Archive for June, 2009

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had a half dozen reminders of the purpose and power of people singing together. Since I get paid to stand in front of people and sing by myself, I realize the inherent paradox. But, really, singing together is what people have always done. There’s less of it today – we leave it to the “professionals” (me?) and forget that we’re happier and healthier if we open up our mouths and belt it out with the people around us. This has nothing to do with virtuosity, or perfect pitch, or being a soprano or alto or whatever. It has to do with being human.

A couple of Mondays ago I got together with a half dozen songleaders in Providence for unisong, organized by Jodi Glass. People worked with the songleaders of their choice for twenty minutes, then we all met for the “performance” – for no one but us. It was a blast. I led two songs I don’t generally sing – “Run Come See, Jerusalem”, which I had learned from my pal Derek Burrows, and “Wild Mountain Thyme” – the perfect beginning of summer song.

After that experience I got a hold of a recording I’ve been meaning to get for years – the Folkways recording of Pete Seeger’s Singalong Concert at Sanders Theater in 1980. It’s Pete at the height of his powers as a song leader, and a textbook for people interested in leading songs. What I’ve learned from Pete is that teaching the song is part of the performance, and also more than half the fun. When you hear a thousand people singing together, it’s pretty impressive.

Last Monday, I sang at the last town meeting for Paul Cuffee School – we sang a bunch of songs we all knew. The fifth graders even sang, knowing it was the last time they were going to get a chance to do it. I’ve sung the same songs with them for six years, and that day, with everyone singing, it felt good and right.

Last, I was lucky enough to be a performer at the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, NY last weekend, and sat in the “audience” for sessions on shape note singing (a form of choral singing popular in nineteenth century America) and gospel. You get goosebumps all over being part of it, and it’s not about having a “professional voice”. In a large group, individual voices can be heard, but questions of pitch, vocal quality, and even singing the right words become less important – it all gets mixed up together. What I’m most struck by in these experiences is that people are a group animal, and singing is an expression and fostering of community.

All of this was in my mind many years ago when I managed to talk a bunch of singers and activists to make a recording of Freedom Songs from the Civil Rights Movement, I’m Gonna Let it Shine. We were in a retreat center for three days and recorded, a capella, twenty songs. There, in that cold barn in April, voices joined together into something that was almost holy.

Here’s a song from that session, “Get On Board” with Chuck Neblett, one of the original Freedom Singers, leading. Click 01 Get On Board, Children.

All this reinforces my resolve to get audiences to sing more. It’s a better show when everyone is part of it.


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I have, with some sense of pathetic entitlement, long considered Father’s Day the Great Afterthought in the American holiday calendar. The week before Mother’s Day, I’m down on my knees, begging my sons to do something nice for their mother; I will be held accountable for all their failings.

Father’s Day is different.

It seems Scotts Lawn Products is the only group of people really excited that there is a special day just for me.

Perhaps, towards the end of the day, I will be handed a folded-over piece of white paper – a hastily scribbled note with a no.4 accounting pencil.

Or – something maybe you’ve received – a piece of clay, bearing the imprint of a body part of one of my children, reminding me that they will grow up and I will be sorry for all the unkindnesses I have done to them.

Or perhaps a book of tickets I can cash in at any time for things I like to do: “Take me to the ice cream store” “Take me to the movie” “Take me for a piece of pizza”.

Still, I understood where I fit – until a couple of years ago when my younger son returned from college sometime early in May. I thought this was a little early for him to be back on our meal plan, but, hey, I was happy to see him.

Not so happy to see his clothes.

A whole year of unwashed clothes (this deserves a whole essay by itself, but…) appeared in his room. A mountain of sullied laundry. I couldn’t even see if he was in his bed, which he was most of the daytime hours.

I have always tried to ignore what my sons’ rooms look like – it is a losing battle, and you have to pick ones you have a chance of winning. But the clothes had that sickening sweet smell of fermented testosterone – it spread throughout the second floor and began to make its way down the stairs.

“What are you cooking?” friends would ask.

