Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Enjoying Old Movies— or Not

Back in the early days of TV Awareness Week at my school, we suggested that parents watch the shows that their kids like alongside them and then point out all the inappropriate values that were being leached into their child’s mind. Most parents reported their kids responding something like this:

“Will you just be quiet and let me watch my show! You’re ruining all the fun!!!”

Which is kid talk for: 

“Don’t you know what Coleridge said about suspending disbelief in the presence of art? Heck, it formed the basis for the whole of literature—and later film— to come! And even earlier, Aristotle suggested that drama required ignoring whether a story is true or not in order to experience catharsis. And if you haven’t read the Western philosophers and poets, you certainly can just click on Wikipedia and read about the “intentional avoidance of critical thinking in order to believe it (a book, a TV show, a film) for the sake of enjoyment.“

And both the kids and Coleridge are right. You can’t be in your critical mind and in your immersed suspension at the same time. After the chapter or book or TV episode or film you certainly can— and sometimes should—discuss and critique, but in some ways, it’s too late—the images and characters and values have already seeped into the psyche and become a part of what you think, what you think is true, what you value. 

But then again, far from wholly. I’ve been a lifelong reader since around seven years old, but my mother worried that comic books would ruin my brain and forbid them. Of course, I bought them anyway, hid them under my shirt as I entered the house, brought them into my basement hiding place— and read them with guiltless pleasure. All the while continuing my steady diet of classic children’s literature, Dickens in 8thgrade and yes, Coleridge in high school. 

I sang all the songs on pop radio, but I have to confess the words didn’t really make much of an impression—except for the poetry of Bob Dylan, the Incredible String Band, some Simon and Garfunkel and some Smokey Robinson. James Brown's “This Is a Man’s World” and the Rolling Stones “Under my Thumb” did not turn me into a misogynist, macho pig, the Beatles’ cover of “Money” did not send me into a career in Wall Street and back to James Brown, “Sex Machine” did not influence my libido. (Darn it!)

So I’m thinking a lot these days about art and politics and good values and where they cross and where they don’t. It’s not an easy subject. And truth be told, the crossing between them is starting to ruin some old movies for me that I have loved my whole life.

There are the extreme examples, two of which I mentioned earlier— the tribute to Bill Robinson in Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers otherwise delightful Swingtime (I think the best of all their paired musicals), the blackface scene in Bing Crosby’s Holiday Inn, making me grimace as I’m trying to relax into the Christmas spirit. And then there’s the horrible Mickey Rooney caricature of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. You’re settling in with Audrey Hepburn and hoping to be swept off your feet into romance and— Bam!! Really?!!!

Then there’s smaller, more subtle moments. The free-thinking household thumbs its nose at big business in You Can’t Take It With You and purposefully advises everyone to follow their dreams. And though the two black servants in the house are portrayed with more humanity than was the norm in Hollywood of 1938, no one ever stops to ask them about their dreams. Then there’s a Frank Sinatra film in which he casually pats the butt of his friend’s secretary as he walks out the door. Hmm. Not now, mister. (I think it was The Tender Trap, but not sure). And just the other night, we watched the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, another groundbreaking film about an inter-racial couple seeking approval from their parents. In the end it is the male white patriarch (Spencer Tracy) who has all the power to decide. 

You see what I mean. Looking at the old films through the lens of what we now accept just doesn’t work out so well. What to do? Birth of a Nation? No way in hell I’d ever share that film except in a class to show the narrative of white supremacy at work. But should I give up A Day at the Races because of the scene where the Marx Brothers black up to escape the bad guys? (Right after a fabulous dance scene, I might add, with great Lindy Hopping and beautiful singing with black singer Ivie Anderson). I keep looking for some definitive correct response and nothing adds up.

I can say this: The fact that some of us are noticing these things is a good sign. It means that many of these groundbreaking films that couldn’t go far enough because of the limitations of their time actually moved the needle closer to better values. If people saw these films without reacting to them—and many will— it’s a sign that they have not moved with the times. And that’s not a good thing. 

But I’m also struggling to preserve the art of the film, the sheer enjoyment of some of the works listed above, my desire to suspend disbelief and immerse myself in a magical world. The critical adult in my brain is pointing these things out and the kid in me just wants to say, “Will you be quiet and just let me enjoy this?!!” 

Anybody else out there feeling this? Any pointers? 

The Susannah Papers

“Don’t tell your story to change something about the past; the past is inherently unchangeable. There is no cure. The goal is to find a way forward. To truly remember is to heal.”  -The Editor: Stephen Rowley

After happily singing Oh Susannah with kids for some four decades, I found out that it was now inappropriate and should be taken off my list. The reasons?


