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Archive for the ‘Song’ Category

Last year I was lucky enough to be interviewed by a young filmmaker named Hannah Jayanti for a documentary about the book The Phantom Tollbooth, in celebration of it being published fifty years ago. After the interview, Hannah asked if I’d write a song for the film and I was even happier to do that. The film’s premier is October 6 at the New Yorker Festival. (Norton Juster, the author, and the illustrator, Jules Feiffer, will be there for the screening.  I’ll be there, too. ) For fans of the book (and even those unfamiliar with it) it’s a delightful and insightful look at the creative process and the story behind Milo and his tollbooth.

Here’s part of my interview:

And here’s a link to the song. My pal, whistler extraordinaire Andy Offut Irwin does the whistling:

Some of you know that The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic piece of children’s literature – and it’s a classic and timeless because of its very singular and quirky nature.  Milo is a boy thoroughly bored with life and not seeing the point in much of anything. Feiffer’s initial illustrations of Milo show someone not dissimilar to the character in Munch’s “The Scream”. Passing through a tollbooth that mysteriously shows up in his apartment one afternoon, Milo embarks on a quest into a different world, and discovers a reason for being, or perhaps finds that just being is reason enough. The story is filled with language play, strange characters, and philosophical observations that most adults can’t imagine children would enjoy.

Most adults.

Most adults think…

You could begin a lot of sentences with that phrase, and hardly any of them would be complimentary to people over twenty-one years of age. Somehow, adults forget how children think. Perhaps because children have no power, they have little responsibility, and adults equate consciousness and perception with responsibility, forgetting the years and years they themselves spent as children, observing and trying to make sense of things. By the time children get to nine or ten years of age, they have become philosophers of a feral sort. Children, at the mercy of their seniors, have a lot of time to muse and consider and try and understand, more than we do as adults.

Which is what The Phantom Toolbooth is about – trying to make sense of a world in which adults don’t seem to be listening or paying attention.

Most adults doubted that children would like the book. But they have. My friend Carmen Deedy says it’s easier to publish a good book than a great one, and time has proved detractors wrong. Rereading it last year, I was struck by the depth of what it had to say, and the playfulness with which it was said.

If you like the book, you can give it some support on the Facebook fan page here.

And if you’re in New York, I’ll see you there.

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bobby mcferrinLast week Debbie and I were lucky enough to see Bobby McFerrin perform in Central Park. It was a beautiful evening, it was a free show, and we got there early enough to get good seats, spreading out a blanket as the sky darkened for his ninety minute performance.

Watching McFerrin sing is a revelation – most striking is how relaxed he is on stage. I’ve often felt that a performer’s greatest strength comes from being relaxed and open to the moment, and McFerrin is the king of that. From the second he came on, it felt like the stage was his home and we were visiting him. He sat easily in a chair, or wandered casually among his band members, as he went through most of the songs on his new album, “Spirit You All”, a deeply religious recording that recasts a number of spirituals and numbers from the Black church, as well as original compositions and a take on Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”.

While McFerrin is a virtuoso and  a master he does not show off –  while he has an incredible range and great falsetto,  most of the time his voice is a relaxed, easy, normal sounding voice. Many performers spend a lot of time building up a wall between themselves and their audience through their virtuosity – the message is “Don’t try this at home – you’re not like me”. Not McFerrin –  he’s not trying to blow you away – although he does every once in a while with some amazing displays, all done with humor and class. Instead, he uses his art to build a bridge. Out of this relaxation and comfort on stage comes his improvisation – you get the sense he is really playing – playing with his own voice, with the musicians around him, and with the audience.

Especially with the audience. In interviews, McFerrin talks about his interest in taking the focus off himself and putting it on the audience, so they are part of the experience and performance. If you’ve seen him live, you know how good he is at this – better than anyone else, even my guiding light, Pete Seeger. Wandering into the audience while singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (including verses where the gender shifts to “She’s got…”) he held up the microphone to a half  dozen people. EVERY ONE OF THEM SANG. REALLY WELL! They sang well because he knew they could. Their success made us all feel part of it, and also affirmed McFerrin’s message – we all have a voice.

