Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Stevie Wonder for Kids

I thought for the last day of Black History Month, I'd talk about something purely fun. I get a lot of requests from parents looking for children's music that won't drive them batty. These parents have ususally spent insane amounts of time listening to the typical, vacant, sing-songy variety of kids music that permeates the genre (you know the kind I'm talking about). It's usually when they catch themselves humming it on the way to work that they realize they would rather scrape melted gummy worms off the sofa than listen to another minute of this stuff.

Aside from sending them to Zooglobble and Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child, I have another miracle cure for these desperate parents:

Stevie Wonder
(Cue angel choir and light streaming down from heaven)

First of all, Stevie Wonder was signed to Motown Records when he was just 11 years old. That is supercool by anybody's standards.

Second of all, go to iTunes and listen to/download Uptight. What kid wouldn't love to dance around to this song? What parent wouldn't love to dance around to this song? See? Problem solved!

A special treat:
This is from the 1973 season of Sesame Street. Now this is music! Pure energy. The video quality isn't the best, but YouTube has confiscated all the versions that were clear due to the recent lawsuits. Hm. A topic for another day. Enjoy this one while it lasts:

Monday, February 26, 2007

Two African American Poetry Anthologies

NOTE: Throughout this post, if you click on a poet's name, it will take you to the Academy of American Poets where you can read about their lives, their poetry, and in most cases listen to the poets read their own work.

I have two anthologies of African American poetry that I love to read. The first, I discovered in college: Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep, titled after the old African American Proverb. This is a collection of poets since 1945, and begins with selections from stalwarts Robert Hayden (one of my very favorite poets...see last week's post on Runagate Runagate for more) and Gwendolyn Brooks. It continues forward in chronological order to well-known poets like Audre Lorde and Rita Dove, and to talented younger poets like Cornelius Eady and Elizabeth Alexander.

Six years later, the same editors (poets Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton) came out with a comprehensive volume containing 2 centuries worth of African American Poetry: The Vintage Book of African American Poetry. This book introduces us to African American poets from the 1800's like George Horton (who hoped to purchase his freedom from slavery through the sale of his poetry), and the early 1900's like Sterling Brown (who deserves many more blog posts all his own). It features classic favorites like Langston Hughes as well as modern and post-modern poets like Yusef Komunyakaa.

I, Too, Sing America
by Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Grab Bag Friday: PBS Kids Jazz & Barack Obama Debate

Just in case you are wondering how PBS Kids Jazz & Barack Obama tie in to each other: they don't. Two completely unrelated topics of mention today...

1st topic: PBS Kids Jazz. I mentioned this earlier in the month at Songwriting for Kids Club, but I thought this site was so cool I'd mention it here, too. Kids will love going to this site and learning about jazz music (adults too...believe me, I spent some time here!) There are interesting profiles about some of the jazz greats--Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday to name a few. You can watch videos of musicians answering questions like "How does a jazz musician express an idea or feeling in a piece of music?"

Most exciting (for me) can play the Join the Jazz Band interactive multimedia game. First, it tests your musical knowledge (what is rhythm, melody, etc.) Then, it helps you determine what style of jazz you like (cool, swing, or bebop) by playing you a video of a jazz band playing each style of jazz. Then you learn about the different instruments and choose which one you'd like to play. Then you get your *certificate*: Certified Jazz Musician. Printable. With your name on it and everything! (I know, I know, I was one of those kids.)

It's a pretty cool way to learn about jazz.

2nd topic: There's been a bit of interesting debate over at my last Grab Bag Friday post, 2008 Election: Get Involved! Have an opinion? Get involved. Stop on by and put in your two cents!

Hope you have a terrific weekend!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band & Support Live Jazz!

Louis Armstrong once said: Preservation Hall. Now that's where you'll find all of the greats. Since yesterday was Fat Tuesday, the last day of the Mardi Gras Carnival, I thought I'd spend some time on Preservation Hall & live jazz.

Preservation Hall opened its doors in New Orleans in 1961. At that time, the once vibrant, live New Orleans Jazz scene had lost a lot of its popularity. People were listening to Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Elvis, or Frankie Avalon, not old-time, old-style dixieland jazz. Most of the musicians who were still playing New Orleans Jazz were getting old, and many people thought that the music would die off with them.

So Preservation Hall was opened to try to preserve and honor the tradition. They have been putting on live New Orleans Jazz concerts ever since, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been performing and touring all over the world, featuring talented jazz musicians, both young and old.

