Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Black History Month: Valaida Snow

Ok, so I'm officially starting Black History Month early (February's a short month, anyway!) All February, I'll be focusing on African American musicians and writers for my Monday book post & Wednesday music post. If you missed Monday's post on the Jubilee Singers, you can catch up here.

To me, Valaida Snow is one of the most interesting musicians of the 1920's & 30's. She was an incredibly talented trumpet player and arranger and had perfect pitch and impeccable timing. The only thing was, girls didn't play in the brass section in those days. It was considered improper, vulgar, far from feminine.

But Valaida had loads of talent and perseverence. She spent years playing in all-girl bands that were ridiculed or hired only as novelty acts, sleeping on floors and getting kicked out of club after club because of her race, her gender, or both. Eventually, she became quite a celebrity (complete with a lavender car and a pet monkey!) and began to spend most of her time touring in Asia and Europe, where many African American musicians found a friendlier social climate than they experienced in the U.S.

Louis Armstrong famously called Valaida Snow the 2nd best trumpet player in the world (next to himself, of course!)

The end of her life is a bit of a tragic mystery. The story I've always heard is that when World War II began and many African Americans in Europe began returning to the U.S. to avoid the Nazi regime, Valaida chose to stay, and in 1940 was detained in a concentration camp in Denmark for two years (this is the story that Valaida stuck to her whole life.) Well, yesterday I was browsing Wikipedia, and they tell quite a different story. Further research on the subject has shown that either story is plausible and could have happened, though no one seems to have any real evidence either way. By any account, she was never the same afterwards. She tried to return to performing, but with very little success and energy.

A good place to begin with Valaida Snow's music is Hot Snow: Queen of Trumpet and Song...it's a great 2 disc set of Valaida Snow's work. Her combination of trumpet playing and singing is full of joy, pizazz, and energy. If you like swing music, I think you'll love it!

A couple random sites with Valaida Snow biographies:
Valaida Snow: Queen of the Trumpet (audio program)
Nina Mae McKinney's "Valaida Snow: The Real Queen of Jazz"

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Band of Angels: The Jubilee Singers

I know I just wrote about a children's book last Monday, but I picked up A Band of Angels (by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Raul Colon) this weekend, and with Black History Month starting this week, I just had to tell you about it.

A Band of Angels is a fictional account based on the real story of the Jubilee Singers. The Jubilee Singers began as a 9-member choral ensemble at Fisk University (the very first American university open to African-Americans). When the school, only 5 years after opening, was in dire financial straits and in danger of closing down, the Jubilee Singers went on the road to raise money for the school. They were the first group to publicly perform slave songs and spirituals, and were often met with extreme hostility. But they kept singing, and eventually made enough money to build Jubilee Hall, the first permanent building on Fisk University's campus.

I've been interested in the Jubilee Singers for a long time, and I was so happy to find a beautifully executed book like this to introduce their story to children. The first time I visited Nashville, I took a pilgrimage to Jubilee Hall at Fisk University. I had that hushed, hold-your-breath feeling you get when you walk into an ordinary building on an ordinary street where very extraordinary things have happened. This book captures that feeling, and besides that...it makes you want to sing!
Read more about the Jubilee Singers
PBS's The American Experience 1999 film & website about the Jubilee Singers
The Current Jubilee Singers

Friday, January 26, 2007

Grab Bag Friday: Making Messes with Chinaberry

First of all, have you seen this catalog?!!!!

A friend of mine gave me a copy of hers a few months back. I don't know that I've ever picked up a catalogue where I have wanted nearly everything inside. Started by a mom in Oregon, each item is handpicked and tested on kids & families: books, family games, neat gadgets like a little kit to make homemade vanilla! How's this for a lovely (if slightly mushy) mission statement:

Chinaberry offers items to support families in raising their children with love, honesty and joy to be reverent, loving caretakers of each other and the earth.
Ok, absolutely mushy, but they really do make sure everything in the catalogue promotes a sense of wonder and beauty and joy. So if you haven't seen it, definitely check it out. Their website is terrific & easy to navigate, but I still signed up for the paper copy. There's just something about turning real pages that I love.