In a great interview with Krista Tippett  Bobby talks about American Idol and says, “They have good voices. They sing in tune. But so what? What are you saying?”

I think about all these things when I do a show. I think about how I can make the audience part of what I’m doing, so it’s something we’re doing together. Those of you who have seen my story “Build Me Up Buttercup” will know what I mean. Like McFerrin, I want to do something that says “We all have a voice.” Watching Bobby McFerrin makes me want to do it better.

Here’s another link to an amazing demonstration he gives of the pentatonic scale. 

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I had a busy and interesting week last week. I went to a workshop with Nick Rabkin, an arts educator who speaks eloquently about the importance of arts in the schools. You can check out one of his columns here. Then I presented at the Fall Forum of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) in Providence. I love what CES is doing, and it’s a comfort to me to know there are educators who are really thinking through what makes a good school.

I’m no fan of No Child Left Behind, nor of Race to the Top. I’ve been in schools a long time and seen a lot of things, and I don’t think these programs are much of an answer. They don’t really frame the question right. This of course, deserves a longer discussion, and I’ll post more. But for now, I want to post a song I wrote a year or so ago about testing. It’s not on any recording and I don’t know if it will be. And this is just me and guitar. I wrote it after listening to one teacher after another lament the effect of high stakes teaching on their work. LIke I said, Race to the Top doesn’t really shift the focus much from No Child Left Behind. Testing has its place, but it’s no answer. And like I say in the song, it sure isn’t teaching.

Here’s the song. Hope you like it:

Click here – The Ballad of Janice Miller

My name is Janice Miller and teaching is my trade

A lifetime in the classroom here in seventh grade

Twenty-six  years of teaching, I’ve tried to do my best

I love my work, I love these kids so I won’t give this test

You say you need to measure, that testing’s how you see

If the kids are learning all the things you think they should from me

But testing isn’t teaching, don’t tell me they’re the same

I think all you really want is to find someone to blame

Some pencil mark won’t measure  the life that someone leads

And some number in a box won’t show what it is that that kid needs

And all your faith in testing it has a hollow ring

If some kid’s poor and hungry, the tests don’t mean a thing

Take all the men on Wall Street who think they know the score

And all the politicians who cut our budgets more

Put ‘em in the classroom with thirty hungry kids

Come back in nine months and ask them how they did

My name is Janice Miller and teaching is my trade

A lifetime in the classroom here in seventh grade

Twenty-six  years of teaching, I’ve tried to do my best

I love my work, I love these kids so I won’t give this test

You say you need to measure, that testing’s how you see

If the kids are learning all the things you think they should from me

But testing isn’t teaching, don’t tell me they’re the same

I think all you really want is to find someone to blame

Some pencil mark won’t measure  the life that someone leads

And some number in a box won’t show what it is that that kid needs

And all your faith in testing it has a hollow ring

If some kid’s poor and hungry, the tests don’t mean a thing

Take all the men on Wall Street who think they know the score

And all the politicians who cut our budgets more

Put ‘em in the classroom with thirty hungry kids

Come back in nine months and ask them how they did

There’s a point of no returning

There’s a point where something breaks

There’s a point where someone’s taken as much as they can take

There’s a point comes when you know that what you’re doing’s wrong

That’s the point where you say no and refuse to go along

My name is Janice Miller, a teacher’s who I am

I’ve never made much trouble, I’ve done the best I can

There’s a million more like me out there, I can’t speak for the rest

But I’m sick of what we’re doing, so I won’t give this test

©2012 Bill Harley and Round River Music (BMI)

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Last month I was out at a dinner with a presenter. The Russian rock group Pussy Riot came up in conversation. You probably know this is the group of young women who went into a church and recorded a video of their song protesting the Putin government’s connection with the Russian Orthodox Church. You also probably know that they got sentenced to two years in jail for the escapade. You also probably know that there was an international firestorm of support for them, and that many people across the Western world had a hard time saying the words “Pussy Riot” – especially news anchormen.