“You don’t want to know,” I said.

The clothes also began to grow, or move, or something. I found themselves insinuating themselves into the hallway. They looked like they were headed for our bedroom. If they joined with mine, there would be real trouble. And it would be my fault.

So after a week or two I asked him if he might clean them up.

“Sure, Dad, yeah, right,” he said.

I asked again and again, always meeting with agreement but no action. I suspected I had returned to being background noise in his personal soundtrack – the typical position held by a parent’s desperate pleas.

Until I hatched an idea. Father’s Day was approaching!

“Hey, Dylan,” I said, trying to exorcise any whining that my voice might contain. “Maybe for Father’s Day, you could clean up your clothes. ”

“Sure, Dad, yeah, right,” he comforted.

Then, 11:30 pm on Father’s Day Eve (I know, I know – those words have never been spoken or written together before), Dylan woke me up out of sound sleep. He knelt by my bedside and shook my arm.

“Hey, Dad, don’t look out the window until the morning.”

“Don’t look out the window until the window until the morning.”

He left. Now I was wide-awake for hours, staring at the ceiling, wondering what diabolical thing lay out in my back yard.

The sun rises early on Father’s Day. I got out of bed and looked out the window onto our back lawn.

There they were. All of them. Pants. Socks. T-shirts. Sweat Shirts. Underwear. Spread across the back yard.

I forgot to mention Dylan is an artist. It was a public art installment. He had arranged them into words.

“Happy Pappy Day”

Dirty Clothes as Art

Dirty Clothes as Art

I was so touched. I told him so about 3:30 that afternoon when he got up.

“I’ve been planning it for a long time,” he said.

I guess.

That evening at dinner, I asked him if he could gather the clothes up now.

“Sure, Dad, yeah, right,” he consoled me.

The art stayed there for three days, when I finally whined enough for me to exceed the signal to noise ratio occupied by background interference. He picked them up, muttering about his father under his breath. But even then, the message was there to remind me that he thinks of me, since the grass underneath the clothes had died. It had died and gone brown, either from lack of sunlight, or that sickening sweet odor of…oh, forget it.

Just one more caution to be careful what you wish for.

Happy Father’s Day.

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My friend Marcy Marxer makes it a point to let people know about musicians and music she likes, figuring we need each other to spread the word, since the music industry seems to be crumbling all around us (not that I’ve ever been much part of it, anyway).

So here’s my current favorite song, which I’ve been singing at some shows. My friend Peter Fieweger, college roommate and brewmaster extraordinaire in Farmington, Mexico, gave me an album when I was out there last fall. I flew from there to Rapid City South Dakota, headed to Brookings, SD for some school shows. I got in my rental car as the sun was setting and started driving north (past DeSmet, home of the Little House on the Prairie). I was homesick, and it was a lonely, beautiful landscape – open plains, late September, cerulean sky, with the stars turning on their lights one by one. I put in the cd and listened. At the third song, I pushed the rewind button and played it again. And again. And again. Trying to figure out what it was about – caught by the mood and music and the message which revealed itself more with each play. There I was on the Great Plains in South Dakota, listening to a story about a Native kid being sent to a state Indian school in South Dakota, missing her father. It was as close as I get to a religious experience. I listened to it a dozen times in a row, and am still I love with the song – and I love singing it, too.

The song is called Pony, by Diana Jones, on her killer album My Remembrance of You. ( Buy it.) Here’s a youtube performance of it.

I thought of my friend Dovie Thomason,  Lakota/Kiowa storyteller, and her stories about her father and the Indian schools. Last night, I sang it in Johnson City, Tennessee, and my friend Peter Cook, a tremendous teller from Chicago, told me it mirrored his experiences in a deaf school growing up. How many other folks, put in some place they don’t want to be, taken from their families?

It’s not a kid’s song, or course, even though it’s about a kid. But I sang it at Paul Cuffee School this spring when the sachem from the Narragansett tribe came for a visit. The room grew quieter and quieter. The fifth graders understood, the first graders knew it was about something very important and listened with eyes and ears open wide.