1) There is a third (or fourth) verse with a racist pejorative (though some sources have a different non-offensive word). 


2) It was associated with the minstrel shows, a horribly racist institution.


3) It was written by Stephen Foster, who wrote many such songs that became part of the minstrel tradition.


Let’s imagine that I should carefully consider the lyrics of the songs I sing with children. (I do.)


Let’s imagine I think that Minstrelsy was a harmful institution. (I do.)


Let’s imagine I think I should find out more about Stephen Foster. (I do.) 


Now let’s imagine that having received a list of inappropriate songs, I make the bold and brave decision to stop singing them with the children. Perhaps even explain to the children why I’ve made that choice.  If you’re a person who cares about social justice—as I have my entire life and hope to continue to do so until my last breath—you may be applauding my decision. But I don’t. 


Stay with me here as I wade out into treacherous waters and do something genuinely brave and courageous. I don’t agree with the above criteria alone as a reason to put things on the bad list. Especially if they’re done without sufficient thought and discussion by the people reading the list. The people writing it have certainly put much thought and hopefully, much discussion into it and I applaud them for initiating the needed and overdue dialogue. But I don’t agree with the list as the way to move forward.


Who am I to dare to question this? I’m a privileged white man and that already is two strikes against me in a sensitive discussion regarding race. I get that. But I am also someone who has done quite a bit of work in the area, as a teacher, as a performer, as a citizen. And while I don’t believe I should lead the discussion or pretend any sense of ultimate authority, I do believe that I should contribute—we all should— in the spirit of considering the most effective response to a charged issue like this. It is an issue that has been trivialized and misunderstood by some factions who dismiss it as “cancel culture” or the “liberal agenda of political correctness.” Given that context, we owe it to ourselves to do the heavy lifting of considering deeply what the most effective response to our difficult history actually might be. 


And that word “effective” is purposefully chosen. What we do needs to at least show some promise of effecting the needed real change, must demonstrate that it can move the moral arc towards justice. As you read, take some time with each of the points that follow with that word “effective” in mind. If they ring true for you, consider them. If they don’t, articulate precisely why and write your rebuttal, to me personally or as part of a needed public discourse. Let’s avoid the shouting circus of today’s political climate and consider ideas, look at what might be truly effective, what might be somewhat effective and what might look like we’ve done something important and make us feel good, but in actuality accomplishes very little. If you are reading this because you care about these issues, remember that we’re on the same side and we both have the intention to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday. And if you don’t care about these issues, mindlessly dismiss the whole thing as “cancel culture,” start raising your voice about the liberal agenda, well, you’re welcome to read on, but I won’t expect much.  Okay? Here we go.


The words: Let’s imagine that I stopped singing Oh Susannah and even told my kids why. What changes? In my opinion, absolutely nothing. Or at least, not enough. What kid will ever stand up and testify as an adult that, “My defining moment came when I stopped singing that song.” 


In fact, there are clearly some songs that I’ve chosen not to sing with kids. There are other songs in which I’ve consciously changed some words and told them why. (For example, after years of perpetuating our obsession with magazine-cover bodies and money, money, money by singing Que Sera, I finally changed the first verse from “Will I be pretty, will I be rich?” to  “caring” and “kind.”).


And all songs are fair game for discussion. When the kids dance to Dizzy Gillespie’s version of School Daysand hear the words “taught to the tune of a hickory stick,” I talk to them about the former practice of corporal punishment. When we sing The Hound Dog Song and  Lem Briggs and old Bill Brown “wipe them fellers on the ground, for kickin’ my old dog Jim around,” I explain that there are other ways to deal with bullies. You get the idea. If we stop singing such songs altogether, we lose an opportunity to discuss and educate. 


But with Oh Susannah, there is no need because nobody sings that 3rd or 4th verse. And I mean nobody. Just about all of us never knew it existed. Meanwhile, the first verse is benign enough and I play the song on the banjo and here’s a great opportunity to talk about the origins of the banjo, one of the few original American instruments and one we can thank the African-American culture for (as I have these past 45 years of singing this song.) The second verse is delightful, immersing the kids in intriguing contradictions—“it rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry.” Neither of these verses are so extraordinary that my music curriculum would be threatened if I eliminated it, but it feels like a pretty slippery slope to start researching obscure verses or facts about a song as a reason to strike it off the list. Where do we draw the line? 


The Minstrel Show: Each year, I show the scene of Al Jolson in the movie The Jazz Singer (1927) singing in blackface. I reserve this for 8thgrade and it’s part of their year-long study of jazz (playing) and jazz history (listening and learning the stories). For many of them (thankfully!) it’s the first time they’ve seen something like this and I watch their faces and note their looks of revulsion, disgust and just plain confusion. I ask, “What do you see?” and they answer things like “Something bad, stupid and weird.” I ask, What do you wonder about?” and they say things like “Whoever thought this was a good idea?!”