I said to her, “What a great thing to write a song about – their name is so great!”

The presenter, who runs a great family series, looked at me and said, “Don’t you dare sing a song about Pussy Riot at my concert.”

I understood, but I got an idea. It got me thinking about words – what you can and can’t say. Corruption is okay, but the name of a rock group presents problems.  So I wrote this song, which I probably could sing anywhere (except in Russia). Since they’re a punk band, I plugged in the electric guitar and pushed the distort pedal. It needs a caffeinated drummer. And if ANYONE wants to make a video of it, capturing pictures from the internet of the band and the ensuing madness, let me know.

Here’s the song -

If you like the song, you can download it here: billharley.bandcamp.com/track/puddy-wiot

Here’s to Puddy Wiot. Cwazy guwls.

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Well, it’s taken years – way too long – but I finally have a professional video of one of my song (Not destined to be the video star, I suspect). Along with Rhode Island Public Broadcasting we’ve produced a video of my song “Wash Your Hands”. Working with Maria and Scott Saracen and kids from Henry Barnard School and Paul Cuffee School, we took the song I wrote a couple of years ago and it’s now being played on Rhode Island public television, and hopefully will go to others around the country. The RI Department of Health is promoting it and getting the word out to other state health departments.

If you go to my website, you can download the song for free, and also free posters here.

Making the video, and working with so many talented people, has reminded me of what my work is. I want to make good music, and good art. But I also want to say something. I have never been one for lecturing in my work – I would rather be descriptive of a kid’s experience rather than prescriptive of how they should behave. But in some instances, particularly ones of public health, it just makes sense to tell it like it is simply and directly. This is one of those.

A number of years ago I served on an advisory group for the Harvard Center for Children’s Health. I would go up to Cambridge and sit in a boardroom every couple of months and listen to public health professionals and researchers talk about their findings and then try to figure out how to let people know what they had learned. There tends to be a separation between the academic world and folks on the street and we were trying to bridge that gap. One of the things I learned about public health is that no one ever sees the plague that didn’t happen, and public health programs are concerned with stopping the plague before it happens.

If art (however you want to define that…) helps, so much the better.

This is nowhere more true than washing hands. It seems so ridiculously simple and stupid you almost don’t want to say it. But it has to be said. Over and over again.

As an aside here, I might say, at the risk of grossing out a number of people, I am always amazed at the large number of people (adults, males) in airports who do not bother to wash their hands in the restrooms. Astounding. Eeek. Ewwwwww. ‘Nuff said.

So we can spend billions of dollars on expensive procedures, but health is mostly preserved through simple things. Like washing hands. The problem is no one makes money at it. That’s the problem with our health care system – it wants to make money, not preserve health.

So here’s my offering. I wrote it as simply as a I could. It is not high art. In fact, I purposely used the melody of the typical children’s taunt for the hook in the chorus (na na na na naaa!). That minor third is the children’s interval.It will drive you crazy if you let it. And if it keeps some kid from getting sick (or the adults, too), then I don’t mind at all.

Hope you like the video.

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Keith Munslow and I drove down to New York last week to be on the radio with Mindy Thomas (well, okay, she was in Washington, and we were in New York). On the way we talked about songwriting and made a list of things we’ve learned over the years. It’s not complete at all, and in no particular order, but here are a few.

1. Do it any way you can – like my mom used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”, and I’ll use any approach that might work. Someone speaks a line that sounds good, or has a deeper significance, and that might be what the song is built on. My song “I Wanna Play” came from an insistent third grader who wanted in on the playground game. Or not a spoken line, but an idea you want to talk about or story you want to tell. Or a melodic line – some little bit of melody you find yourself humming. Or just a rhythm track. Paul Simon said that with “Graceland” he approached songwriting in a completely different way than he ever had, using rhythms instead of melody or chord progressions. I figure a good songwriter has all those tricks in his/her bag.

