Archive for the ‘singer/songwriter’ Category

I got an e-mail from a friend of mine, Ted Warmbrand, of Tucson AZ (one of the great song encyclopedists of our country) that Salvador Cardenal Barqero had died. I pause for a long moment at his passing in appreciation of who he was.

Salvador was a singer and songwriter, half of the brother/sister duo Guardabarranco from Nicaragua, that was at the heart of the nueva cancion (new song) movement in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution there and during the aftermath, when the US government was determined to subvert the changes that these well-meaning, hopeful people were hoping to bring to their poor, struggling country. Whatever the Sandinistas and Daniel Ortega have done recently (straying from the vision that brought them to power), that moment in Central American history was singular and hopeful regarding what we might be. Guardabarranco and Salvador’s songs were at the very heart of that hope.

Their songs played in our car and house continuously for several years. What was most striking about Salvador’s songwriting was his commitment not just to a politics of justice, but to all people and especially to the Earth. He was a Sandinista in the eighties because he looked at the planet and imagined the possibility that we might live in harmony with it. As a writer of nueva cancion, he was unafraid to see and say what was in his heart – the vulnerability of lyrics in Spanish is something that’s hard to duplicate in English. He has some line, somewhere, in which he sings that his love is a wave crashing on the beach. That is a hard line to write in English today (we are so unromantic), but the Hispanic world embraces this kind of sentiment. His love for the Earth was communicated beautifully in his work.

From Dias del Amar:

Vienan ya dias de amar
La casa que habitar
Dias de amar, la tierra vegetal
Flor y animal
Vienen ya rios con aqua sin envenar
Agua que beben los que tenen sed
Vienen ya bosques pulmones de la gran ciudad
Selvas que amaran noches de paz
Que hacian falta a la humanidad

In English (roughly, my translation)

Still to come are days of love for
The house you live in
Days to love the world of plants
Flowers and animals
Still to come are rivers of water without poison
Water to drink for those who are thirsty
As you are
Still to come are the great breathing lungs of a city,
Forests that love the nights of peace
Needed, missing by humanity

I met Salvador briefly. He was, as some artists are, tough to be around. I arranged for a concert for him here in Providence. They showed up and Katia was sick as a dog – I don’t know how she got though the night at Stone Soup Coffeehouse. They stayed at our house, one night far away from home, on a very demanding tour. He smoked cigarettes in the house after we asked him not to. He ruined our favorite frying pan when he made some frittata he insisted on making. He begged our forgiveness for his transgressions, depending on his charisma to get him through. Sitting at breakfast, I sang him a song I had just written, and he made one very slight suggestion about the melody, which turned it from a pedestrian one into a memorable one. He could do that. He was gifted and tortured, and wonderful and he will be missed.

Here’s a video of that song “Dias de Amar” (sorry about the lack of accents in the Spanish, folks).
I’m glad he was here.


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This week in my day at Paul Cuffee School, I wrote and recorded a song with each second grade class. This may sound fairly impressive, but it’s really a pretty straightforward process if you remember to keep it simple. The songs will not make the hit parade, and in fact, unless they’re sung at an all school meeting, probably won’t be heard outside the classroom where they were created. But they have a real value within that classroom.

I told the kids that I wanted them to write a song about their class and the things they did in it. The first thing we did was brainstorm as many different things about their class as they could think of. They started with general things you could say about almost any class – we like our teacher (always a good thing to say!), we study math, we have recess. But I pushed them to come up with things that made their class different. Someone said, “We study the arctic!” Someone said, “The other classes study the arctic too!” Everyone nodded in agreement. Now they were thinking.

In Rob Pike’s class someone said, “We have worms and flies!” Then they explained that they were growing worms and turning garbage into soil by having the worms pooping. Interestingly enough, the word “pooping” didn’t send anyone into paroxysms of laughter – Mr Pike had discussed the virtues of worm poop enough that it seemed like an everyday thing. Which it is.

There was a discussion about popcorn parties. Mr. Pike uses some simple behavior mod in the class, adding shells to a jar when a good thing happens in the class. When the jar is full, there’s a popcorn party. That was different from other classes.