But anyway. I did not start this post to gush about Chinaberry. I started it to give you a link to Janet's lovely piece about the value of making messes. It's very much inline with the Rachel Carson theme of encouraging children's "sense of wonder." We're so busy and so pressed for time and energy, that many times we discourage kids from doing things that will inconvenience us, when really we're all missing out. My mother used to put newspaper down on the ground and take the lid off the popcorn popper and let us all fly around the kitchen trying to catch the popcorn in the air. Now tell me she didn't spend weeks (probably months) finding popcorn in all the little nooks and crannies of the kitchen! But it is one of my most fun, carefree memories of childhood and it taught me that letting loose a little is ok. And my mom apparently thought it was worth the mess...with 6 kids, she probably needed to let loose just as much as we did!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Anita O'Day: Let Me Off Uptown

One of my all-time favorite singers passed away in 2006. Anita O'Day has been an absolute inspiration to me...she had perfect timing, an ear for melodic twists and rhythmic tweaks that make you smile every time, a style that seemed effortless and laid back, but was fiercely aggressive and never let up. You hear her music and you can't help but hear the fun she had just singing! When I was younger, I wanted to grow up to be a singer just like her, and I was constantly disappointed that I missed out on the Big Band Era.

Most of my favorite Anita O'Day songs are the ones that she performed with the Gene Krupa Orchestra. Let Me Off Uptown: The Best of Anita O'Day is a good compilation of that era and covers some of my favorites from "Skylark" to "Drumboogie" and of course "Let Me Off Uptown."

Interesting Anita O'Day fact: when Anita was a young girl, a doctor accidentally cut off her uvula while removing her tonsils. (As Ms. O'Day once described it...when a cartoon opera singer opens their mouth to sing, and you see the fleshy piece in the back of the throat that hangs down and vibrates around...that's the uvula.) Because of this medical error, she had a very small range and hardly any vibrato at all. One of the things I love about her singing is that she makes the most of simplicity. You don't need 20 notes, you just need one or two very cool notes, perfectly placed. And of course, those were her strengths. Choosing wisely. Perfect placement.

You can listen to Anita O'Day singing "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Don't Be That Way" on NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library
There are lots of interesting audio clips from interviews with Anita O'Day on Jazz Profiles from NPR
For more info, please visit The Official Anita O'Day Website

Monday, January 22, 2007

Barbara Helen Berger: When the Sun Rose

This is a bold statement, but I think Barbara Helen Berger's When the Sun Rose is my favorite picture book of all time.

It is a very simple, short, sweet story about two friends spending the day together, but the images and words are so striking and beautiful, you immediately get completely swept up. I've used this book in a number of my Songwriting for Kids classes, and each time I turn the page, there is a quiet intake of breath from the whole group. Ms. Berger is a master at creating a sense of wonder.

It seems that when I walk into the kids section in a bookstore, I am just bombarded by books that are trying to grab my attention with as many bright colors, images, action, and glitz as they possibly can (check out Fuse #8's great September review of Not a Box for more on this topic). So I love it when I come across a book that leaves me with a sense of calm and wonder. When the Sun Rose is a rare and breathtaking example of this. Take your time with each page, absorbing each one...I guarantee you will close the book feeling refreshed and renewed. It is a great gift.

Now here's the bad news: this book is out of print. You can still find a few used copies on Amazon or at AbeBooks.com. But check your library, and if they don't have it, get it on interlibrary loan. Do what you have to do, but find this book. And if you happen to run into dead ends all around, check out Barbara Helen Berger's Grandfather Twilight instead (a perfect bedtime book which deserves a blog post all its own...so stay tuned).