2. Carry a notebook, because you’ll forget.

3.For Pete’s sake, don’t edit yourself before you’ve started. Tell the little voice in you that says you’re an idiot to go away while working on the song. Yes, your idea is a stupid one. So what? The heart of creativity is about wandering around in a non-juried space where you’re allowed to make connections or leaps of logic that don’t apparently make sense. If your critical mind is hanging around when you start, you’ll never get started. Tell it to shut up.

4. Create more than you think you’ll need – you can edit later. I usually write seven or eight verses of a song, then come back to three or four, sometimes combining. I read somewhere Dylan would write way too many verses, because he couldn’t help himself. So volume counts. And then….

5. Editing does have a place, and like they say, you’ll have to kill your babies. I often have a verse or phrase that I absolutely love, but it doesn’t fit in with the song. If I keep it it’s just an indulgence.

6.A lot of creative work gets done when you’re doing something else – approaching something obliquely often opens up a new avenue (again, the small minded internal critic isn’t paying attention). My friend Jon Campbell, a great songwriter, says he keeps the radio off in his car and makes up a lot of songs while he’s driving. He figures out the chords later. Folding laundry. Walking the dog. And of course, the shower, where I am often a genius, if I can remember what I was thinking when I get out.

7. The rhythm of a line is at least as important as any rhyming going on. When I work with songwriters, I often find them struggling with the line scanning – and it HAS to scan well, so it can sing well. Alliteration helps with making a good line to sing, too. So don’t ignore the awkward phrase that’s hard to get out of your mouth – you’ve got to fix it.

8. Stand on someone else’s shoulders. All songwriters refer back to other songs and songwriters in their work. Like Woody Guthrie said, “He stole from me, I stole from everyone.” And Elvis Costello, one of our best, regularly cops styles, hooks, and rhythms from other people’s songs. So try on someone else’s hat. I went to see Ray Davies last month in Chicago, and I was very struck by his chameleon-like abilities as a songwriter – this is a Stones song, this is a Beatles song, this song borrows from Brian Wilson, this is a disco song. Of course, they’re all his songs. One of my better moments as a songwriter was taking a lando rhythm from Afro-Peruvian music and wedding it to a chord progression from Marshall Crenshaw. The lyrics made it a list song, something I learned from Gershwin and Porter – “Everything is Music” is mine, but I used everything I had.

Just a bunch of ideas – what are yours?

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My pal Keith Munslow and I have foisted ourselves upon Mindy Thomas at Sirius/XM’s Kids Place Live with a song title contest. I’ve done this before myself (which is where “Barbie’s Head is Missing” came from) and it should be even more fun with Keith and Mindy involved.

Keith and I will be on Kids Place Live today at 4 pm (EST) if you’re a Sirius/XM subscriber. We’ll be talking about songwriting, sing some new songs (including something from my soon to be released “High Dive”. And we’ll be back in a couple of weeks. I’ll post some thoughts on songwriting as we go along.

The truth is, it’s usually easier to write when there’s something specific to write about. The teacher’s directions to “write about anything you want” is always enough to give a student brain freeze. So having someone else come up with a title is actually a help, as long as exactly what the song should be about is not prescribed. It’s like the first rule of improv, which is to take what’s offered and work from there. We’ll see.

You can enter the contest if you want on my page. And here’s a video of Keith and me kind of explaining ourselves.

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Len at work....


I must have been on vacation. I think I’m back. Here goes…

I always feel like I have to have a new story or song. It’s almost an obsession, or some character flaw. It can drive me crazy. And new stuff, when it works, is great. But the truth is, the stories and songs we’ve told and sung a million times have a value and purpose that newer material doesn’t have.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I did a show with my good buddy Len Cabral. When we got to the venue we looked at the room and set up the sound system as best we could. By the time of the show, we saw that it was going to be a small audience. We decided to work without the system and had the audience scoot their chairs (and butts) in as close as they could.