With those discussions things got more specific, and we had material to work with.

I saved a lot of time in the songwriting process by using the melody of a song everyone already knew. In Rob Pike’s class, I used “This Little Light of Mine”. In Donna Raymond’s, we used “Aiken Drum,” and in Sarah Rich’s, we used “This Land is Your Land.” Having a melody and song structure already set up made it a lot easier to get the kids thinking like songwriters. When they would come up with a line they wanted to use, we had to find a way to fit in the correct number of beats. This can be pretty challenging (even for people who call themselves songwriters), and the kids need some help on this – they began to learn if the rhythm was right or wrong and could identify the difference, but needed help in finding the right phrasing.

Everytime we found a phrase that worked we wrote it down on the flip chart and sang it – the kids got more excited as they saw the song take shape.

I should add here that songs like “Aiken Drum” or “This Little Light” are great ones for beginning songwriting, since all the kids need is one good line, which gets repeated three times, and a finishing line that is the name of the song. There’s not a need to worry about rhyming in this structure – the kids an focus on content and rhythm

We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
Playing and learning every day

After that general line, we moved on to truly unique ones like:

“We have slimy worms, pooping in our class”
“We have popcorn parties when the shell jar’s full”
and my favorite
“We’re all different colors, we don’t really care”

Like I said, not rocket science, but the kids began to understand how the process worked. I’m not completely happy with the last line (“Playing and learning every day”)– they were having trouble saying everything they wanted to say, and I suggested it in the interests of time– it’s pretty trite and it’s my fault. I really try to have the kids not settle for a line that is untrue or doesn’t quite fit in the rhythm of the line.

“This Land is Your Land” is more challenging, because rhyming is necessary, and to be strict with the rhyme, you have to find three words that rhyme, and that can leave you with some lines not quite perfect
In our class, we have a sail (on the wall as a backdrop)
We study fish, we study whales
We work so hard, we never fail
This class was made for you and me

Here, I wasn’t so happy with the “never fail” line, but a kid suggested it and everyone liked it – of course they fail sometimes, we all fail, but… And it was pretty interesting brainstorm words that rhyme with “class”. I stopped that discussion.

So, in twenty minutes we had come up with a bunch of lines that scanned. We sang it through a couple of times. And then, the beauty of software. I set my laptop up on the chair I’d been sitting on, turned on Garage Band, sat on the floor with the kids and we all sang the song together. The microphone built into my computer was completely adequate for what we were doing. My voice is too present, but with such a short period of time, I figured the kids needed my voice as a guide and prompt. A couple more run throughs and they could have sung it on their own. And probably are. We recorded a couple of takes, I listened back at lunchtime, chose one, and burned it to a cd. The kids were excited and wanted to sing it for the whole school.

The benefits of this kind of thing include the sense of accomplishment the class feels in doing something together, the growing awareness of who they are as a group of people, and a tool for them to use in the weeks and months ahead – a song they can sing.

And, like I said, this is not rocket science – it’s something a teacher could do, even without a guitar. if you’re worried about your voice, listen to mine on the recording. Muffin Man, Skip to My Lou, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – any familiar melody with a simple lyric structure works. With more time, classes are capable of more complex subjects, structures, and language. But this is a good place to start. Here’s the song I wrote with Mr. Pike’s class:

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My friend David Holt gave me a recording by Danny Ellis, called “800 Voices”. It is truly gorgeous. Danny is an incredible songwriter and singer from Ireland, now living in the States, and the album documents his childhood growing up in the Artane Brothers Christian School, an infamous orphanage in Ireland and a very, very tough place to be a kid. The songs are both personal and universal, and prove how art is some kind of alchemical process, turning pain into something beautiful. Here’s a live performance of one of the songs, “Tommy Bonner”. I’m listening to his album everywhere I go. Like David told me, try to listen to the whole thing through at once.

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When you’re sitting in class, There’s a tickle in your nose
Then you let out a sneeze and it finally explodes
You look down at your hand, It’s all covered with that goo,
Don’t wipe it anywhere, You know what to do!

You gotta wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos)
Wash your hands (lávate las manos).