Kids are so smart. 


Then I tell them how Al Jolson was actually somewhat involved with the black community and helped some folks out. How Fred Astaire admired the great tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and dedicated a dance to him in the movie Swingtime (1936)—in blackface. How Bing Crosby was a good friend of Louis Armstrong’s, invited him into his movie High Society and then warmed our hearts with his Christmas movie Holiday Inn (1942) and in one scene sings and dances—in blackface. How Judy Garland was appreciated as a friend and ally by Billie Holiday and yet sang and danced in Babes on Broadway (1943)— you guessed it—in blackface. None of this is to excuse these folks, but to show how powerful the accepted norms of a different time can be that such a demeaning practice could be shrugged off as “harmless entertainment” just because that was what the white folks thought. 


We then delve back into the history of the Minstrel Show and show how it was even weirder as black folks joined minstrel shows after the Civil War and put on blackface and danced the cakewalk. So here were black folks putting on blackface pretending to be white folks pretending to be blacks singing songs made by whites to make fun of blacks doing a dance that black folks made to make fun of whites. I read those sentences out loud with the kids and then we collectively scratch our heads and exclaim together, “Huh?!!!” It’s a deep lesson in how convoluted things get when relationships begin in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons and the beginning of considering how to change the story that made—and still makes—that possible.


The philosopher George Santayana once said: “We must welcome the future remembering that soon it will be the past and we must respect the past remembering that once it was all that was humanly possible.”


And so the task is to keep expanding what is both humanly possible and possibly humane.

Yes, it is difficult to respect the past in light of its countless atrocities. But viewing what happened then through the lens of now is a thorny path, because we know things now that people back then didn’t. We’ve passed various tipping points in which the majority agree that something acceptable back then—five hundred, fifty or even five years ago— is unacceptable now. 


To take but one example: with the mainstream in agreement, it doesn’t require super-human courage to publicly proclaim “Black Lives Matter.” But a mere five years ago, eyebrows would have been raised reading that sign in your window. And let’s face it—there are few among us who have the courage to truly speak up when the majority think differently. The rapid growth of support for the Black Lives Matter Movement is a good sign because it allows people to feel safer proclaiming this truth. And that’s when things begin to change. 


 And change they have. Human sacrifice, the Inquisition, witch-burning, genocide of native folks, chattel slavery, is mostly yesterday’s news. No sensible person dons the MWGA (Make the World Great Again) hat and longs for those good old days. Yet we do have to accept that these things happened, understand the forces that allowed them to happen and give up on trying to change, to cure the past.  Instead, we use that perspective to move towards healing the present and creating a future worthy of welcome, to draw the line beyond which the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of the past will not cross. 


By the 1950’s, blackface in movies effectively ended and good riddance. Though some today—like Megyn Kelly in 2018—might publicly state that they “think it’s okay to dress up in blackface,” (yes, she really said that) the mainstream point of view is “Don’t.” In reaction to her statement, NBC cancelled her Todayshow and that is a good sign that the narrative is indeed changing. And not just the racial narrative, but so many of the “isms” based on fear, ignorance, exclusion and purposely manufactured hatred. I now have friends who publicly introduce their same-sex husbands or wives to strangers without either batting an eye, something that they couldn’t do some a mere twenty or so years ago. And let’s remember a black male President and our current black/South Asian female Vice-President. Unimaginable earlier in my own lifetime. 


Accepting the past does not mean not noticing the weird transgressions in the old movies, books, school textbooks. But neither does it mean wholly dismissing them and /or removing from circulation anything tainted by formerly accepted values. If we were to seriously exclude anything in our contemporary culture related to the Minstrel Show, for example, a good 95% of the entertainment industry would be put away. For the minstrel show led to Vaudeville and the number of early Hollywood stars, dancers, jazz musicians, who got their start in Vaudeville is simply mind-boggling. Here’s a partial list:


Bert Williams, Josephine Baker, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Will Rogers, John Philip Sousa, W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Mae West, Bing Crosby, Bill Robinson, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, The Nicholas Brothers, Babe Ruth, Helen Keller, Harry Houdini, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges,  Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball,  Jimmy Durante, Al Jolson, Buck and Bubbles, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin,  John-Lionel-Ethel Barrymore, Guy Lombardo, Moms Mabley, Red Skelton, Burt Lancaster, Lucille Ball, Fred Macmurray, Rose Marie, Ozzie Nelson, Sammy Davis Jr., Milton Berle, Julie Andrews.