There is a very cool video about Preservation Hall with lots of great live clips and music on the official website. It's about 10 minutes long, and it's worth watching if only for the toe-tapping, get-up-and-dance version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" at the end. (Choose the "Watch Movie" option on the homepage.)

During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Preservation Hall strongly supported the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, which has now been transformed into the Renew Our Music Fund. If you would like to help rebuild, renew, and revive the New Orleans live music scene, please visit the website to find out what you can do.

Click here to find out when the Preservation Hall Jazz Band might be coming to your home town. I saw them a couple years back when they came to Camden, Maine, and it was *well* worth the 90 minute drive!

Or maybe this weekend, you could get out and support local jazz musicians right there in your own area. Check your local listings. Get out of the house. Relax. Tap your toes.

If you live in LA, find out who's playing at the Jazz Bakery (they always have 1/2 price tickets for students!).

If you're in Chicago, you could peek into the legendary Green Mill or visit the extensive site for the scoop on the hippest clubs in town.

Even if you happen to be live all the way out in Maine (like me), there is great live jazz to be found. The Steve Grover Septet is having their annual weekend-long Birthday Bash. It should be a great concert and maybe I'll see you there! You can check out the details here.

Download Preservation Hall Jazz Band's version of the rousing New Orleans favorite, "When the Saints Go Marching In"

Monday, February 19, 2007

Robert Hayden: "Runagate Runagate"

This is one of my favorite poems. "Runagate Runagate" is a tribute to the runaway slaves who risked their lives to escape oppression. Robert Hayden's language is so well-crafted, you can feel the urgency, the fear, the hope. Read it outloud and you'll feel the quickened heartbeat, breath, and anticipation in the rhythm of the words.

You can read the whole poem here or check out Robert Hayden's Collected Poems from the library or on Amazon.

Robert Hayden had a trying childhood. He grew up with foster parents in a Detroit ghetto. He probably knew a thing or two about wanting to run away, to escape. He went on to become the first black American Poet Laureate. He taught at Fisk University (see A Band of Angels) and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Read more about Robert Hayden's life on Wikipedia. There is also an interesting lengthy biography on

Friday, February 16, 2007

Friday Extra: Black History in Europe

Thank you to Bill over at Jewels in the Jungle for his link to my post about Valaida Snow. Bill, Jörg Wolf (from Altantic Review), and their team of scholars are working on a very interesting project about Black History in Europe.

Grab Bag Friday: 2008 Election--Get Involved!

I was reading Britt Bravo's Have Fun Do Good blog last week & she featured this 2 minute campaign announcement preview. No matter what your politics, I was struck by Senator Obama's message.
It's true. We get so jaded. We think: politics are corrupt, the world is a mess, it's up to the rich and powerful to change it, and they never will.

But as Senator Obama points out, there is another possibility.
The possibility that we could reengage.

Odds are, one person might not make too much of a difference (though, thankfully, there are always the Mother Theresas and Paul Farmers out there to prove me wrong). But, if you engage a little, and your family engages a little, and your friends and neighbors engage a little...

This is how change occurs. Little by little. Day by day.

The same way that messes get cleaned up.

So whoever you're pulling for in 2008...

Let's roll up our sleeves.

Let's get involved!

Barack Obama Official Website

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Etta James: A Sunday Kind of Love

Happy Valentine's Day!
In honor of the day, I thought I'd share one of the truest love songs I know: A Sunday Kind of Love, sung by the queen of romance, Etta James. Aside from the gorgeous melody and Ms. James' emotional delivery, it's the lyrics I love about this song. It's a pop song about love that isn't all hyped up and idealized and glam. It's simple and true and real. Who doesn't want love like this?
I want a Sunday kind of love
A love to last past Saturday night
I'd like to know it's more than love at first sight
I want a Sunday kind of love
Download from iTunes here

Listen to new Etta James tunes (including her version of "Purple Rain") on the Etta James Official Website

Side note: my husband took me to an Etta James concert the night he proposed to guy, huh?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ruby Bridges: Through My Eyes

Most of us know the story of Ruby Bridges. The little girl in the Norman Rockwell painting who was the first black student in the all white elementary school in New Orleans. What you may not know is that in 1999, the grown-up Ruby Bridges wrote a stunning children's book about her experiences during the now-famous integration of that school.