I wrote this song several years ago for the Paul Cuffee School, and have just recorded it for the upcoming flu season. NPR’s All Things Considered played it on Monday with an accompanying story on the swine flu.

You can have it for free! Go here to listen and download.

We decided to not worry about money ( What, me worry?) and do what we could do to get the song out there before the H1N1 virus comes back with a vengeance. The Massachusetts Department of Health is distributing it to schools, and we’re happy to give permission to other schools, organizations and agencies if they wish to do so. Contact our office (michele@billharley.com) or call 508-336-9703.

And please spread the word to friends and families that we’re making this offer. If you need a physical CD for your local radio station let us know – our WONDERFUL CD duplicators, Oasis, have generously donated the manufacture of a number of CD’s for us to distribute.

It seems ridiculous to repeat this, but one of the greatest deterrents to the spread of communicable diseases is handwashing.
In order of importance (I know this now, since I seem to be involved with various Departments of Health!)
1) Get vaccinated
2) Cover your cough
3) Wash your hands
4) Stay home when you’re sick

If you need me to write you an excuse from work, let me know.

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I’ve never been very good at explaining myself when asked what I do. On airplanes, or at arts receptions, or standing in line at the checkout counter. “What do you do?” they ask. I’m a storyteller, I say. (Pretty weird!) Or a songwriter. Or an author. But not exactly any of those things. Whatever I answer, there’s usually some interest, and then they ask “Who do you perform/write/sing for?”

Then I take a breath.

“I work with kids,” I say.

Their response to my answer is a litmus test, of sorts. A noticeable few become excited, But often, when I say that, I get a polite nod and a general lessening of interest on the part of my conversational partner.

“That’s nice,” they say, “You must like children.”

I nod. I do, generally, like children

Then they go back to their magazine, or sauvignon blanc, or swiss chard. Sometimes it’s like I have the plague.

When that happens I often feel what many people who work with children, either as teachers, or day care providers, or maybe even pediatricians.

Nice work, but not very, um substantial, or weighty. Or important. I couldn’t find anything else to do.

While lip service is paid to “our future”, most work with children is devalued. It’s not serious enough – it’s what you do if you can’t cut it with adults. If you do it, you’re not as intellectually agile as someone who’s writing books, or songs for adults or teaching grad students. And your work is less important, too.

Oh well.

I usually enjoy saying, “I work with kids.” I’m proud of it. But honestly, the most dangerous, cutting voice of all the ones who deliver this subtle message is the one in my own head. Regardless of where I first heard it, I carry the message in myself, wondering if I’m doing this because I couldn’t succeed in some other world.

Thinking this way is a loser’s game, and I know it. Most of the people I know doing good work for children and families – as teachers, as writers, as counselors, as doctors – are continually challenging themselves to do the best work they can do. And many of them are working with children because they’ve consciously chosen to throw their lot in with the least, and in their hope for the future.

The adult world is, often, eminently disappointing. It’s in working with kids that we find a freedom of expression and immediacy we don’t experience with the older set. One of the things that has always struck me about those who work with young people is that they are offering their lives to the future – it’ not about them, it’s about the person they’re serving. And they probably won’t see the results of their work.

That’s a pretty mature approach to life, it seems to me. Pretty weighty, too. More weighty than, say, the approach of a derivative trader. Although those guys do wear ties.

The voice inside me questioning my work sometimes wins out, but I remember making my decision consciously about working with younger people and the ones around them. I could have traded bonds if I wanted, I guess. Well, maybe not.

Okay, sometimes when people ask, I don’t confess. I have a lot of different answers. Because I do work with all kinds of people – adults included.

But I may be at my best when I look whoever asks me square in the eye (even if it’s looking in the bathroom mirror) and say it.

“I work with kids.”

Whatever they think about my answer is their problem.

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The artiste scouting the opposition - note the crafty disguise

The artiste scouting the opposition - note the crafty disguise

Several years ago, I did a show on a Sunday afternoon in late fall at some library in central New Jersey (nope, can’t remember where). There were a couple of hundred people there – a pretty good turnout for a library. The show went really well. I had a great time, and so did the audience.

Still, as I drove home in the late afternoon, headed up the New Jersey Turnpike, I lamented that there weren’t more people there. I was sure there were people in the area that would have really enjoyed it if they had bothered to come.

