I went into Down Home Music to post a flyer about my birthday show and of course had to buy something. In the book section I found Sing It Pretty: A Memoir by Bess Lomax Hawes. If you were at the Children’s Music Network gathering in Petaluma where she spoke, you’ll remember her. She told the story about getting a pup that had distemper and shortly died, and one of her children dealt with it by singing “dead songs” like “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” and “Old Blue.” She was at first surprised at all the “dead songs” he knew--she hadn’t taught them to him, he had just picked them up from her singing around the house. Then she realized that the body of songs and stories children just pick up are a resource they can call on in time of need. That story is in the book, along with many others about music and folklore. She led an interesting life with the added gift of being able to write interestingly about it. In her teens she helped her father, John Lomax, edit Our Singing Country, full of the folksongs he and Bess’s brother Alan had collected. She was a member of the Almanac Singers (Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes from this group later formed the Weavers, and Woody Guthrie was a member at times). She taught folklore at the college level and helped organize the Smithsonian Folk Life Festivals. I got the book because I liked her, she knew my mother, and she was writing about the folk revival that my mother was part of, but I ended up really enjoying the book for its own sake. Here she is on a bit of her work with the Folk Arts Program of the NEA:
    My first appearance before Congressman Yates was in 1977 when the Folk Arts Program had barely gotten started, had no money to speak of, and was still trying to convince the larger arts world that we had something to offer. I went up to the big conference table feeling nervous, not to say wobbly, but Congressman Yates asked me in the friendliest way, “Well, you’re new, aren’t you? How’re you doing?” And I found myself saying, “Well, Congressman, Folk Arts is just about the way an old-time black spiritual put it: we’re inching along just like a poor inch worm.”
    “Why, Bess Hawes,” he said, “I’m surprised at you. I thought you’d be quoting one of the great old British ballads like ‘I’m struck, I’m struck, His Lordship said, I’m struck, but I’m not slain. I’ll just lie down and bleed a while, and rise to fight again!’”
    Now a fellow who can quote a traditional British ballad offhand is a fellow you want to testify before.
Anybody working with children would benefit by reading this book, especially the essay about the uses of children’s games on pages 78-83. She talks about how some rules are negotiable and some are not, and children learn valuable skills discussing which variation they will play. She warns against adult impatience and interference: “...it seems that we should try to comprehend these processes better before we so casually, and so ineffectually attempt to interfere by administrative fiat, invention, or codification. As adults, we stand to learn much, for our children, as they play, are themselves grappling with an issue of central importance to a democratic society such as ours: the interlock of order and flexibility, group consensus and individual freedom, stability and change.”
Sing It Pretty is about music but doesn’t have any in it. The other book by Bess Hawes I’ve read does. It’s Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage which she wrote with Bessie Jones, presenting both Jones’ repertoire of Georgia children’s singing games and her thoughts about the role the singing games play in the education and socialization of children. It’s another must-read for anyone working with children and music. And there’s a CD to go with it.
I finished reading Sing It Pretty at the winter writers’ and artists’ retreat in Camp Meeker, and I’m writing this on my last day there. I love this twice-yearly chance to be in the redwoods with other writers and composers, being well fed and trying out new stuff on a sympathetic audience. And while I’m hiking around, I’m also brushing up on some of the songs I’ll sing at the birthday show. I posted on Facebook about the retreat and I will repeat that here for non-facebookers:
Last night we were having a hilarious conversation at dinner about dactyls and anapests and spondees. You had to have been there. Good response to my bellybutton song after dinner.
Here are my poems for yesterday:
The sign on the tree says NO PARKING
There's a moss-covered section of cut tree-trunk
About the size of a VW bug
Lying next to it
Saying, "Oh, yeah?"
I like the bright wavy swirls of fungus
On the dead wood around here
I wonder if managed timberland is
No-frills forest
and here’s today’s:
Thunk. Thunk.
Someone’s chopping wood
Rotten stick falls on the asphalt
Gets run over and run over and run over
Fibers splayed press-board thin
On their way to paper
Small trees split
Downed branches
From the last storm
It’s not raining now, but
I can feel the mist
Colliding with my skin
If I stand really still
©2010 by Nancy Schimmel
jan mcmillan
Thanks for these two book suggestions. One of my favorite things about working with Girl Scouts was getting to hear all the wonderful songs, chants and rhythms of the girls as they did clapping games, jumprope games and other games like Tiska Tiska Dadio... strutting their stuff and enjoying their antics so much. And of course it takes me back to my childhood and all the wonderful songs I learned as a kid in Oklahoma. My favorite...and I still sing it around the house...was "The Crawdad Man". And thanks for reminding me of "Go Tell Aunt Rhodie". Guess I go put both of these books on hold at the library...and send this blog along to my library daughter-in-law.
Monday, March 1, 2010 - 03:59 PM
The Almanac Singers:
Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Sis Cunningham.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almanac_Singers
Monday, March 1, 2010