After Joseph Campbell gave one of his spellbinding lectures on mythology, an admirer came up and with a glazed look in her eyes, said, “You’re incredible!” His humble reply? “It’s not me, it’s the material." He continued, "After all, when you have the world’s great myths and stories to work with, how can you go wrong?”
But of course, he knew full well that you can go wrong and reduce the splendor to some boring analysis, squeeze all the juice out with a dry reading, beat it with a rope until it confesses its true meaning, whatever that is. He also knew that part of it was indeed him, the part that spent 9 hours a day reading for 5 years to immerse himself in the depthst of the mythological ocean where few divers had ever explored.
I thought of this today singing the song John Henry with the preschoolers. I had just sung it two days ago to preschoolers in Washington DC and the effect was exactly the same. It’s a song that gets the room quiet and creates a quality of listening that is palpable and notable. The same kind of hush that you might feel come over the room as Yo Yo Ma starts playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 or a poet reading hits the right combination of words and cadence to create a quality of listening in the audience as if their lives depended on it. That’s the magic John Henry works with 4 and 5 year-olds. And all I have to do is decide to sing it and strum a few of the right chords.
So Joseph and I are in accord here. With material like John Henry or The Wabash Cannonball or Soul Sauce or Stompin’ at the Savoy or… well, if I went on, I’d name a few hundred games, songs, dances, compositions that have worked their magic with children—how can I go wrong? But like Mr. Campbell, I’m well aware that there’s a lot of me in there, the parts that took the trouble to learn everything I needed to know to bring this material alive. And sometimes more alive than anyone could previously imagine. One of my notable accomplishments is to begin with a little fingerplay for babies like Johnny Whoops and end up with a Stravinskyish/ Steve Reichian composition/ improvisation that had Conservatory percussionists, pianists and violinists in Prague working at the height of their capacity to keep up and enthralled with the result.
So that’s the deal. Choose great material. But also pay your dues by living with it, turning it inside out and backwards, throwing light into its dark corners and further illuminating its bright spots. A significant part of it is you and you might as well step up to it.
But from “It’s me” to “It’s not me” to “it’s both of us,” the final step is “It’s us.” All of us. The collective imagination of our species made manifest, from John Henry’s story to the person who wrote his song to the people who passed it down and the books that included it and the guitarmakers who helped us sing it and the visionaries who brought music into schools so kids could sing it. There’s no end once you look with those eyes. All of them, all of us, were somehow present today as the preschoolers got quiet and went to some deep part in their imagination, dreaming over and over the story of that brave man who defeated the machine, but broke his heart in the process.
John Henry, John Henry. He was a steel-drivin’ man.