I thought these thoughts as I approached the Meadowlands stadium. From the highway, I could see the lights were on. The Giants or the Jets were playing. I could almost hear the roar of the crowd from several miles away. Seventy thousand people, some of them so far away from the field they would need good binoculars to have any idea of what was going on down there.

What’s that about? Stupid football, I thought.

“Surely,” I said out loud to no one, “there are five hundred people there who would have had a better time at my show. Somebody there is miserable and cold and hates football and detests the drunk person next to them. They should have come to see me. It would have meant more.”

I know it would have meant more to me than to whomever the tight end was for the New York Jets.

I’ve often thought that about the arts – why don’t we attract audiences like sporting events? How do we get people in the seats?

The issue of getting audiences into arts events is a very large question with many different aspects, but as far it relates to the question of why arts don’t get the crowds sports do, I got a little bit of an answer this week at Fenway Park.

My wife Debbie got me tickets for the Red Sox for my birthday. We go to, maybe, one game a year. It’s expensive, it’s a hassle. I can watch it on television. I’m annoyed at the hoopla and adulation and egos and expenditure of public funds. Sports fans can be real idiots, mistaking their team’s victory for some personal accomplishment, and thinking it actually has something to do with what God thinks about.


But they were great seats. The best seats I’ve ever had for a Red Sox game. (I don’t want to know how much they cost – it was my birthday). You might have even seen me on TV – I was wearing a clown wig and holding up “John 3:16”.

Just kidding.

There were, as usual at Fenway, over 37,000 people there. As there were the night before, and the night after that. Eighty two times a summer – 37,000 people.

Crowd at a typical Bill Harley concert, er, I mean Red Sox game

Crowd at a typical Bill Harley concert, er, I mean Red Sox game

It’s just a baseball game, for Pete’s sake!


But it was a great game. The crowd was a huge living thing and I was part of it. In spite of myself. What struck me about the crowd, too, was how expressive and emotional they were. More so than at any arts event I’ve been to lately. We talked with everyone around us. We laughed. And we sat at the edge of our seats. We all rose as one when Ortiz hit a HUGE home run, and stood as one when Papelbon, after almost blowing a save, struck out the last batter. It was, while not of great importance, a cathartic experience, and we left completely satisfied.

Of course, it helped that it was close and the Sox won. Some games are realllllly borrrrrring.

But I think this is one of the reasons that many people go: We don’t know what’s going to happen.

I am struck by the notion that athletes don’t know what’s going to happen either. They are acting out a drama to which there is no known outcome. They don’t know if they’re going to get a hit, or if the catcher will throw them out when they try to steal second, or if the game will go into extra innings and they won’t finish until two in the morning. They are trying to do things that are hard to do, and they might fail. In front of 37,000 people.

And, maybe even more interestingly, they are not trying to make the audience feel anything (and the arts is about the communication of feeling and ideas). All they’re trying to do is succeed. And we watch and feel ourselves. While the game (or agon in the Classical sense – from which we get the agony of defeat!) doesn’t matter – the striving is real. We sense their tension and anticipation and despair and joy. And we feel it, too. And all those other people feeling a similar thing encourage it in us. We are, after all, a group animal. Suddenly, we care.

I’m not saying this never happens in arts – it’s what performers are always working towards – when a group of musicians reach some kind of communion that raises their performance to another level, or an acting troupe presents something in a way they’ve never quite done before, the audience senses and is deeply moved. But it’s harder to reach it, and there’s a critical aspect of our minds that must be dealt with and overcome.

As a performer, I’m always aware, challenging myself to be so present, so much in the moment, that I bring the audience along. And I want them to experience something together –as a group.

Sports has an easier time of that.

Yeah, Springsteen can fill the Meadowlands with 70,000 people. He’s a great performer – maybe, to my mind, the best performer out there. But even the Boss couldn’t do it eight times in the space of three months.

There’s a lot of reasons why, but one of them is that the drama of sports is real.


Don’t get me wrong. I love my job.

But second base for the Red Sox would be good, too. Let me know if Pedroia gets hurt.

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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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