For more about Barbara Helen Berger and her beautiful work, visit her official website.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Grab Bag Friday: NEW! Songwriting for Kids Website


Sorry for the late post today. I've been at Harpswell Islands School today doing Songwriting for Kids workshops with their 2nd-5th graders. It was a blast! So I thought today would be a good day to feature my brand new website for Songwriting for Kids. I hope you'll visit soon!

Things to do at SongwritingForKids.com:

  • Listen to music

  • Create in the Activity Room

  • Enter the I Wrote A Hit Song! contest

  • View photos

  • Register for 2007 workshops

  • Learn about hosting Songwriting for Kids

  • Sign the Guestbook & join the email list!

  • Wednesday, January 17, 2007

    Sounds Eclectic: Nic Harcourt's Best of 2006

    Ever since I was in high school and discovered Rare on Air, Vol. 1, I have been addicted to the very cool, uber-hip, eclectic music selections of KCRW and Nic Harcourt. KCRW is arguably one of the hippest college radio stations in the country, and Nic Harcourt has been called "the country's most important disc jockey" by the New York Times Magazine.

    On his shows, Morning Becomes Eclectic and Sounds Eclectic, he interviews and features musicians like Norah Jones, Damien Rice, Pete Yorn, Jem, David Gray, Dido, Sigur Ros, Starsailor and Coldplay (usually well before anyone else has even heard about them). And every year, he puts together a playlist of some of his favorite songs that have been featured on his show. You can listen to his picks for the eclectic indie music of 2006 here. Some of the songs are live, in-studio performances. You might even discover a new band that you love!

    Highlights from the KCRW Best of 2006 for me were:

  • Rodrigo Y Gabriella--Diablo Rojo Very cool instrumental with just drums & guitar that are absolutely infectious. I dare you to sit still & not get swept up by this song. I read on Amazon that it was inspired by a wild rollercoaster called 'Red Devil' at a theme park in Copenhagen, Denmark.

  • Damien Rice--The Animals Were Gone Damien Rice's voice with strings is just always a satisfying combination...dreamy...

  • Band of Horses--The Funeral Something about this song has just a twinge of Pink Floyd, and maybe even Jane's Addiction...maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much?

  • Yusef--Maybe There's a World How can you not get excited about hearing a new song from the former Cat Stevens?!

  • Monday, January 15, 2007

    My Country Roots: MP3 Handbook

    I'm back in cyberspace...hope you have all been keeping well while I've been away! One of the books I perused over my vacation is my friend Carter Little's (written with Alice Randall & Courtney Little) newly published My Country Roots: The Ultimate MP3 Guide to America's Original Outsider Music.

    If you're at all into country music, you'll get a kick out of this book. It's a quirky, fun collection of 100 pre-designed playlists for your mp3. Playlists have roughly 11 songs each, and include:

  • Honky Tonk Angels (with Loretta Lynn's I'm a Honky Tonk Girl)

  • Ramblers (with Johnny Cash's version of one of my favorites--Wayfaring Stranger)

  • Rednecks (with Gillian Welch's Red Clay Halo)

  • Love & Money (with Linda Ronstadt's version of Silver Threads and Golden Needles)

  • Cheating (with Hank Williams' classic, Your Cheating Heart)

  • Coffee, Cigarrettes, & Sugar (with Doc & Merle Watson's fun novelty piece Smoke Smoke Smoke)

  • Simple Wisdom (with Lee Ann Womack's tearjerker, I Hope You Dance)


  • As George Jones writes in the forward to this book:

    There is nothing in the world like country music. A great country song will tear your heart out. Country songs go with you to work, sit with you when you're crying, slide in the room when you're loving, and hang around in your heart when the loving leaves. A great country record can help turn a body on and will help hold a life together when everything falls apart.


    My Country Roots is a fun introduction to country music, and for country fans, I'm pretty sure you won't be able to stop yourself from adding your favorites to the playlists and creating your own!

    Wednesday, January 3, 2007

    Vacation Music

    Starting tomorrow, I'll be away from internet access for a week (you'll miss me, I'll miss you, but it'll all work out I'm sure). So for today, I thought it would be appropriate to post my top 5 albums to travel with. (Now I'm not saying the top 5 greatest albums in existence...just 5 I like to have on a trip for various and sentimental reasons...there's a difference, of course.)


