, and Johnette Downing is another award winning children’s musician. As far as Grammy winners, I believe that a couple of our engineers on the album had been on Grammy Award winning albums. Everyone involved in the production of this album is hoping that we win the Grammy for Best Children’s Album in 2013.

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Jeff and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at an Earth Day event on the National Park. NPS photo.

Which song on the CD is your favorite and why?

Yet another tough question to answer. It really changes on what mood I’m in I guess. If I absolutely had to pick one…it would probably be Turtle Up Turtle Down. I’ve been a lifelong Parrothead (Jimmy Buffett fan) and that was my attempt at a Jimmy Buffett style song….for kids.

How do you think the Songs for Junior Rangers CD encourages kids to appreciate national parks and lead a healthy lifestyle?

Music is powerful. It has the ability to connect us intellectual and emotionally to concepts. And it does so on many levels. Songs can lift us up, inspire us to run and workout, and or make us think and reflect. I’m hoping that families will listen to the songs, enjoy them, dance to them, wonder about them, and then decide to go visit a park and get outside.

How do kids react when you perform for them?

I try to keep my performances as interactive as possible and get kids and families moving. So, I guess I would answer that question by saying that kids react to the performances by: doing the limbo, acting like a bison, singing, laughing, pretending they are in a cave, dancing in a parade, etc.

Do you have any notable stories about any of the songs, the creation of the CD or performing the songs that you would like to share?

It has been three years of unbridled creativity and joy. A part of my heart and soul are in that album somewhere. During the process, I met some amazingly inspiring people. I fell in love with New Orleans. I believe I have become a better musician and songwriter.

The CD has won several prestigious awards, including the NPS’s Freeman Tilden Award and most recently, the Parents’ Choice Gold Award®. How does that make you feel?

I feel honored and grateful!

Anything else you would like to share?

Enjoy, Enjoy, Enjoy – that’s what my grandmother used to say.

For more information about the Songs for Junior Rangers CD, please contact Ranger Jeff Wolin at (719) 748‐3253. To purchase the Songs for Junior Rangers CD, click here or call 877-NAT-PARK. To download a digital copy of the CD, click here for Amazon, or here for iTunes. For wholesale opportunities, email Mark Vineburg at markvineburg@easternnational.org.