I picked up Through My Eyes a few years ago and was completely swept up in the story told by the child who walked through so much hatred every day at 6 years old. Ruby Bridges takes you right back in history and in simple, eloquent text, lets you know what it felt like to be her. Not as an adult looking back, but as a child, right there in the middle of things, bewildered, hopeful, and sometimes scared. It's an absolutely fascinating book that will give any child or adult a fresh and very real perspective on an old story we've probably become too familiar and comfortable with.

To read more on Ruby Bridges and her efforts to promote diversity in her adult life, please visit the Ruby Bridges Foundation website. Ms. Bridges now works with elementary schools to fight intolorance and injustice in the schools. There are some great quotes from kids on the site, like this one from a 4th grade student in Los Angeles:

I used to be rude to people before being in the program. Now, I can start being nice to new people I meet. I also had some racist feelings toward a Latina who had hurt my feelings. When I was angry, the first thought I had was that I didn’t like her because she was Latina, not that she was just mean. Now, I think about not being racist, even when I’m angry.

Now that's real work!

On the Official Ruby Bridges Website you can:
  • View pictures from newspapers during the de-segregation in New Orleans
  • Read articles about Ruby Bridges
  • Get your school involved with Ruby Bridges' new book project!
  • Request school visits or speaking engagements
  • Download a Lori McKenna song about Ruby Bridges

View Norman Rockwell's painting The Problem We All Live With at Wikipedia

Friday, February 9, 2007

Grab Bag Friday: Songwriting for Kids Club

When I was a kid, a few of my friends & I had a club creatively called Kids Club. We had weekly meetings, took minutes, and did various odd, entrepreneurial things like paint pencils and create food items (peas, carrrots, potatoes) out of clay, and then go door to door in our neighborhood trying to sell them to sympathetic (and probably baffled) housewives. We even had a clubhouse. The goal, of course, was candy. Every cent we earned went toward trips to "The Little Store" for brown bags filled with Skor bars, Jolly Ranchers, and Big League Chew.

Well, now I'm a full grown adult and apparently I still want to be in a club. This one is called Songwriting for Kids Club (notice the We won't have weekly meetings or sell stuff for candy, but there will be some fun, interactive, creative things to do, contests to enter, prizes to win. And most importantly, we're going to create lots of music!

We don't have a clubhouse yet, but one of the first things that I've started as part of this club is the Songwriting for Kids Club Blog. This is a "monthly newsletter for creative kids" and the February post has, of course, a Black History Month theme. Visit the blog to find out how you can take a trip on the Underground Railroad, or join a jazz band, or learn about the life stories of Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, and Louis Armstrong.

If you want to join the Songwriting for Kids Club, you can sign up right there on the blog or on the SFK website, and we'll make bee-you-tiful music together! Please spread the word to all the creative kids in your life. It's so fun to be part of a club! (Maybe we can even find a way to get some Jolly Ranchers out of the deal!)

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On

An album that is definitely in my all time top 5, is Marvin Gaye's soulful What's Going On. The title song honestly gives me a lump in my throat every time I hear it, and that's pretty nuts considering how often I listen to this album. The song is not only moving in light of when it was written (1971) and the world events that were going on at the time, but it is still relevant and moving today.

There's a pretty good, extensive biography of Marvin Gaye on Wikipedia, including this interesting tidbit about "What's Going On":
"Gaye wanted to release "What's Going On". Motown head Berry Gordy refused, however, calling the single "uncommercial". Gaye refused to record any more until Gordy gave in and the song became a surprise hit in January 1971. Gordy subsequently requested an entire album of similar tracks from Gaye."
I found this video on YouTube from brainchild. It's an excerpt from the recently released DVD of some of Marvin's greatest live performances on TV and film, Real Thing: In Performance 1964-1981. According to the YouTube page, this live performance comes from the long out-of-circulation 1973 film, "Save The Children" with James Jamerson on bass.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On Lyrics
(Al Cleveland/Marvin Gaye/Renaldo Benson)

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today - Ya

Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what's going on
What's going on
Ya, what's going on
Ah, what's going on

In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on
Right on

Father, father, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
What's going on
Ya, what's going on
Tell me what's going on
I'll tell you what's going on - Uh
Right on baby
Right on baby