    1. Beach Boys - 20 Good Vibrations, The Greatest Hits (Volume 1) Normally, I'd choose Pet Sounds, but what can I say? When I'm on the road, I just want the 20 greatest hits.




    2. The Sky Is Crying I took this on a family road trip when I was a kid & listened to it for a week non-stop while I read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series. I still can't imagine the Dawn Treader without thinking of Stevie Ray...somehow it just works.




    3. Sister Sweetly There's something about this album that I never get tired of. I could listen to it on repeat for days and my husband would want to pull his hair out but I would be just fine. Again, listened to this one through an entire book series on a family road trip in high school...this time The Chronicles of Amber. Cards, anyone? (Somewhere out there, my husband is sounding the "nerd alert.")





    4. Ella and LouisCan you travel anywhere without Ella & Louis? I can't.








    5. Give Up One of the newer additions to my traveling music. Fun & peppy in a hypnotic sort of way. Suits both the excitement and repetition of the open road.

    Tuesday, January 2, 2007

    2007: A Return to the "Flexible" Agenda

    Doesn't it seem like science fiction to be living in 2007? I don't know, maybe it's just me. I kind of thought we'd be living like the Jetson's by now, but hey, I kind of like being on the ground.

    Anyway, now that the holidays are over, I'll be going back to the original "Flexible Agenda" ("flexible" because I reserve the right to go off-agenda at any point for any given reason!)

    So here's what you can expect:

    Mondays=Book recommendation
    Wednesdays=Music recommendation
    Fridays=Grab Bag (anything goes)

    Best wishes to each and every one of you for a productive, fun, joyous, and meaningful new year!

    Monday, January 1, 2007

    Julia Cameron: The Artist's Way

    My family may very well be sick of hearing about this book. Ever since I read it last Spring, I have been recommending it to practically everyone I know (maybe even you!) But New Year's Day is a natural time for reflection and resolutions and change, and this is a perfect book to help with all of those.

    Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way is not just for artists. It is a book for anyone who wants to bring a little more creative energy & spark into their lives. She calls it a "12 step program for creative recovery". Here's how it works: you read a chapter a week for 12 weeks. Each chapter has various exercises, assignments for the week, and things to think about. I think my favorite week was when I had the assignment of writing down some of my favorite foods as a child. Then, Ms. Cameron (no relation to me) instructs you to have some of those foods during the week. I got out my mom's spaghetti recipe, had bagels and cream cheese at 11 at night, and went to the grocery store and actually bought a Skor bar (yum!)

    It's these small indulgences that Ms. Cameron encourages. Nothing earth-shattering. Nothing that takes up a lot of time. Taking walks, stopping for a few minutes just to do nothing, or finding one thing you've always wanted to try (dancing lessons, flying a kite, making bread) and doing it! I, for one, spend so much of my time doing the things I should do and have to do, that I forget to take just a small amount of time out to do silly, pointless things just for fun. Between concerts, recordings, teaching, writing music, running my business, spending time with my family, and going to my day job, I have so much to do I tend to schedule every minute to be as productive as possible. If I'm not doing something that has a specific goal attached, I feel like I'm wasting valuable time.

    But what I learned from The Artist's Way is that doing some reflective thinking, taking a little time out for fun, and seriously considering what it is that is most important to you can help you enjoy life in a much more focused way. You begin to see that some of those things you have to do don't really have to be done, and some of the things you really should do hadn't even made it on the list.

    Re-assessing. Re-prioritizing. Fine tuning. Isn't that what New Year's is all about?

    I hope you'll pick up this book. Spend some time with it. Do the things she suggests (even if they might seem silly, or crazy, or pointless at the time). I think you'll enjoy it. And it might just clarify a few things for you. At the very least, it might remind you to eat your mom's spaghetti every once in a while!

    Happy New Year!