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Childhood forces unite!

Childhood forces unite!

I know I promised to post every Friday. I was traveling, and…, oh forget it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the lives of children away from the world of adults. As someone who tries to document children’s lives through stories, I’ve always been interested in the places where adult supervision is missing or minimal. The back of the bus, the boy’s bathroom, the cafeteria, recess on the playground, camping out in the backyard – in those places we tend to see a different side of people, and we see them experimenting with the world. It’s no accident that most great children’s literature is about the lives of children away from, or counterposed to, the adult world.

You could call this geography the private world of children – it’s a world that we as adults look back on with nostalgia while at the same time try to limit.  It is a more interesting world, although a bit more dangerous.

The secret lives of children are certainly more constricted today than ever before. This world of children, what we call play, has been invaded by adults. I’m part of that invasion, and try to be sensitive to that in my work. Adults spend a lot of time trying to corral play so that 1) children will learn something we think they should learn 2) they will not be hurt and 3) they won’t destroy anything.   Some of that is honorable, or at least understandable, but there’s something lost every time we insert ourselves into their worlds.  Freedom is dangerous, but it also leads to growth. We’re always trying to teach them something on our terms, when they are also capable of learning and living on their own.

Richard Louv talks about this eloquently in relation to the world of nature in his book Last Child in the Woods; children’s experience with nature has been restricted by the shrinking areas of open space, adult’s ever more constricting sense of “property”, the increased regimentation of children’ lives, and the addictive lure of inside activities. Consequently, nature is a foreign world to many young people.

Today, the only place where many children interact with their peers is in schools. But now even the little private places in schools are being limited. I have a friend whose son, a third grader, has no recess during the school day. More instructional hours have been mandated, and many schools cut out recess because they’re worried about liability. Once again, if kids ask why, we tell them it’s for their own good. That is dishonest. It might be good for learning some math concept (even that is arguable), but I’m not sure it’s good for the kid

Another reason for this invasion of the private lives of children is the adult’s interest in selling them something. We create games, or tv shows, or computer programs that we try to get them to want so we can make money– the “tweener” market is a billion dollar enterprise today, and it didn’t exist thirty years ago. It’s weird that the children don’t know playground games from their peers or older siblings – I can teach them, and I do, but it’s not the same as learning it from another kid.  Nobody makes money from hopscotch.

In Ways of Telling, interviews with children’s authors by Leonard Marcus, Rosemary Wells says,  that when she was young:

Children had a world of their own making, and if it wasn’t always fair it didn’t matter because that’s how it was, and they learned a lot from the experience. Adults didn’t listen to their rhymes. Nobody cared. But now children’s culture has been completely taken over by television. And so no, children don’t know the old rhymes the way the used to. They know commercials instead. And they don’t make up their own rhymes the way the used to either.
One of the scariest aspects of all this is that commercial culture has taken over what I like to call the “popular crowd” or peer group. Everybody has to wear Gap clothes, or whatever the fad is, because television has taken over what’s cool. It’s not that you didn’t have to be cool when I was growing up. Everybody wanted to be cool. But it wasn’t quite so in your face or so early. Now there is very little childhood left. The more time that is spent in front of a screen, the les childhood. We’re ending up with children who are well trained in materialism.

As a performer for children, I carry this knowledge in me, and try to rededicate my work to honoring the emotional lives of children,  making space for them to live their own lives, away from too much meddling on the part of grownups. And while it’s depressing to think about this constriction of childhood, I am also confident children will find a way to subvert whatever structures we give them, using them for their own purpose of establishing autonomy.  Howard Chudacoff talks about this in his interesting book Children at Play: An American History. We give them educational toys like blocks, and then they used them as missiles to knock down some other educational toy that is supposed to teach math. We get them a computer, and they use the box as a fort to escape our prying eyes. We give them Barbie dolls, and they pull their heads off and string them together as a necklace.

That is, I think, the human spirit at work. Even if it’s a little messy, we as adults need to give some space for that expression.

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