Len and I sat on chairs, which seemed to bring things even closer.

Len and I did a couple of things together, and then I did a new piece I’ve been working on. It went fine, but, as new pieces usually do, it had some rough edges. I got through it. The audience went with me, but the performance was mostly about my relationship with the story – trying to get it right and hoping the audience would come along.

Len told the Gunniwolf. If you tell stories to kids, there’s a good chance you know the story. It is a perfect story in many ways – repetition and rhyme, imminent danger and escape. I love telling it. But I really loved watching Len tell it – something happened in the middle of it that seemed transcendent to me. The story was a good one, but it was the relationship he had with the audience that made the performance wonderful.

There are three things in a performance – the performer, the audience, and the material. Depending on the kind of venue, the kind of performer, the kind of audience, and the kind of material, different things happen. In Len’s performance of the story, he was completely present with the audience, and the story was the medium he was using to develop the relationship. The kids and parents were waiting to find out what happened next, but mostly, they were being present in the room with Len. I have heard Len tell the story a number of times, and know where it’s going, but how it got there was truly delightful.

Because Len knew the story so well, he was completely relaxed in it and completely attentive to the audience. He asked questions of the audience, and demanded responses from them. When a kid gave an answer he praised them with words and a smile. I watched kids smile back, feeling honored. Len barely had to ask for participation – because he was fully committed, they were committed, too. It was as if Len was giving them permission to participate, rather than begging them to do so.

Len told me afterwards that when he can, he loves sitting in a chair, with people sitting as close as possible. His sitting in a chair is no sedentary experience – it’s an active intimacy.

One of the goals of my performance is to build a community, in that space, at that moment. The material – the song or story – is the vehicle used to accomplish that goal. The content of a piece can be important, of course, but the very act of being present with each other has its own purpose and value.

Too often, we demand something new and different. I want new material because it keeps me alive and active. But if the performer can keep an old story or song fresh and vibrant, things happen that won’t happen with new material.

There is a constant tug in performance, as in life, between being and becoming. New material honors becoming. An old tale, well told, is about being.

And it’s a good place to be.

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Sorry about the caesura, or hiatus, or whatever, in posts. You know… So here’s this.

I have an uneasy mind. It is restless, and wandering, and often ill-content. Those close to me know this. I would like to apologize to them. I am not easy to be around. As lucky as I am to have found something that gives me a lot of freedom, there’s a price paid for being in charge of myself. From afar, it seems pretty cool (and it is). Up close, well, it presents problems.

Every day, I wonder if I’m spending my time the way I’m supposed to be spending my time. What’s important? What matters? What can I get done? If someone graphed my psyche, or my emotional health, it would look like an oscillation between the Himalayas and the Marianas Trench off the coast of the Phillipines.

Every four hours.

Pretty ironic, considering how many people tell me they appreciate my work. Everyone should have the affirmation I receive. What a basket case I am!

But, then, that’s the way I am. It’s the brain chemistry, or the hand I’ve been dealt by nature, or nurture.

The release from all this comes in performance.

Before a show, regardless of the venue, I am VERY uneasy. Those around me know just to leave me alone. It could be a library show for fifty people, or some “performance venue” with a thousand paid audience members. It doesn’t make any difference. I want to do a good job. I wonder why I’m doing this. I always joke with the presenter – “I’ve changed my mind. I can’t do this.” But part of me is serious – I hate this. All the focus on me. Who do I think I am, anyway? I bite my tongue so I don’t whine. I hate everything on the set list. I decide that I should really just try some song or story that I barely know, then decide to go with what’s safe, then say, no, better to fail miserably.