Monday, February 5, 2007

Anthony Walton: Mississippi

One of the reasons we celebrate Black History Month is that we need to acknowledge our history (the good with the bad) so that we can live with it, and learn from it, and understand more about who we are, have been, and who we can become. It's simple to say "the past is past" but each and every one of us are shaped by our collective past. Where would pop music be today without the Mississippi bluesmen of the past? What would your life be like if your great-grandfather stayed in Virginia instead of heading West? What would it feel like to live in a country where lynchings never happened? Or where they never stopped? Our country's history, and its history of African-Americans especially, has shaped the day to day lives of of every American, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

In Mississippi , author Anthony Walton, a middle class African-American who grew up in the comfort of the Chicago suburbs, travels to Mississippi to learn more about his family's past, and to learn more about the past of the American South. What comes of the trip is a beautiful memoir that covers the often vicious history of the state from explorers/settlers, to the Civil War, to present day Mississipi. Walton encounters his own family history with a very honest balance of delicacy, disappointment, love, outrage, and grace.

Since I have been lucky enough to work on various projects with Anthony Walton (who lives here in Maine!), you don't have to trust my (potentially biased) opinion. Here is what the New York Times had to say:

"...if Mississippi has been powerfully inscribed in literature and memory before, nobody has written about it quite the way Mr. Walton does in "Mississippi: An American Journey." This is in large part because of Mr. Walton's skills as a writer and storyteller, which are considerable. But indispensable also is the particular historical moment that he represents. Mr. Walton looks at Mississippi in the way American Jews or Italians or Irish might look back at the old country in Europe, as a place of primal roots that one is glad to be away from and yet toward which one is strangely drawn in the quest for self-understanding."
You can read the full New York Times article here.

Interview with Anthony Walton about his BBC project "Southern Road," also about the American South.

Anthony Walton on Random House

Anthony Walton's recent book, Brothers in Arms (written with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Friday, February 2, 2007

Grab Bag Friday: Bear Down, Bears!

As my dear friend Reba pointed out after Wednesday's blog post...I really ought to spend at least some time addressing the issue of this coming Sunday's important event.

I've never been a sports fan. Went to the University of Notre Dame for two years & never went to a single football game. That kind of girl. But. As fate would have it, I married a huge sports fan. Not just any sports fan. A dedicated, loyal, true-blue Chicago Bears fan. This Sunday is a HUGE deal in our house.

So, some interesting Superbowl-related links for you:

First off, and most importantly, food. In my mind, football food is the best part of any game, especially the Superbowl. And especially this Superbowl! Since the Bears made it to the game, we decided to splurge and order REAL Chicago pizza directly from my favorite Chicago restaurant. Check out their website and you will see why I CAN'T WAIT for Sunday!!! I'm practically salivating right now. The story of the origin of the restaurant is kind of cute, too.

In the spirit of pure silliness, we've been watching a lot of Bear vs. Colt in our house. Talk about goofy (& somehow hilarious)! Every day, there is a new video of a person dressed as a bear and a person dressed as a colt going head to head in some lame competition. My personal favorite is video #3, where Bear & Colt challenge eachother to a Dance Dance Revolution duel. So now you know I have an odd sense of humor! NOTE: Bear & Colt do some mildly mean things to eachother (shoving, pretending to give a stuffed animal as a gift & then taking it back, etc.) so if you're the kind that likes to shield your kids from negativity, you may not want to watch it with them. Oh, and you can vote for who you like better, Bear vs. Colt. My husband, Kevin, votes for Bear, oh, 20 times a day. He would appreciate if you would do the same.
Walter Payton is Kevin's all-time role model & hero. Please check out the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation. Among other things, they run a Chicago school supply drive in the Fall to make sure that children in need are able to start out the school year with the proper school supplies. These are the small things that make a huge difference to a kid.
"Children have always brought a tremendous amount of joy to me and I feel that if you can catch them at a young age you can really change a life. There are a lot of studies that show that one act of kindness to these children has a 40 percent chance of making that child have a completely different outcome in their life. What you hope is that you can get a kid to believe in something and to believe in themselves.” -Walter Payton
You can read Walter Payton's bio here.

It's coooold outside (at least it is here in Maine)! Please remember on
these cold days that there are many people who don't have enough money to heat their house, or to have good, healthy meals. In my community, Freeport Community Services is having a Food & Fuel Drive to raise money for people in need. Today and Saturday, Sue Mack and Rev. John Ward-Diorio are going to STAND OUT IN THE COLD FOR 24 HOURS! to remind people driving by that there are a lot of people who need your help this time of year. Look for similar drives in your community & ask what you can do to help. For more information on this particular drive in Freeport, please visit Freeport UCC's website.