I rarely walk out on stage with a set list cast in stone. I see too many different kinds of audiences to do that. A month ago, I walked out onto a formal stage, a big venue, for a family show, assuming there were a good number of kids, only to discover there were only four children (in the front row, hoping for something wacky) and everyone else had gray hair or none at all. I had prepared a set list. It didn’t match the audience.

I threw away the set list. Wing, wing, wing….

And I am left, then, to depend on instinct and the moment. After doing this long enough, things come to me (or don’t) about what the next piece is. Unfortunately, this discussion goes on while I’m performing a piece, which can keep me from being present in the piece I am performing. ONE SHOULD ALWAYS BE PRESENT IN THE PIECE BEING PERFORMED. THAT’S HOW GREAT THINGS HAPPEN. There is nothing more blessed in human existence than knowing what you are supposed to do.

But sometimes you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. What then?

I try to get it right. There is very little I can count on. Anywhere. Anytime. But the truth is, the one place I have some semblance of control is when I’m on stage. All these people have come to see me. (What were they thinking?) They have placed their lives in my hands, if only for sixty or seventy minutes. It is up to me to take care of them.

It is an awesome task (in the true sense of the word “awesome”). And it is also not that big a deal. Because I’m better when I just play with them, if I can get to that point.

For me, performance is cathartic, which defined loosely, means “emotionally cleansing”. (Love those Greeks.) Often, in the middle of the show, or towards the end, or maybe even after it’s finished, I can feel everything in me relax. My ever present, relentless mind shuts up. After a show, there is a sense of attainment – of forgiveness, of release. Whether it’s in the car driving home, or in the hotel room a thousand miles from home, or (if I’m lucky) with some friends, the internal dialogue stops for a little while. I have done my job. I’ve done what I could by the sweat of my brow and by my instinct. For that short time – a couple of hours – my being is at peace and I can accept who I am, gratefully and joyfully.

We should all be so lucky.

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I’m working on the list of songs for a family folk song album I’ll be recording this summer and am thinking back to the songs I liked to sing when I was in elementary school. One that I loved was a version of “The Titanic” I learned from other kids on the school bus. They learned it at camp.

“Oh they built the ship Titanic
And when they were all through
They thought they had a ship
That the water wouldn’t go through
But the Lord’s almighty hand
Said the ship would never stand
It was sad when the great ship went down

It was sad (so sad)
It was sad (so sad)
It was sad when the great ship went down (to the bottom of the…)
Husbands and wives
Little children lost their lives
It was sad when the great ship went down

And that’s just the start. It’s all downhill from there. There’s drinking (“the captain said, bring the whiskey from the hold!”) and class strife: “the rich refused to associate with the poor, so they put ‘em down below, where they were sure to go”.

I loved this song – very singable (great descant on “husbands and wives” when it goes to the dominant chord). And the story was so compelling – completely fascinating for an eight or nine year old. The lesson of hubris taught in four or five verses – the horror of the headlines put to melody. When I read “A Night to Remember” a year or two later, I already knew the broad outlines of the story and got more out of the book.

But – does it go on the recording? I’d like to put it there – I know many kids would love it – and grown-ups too, for that matter. But is this family fare? It would be (and was) for my family. But lot of families probably don’t want death and destruction on a family album, and I understand that. The three year old is listening with the nine year old.

“Who died?” comes the little voice from the car seat in the back.

“No one you know,” says the dad. “It’s just a song.” Hoping that is enough.

“Why did the ship sink?” the voice continues.

“It hit an iceberg.”

“Are there icebergs here? How many people died? Did we know them?”

An insistent voice, because, well, death is compelling. Who wants to explain it all to a four year old? Especially when you’re tired at bedtime.

But I also know that putting these things in the context of a song presents them in a way that people can look at them. Children deal with mortality and hubris, loss and injustice all the time, and songs like “Titanic” give them a framework to begin to think those things through.

And who’s going to sing those songs if we don’t? Is it all rainbows and ponies?

I don’t have the answer to this question, but I have to answer it in the next couple of weeks. At least for this recording.

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