And we should consider that Vaudeville grew to the Broadway Revue that grew to the Broadway musical that grew to the Hollywood Musical. Stormy Weather, that extraordinary 1943 film whose all-black cast includes Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and the remarkable Nicholas Brothers, would not have existed without the minstrel show.  John Coltrane’s improvisation on My Favorite Things would not have existed without the minstrel show because there would have been no Sound of Music musical. Out of the mud-filled swampy waters of a despicable minstrel tradition that jeered and insulted, used power and privilege to define others without those others having a say in the matter, served as propaganda proclaiming the honor of the South, some beautiful lotuses came to flower. (See the list above). 


If I could go back in time with the power to halt the forces of slavery knowing that we never would have enjoyed The Wizard of Oz or West Side Story, never would have danced to James Brown or heard Ella or Billie sing, would have gone through life without the blues to hold us together, I believe I would do it. Wouldn’t you? Nothing could justify the unfathomable human suffering that stretched from Kunta Kinte to George Floyd. 


But we don’t live in a Hollywood fantasyland and the past remains forever the unchangeable past. That’s the non-negotiable truth that is the foundation of a kinder and more just future, the lesson book from which we all need to learn how to do better. The only shame is in repeating the same mistakes, in refusing to open the book and learn the lesson. 


Minstrel Composers: Now back to Oh Susannah. The first big name in Minstrelsy was Thomas “Daddy” Rice, whose blackface depiction in his original song and dance Jump Jim Crow was wildly applauded by white audiences wanting to believe that enslaved human beings were happy, that they sang and danced and were grateful to be in the South instead of Africa. The Minstrel Show became a vehicle of propaganda supporting the narrative of white supremacy and defying those pesky abolitionists who just didn’t understand how everything was “just fine in the good ole South.” Dan Emmet, who formed the Virginia Minstrels troupe, wrote Dixie that further reinforced what a happy place the plantation South was and it became an anthem of sorts for white southerners. And then Stephen Foster wrote songs like Old Black Joe lamenting the death of his beloved master. The punch lines were just: “Slavery is just fine. Let it be.”


But here’s the surprise. Rice, Emmet and Foster were all born in the North and rarely, if ever, set foot in the South. They were just ambitious songwriters following the money and giving the public what it thought it wanted. And Emmet actually had some remorse, saying: 


"If I had known to what use they [Southerners] were going to put my song, I will be damned if 

I'd have written it." 



“ History is entitled to be read in the light of the circumstances that brought it forth. To understand the choices open to the people of another time, one must limit oneself to what they knew; see that past in its own clothes, as it were, not in ours.”  -Barbara Tuchman


The circumstances that led to the minstrel show are baffling to educated people in 2020, but entirely logical and inevitable in light of the story that European/American culture created, perpetuated and mostly unquestionably accepted. It sprang from a Christianity that insisted that God favored them, led to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492 and sent Columbus abroad to begin the decimation of Native American cultures, to claim the land they inhabited as belonging to the conquistadores, backed by the trio of God, guns and germs. It was the story that sent the slave traders to West Africa and began one of the longest lasting and barbaric form of human suffering. It was approved by priests and kings, scientists and merchants, and the white people, like fish in water, never considered it anything other than the way the world is and was meant to be. (With some exceptions, from Bartolomeo de Las Casas to John Brown to Robin Di’Angelo.) It is the gradual changing of this narrative, backed by law, science, courageous teachers and artists speaking on behalf of justice, that had—and has—the possibility of effecting real change. And it should begin with how and what we teach our children. 


Teaching the children the actual history of minstrelsy is one way the music teacher can contribute to effecting real change. Because the bottom line of why we’re still dealing with these issues is that white folks have had the luxury and privilege to not only not learn these stories, but to not have to care whether they learn these stories. Our job as educators is to educate and as music educators, to educate through music and dance. And that means changing the narrative that drove chattel slavery, the continued on to the Black Codes, that continued on to Jim Crow, that continued on to the New Jim Crow with its school to prison pipeline, that continues on to yesterday as Georgia tries to suppress black votes yet again. 


To change the narrative means we need to knowthe narrative and we have to look at it from a place of social justice, not just to cluck our tongues, but to see the threads that are still invisibly running things today, to recognize the patterns, to speak up and speak out when the next police killing happens knowing that the police are descendants of the slave patrols meant to contain slavery and curtail genuine freedom. In this regard, removing Oh Susannah from the song list accomplishes exactly nothing. 


And so I ask my fellow music teachers. How many of you are doing this? Giving the full context of these songs? Showing the film clips? Asking your kids if they ever heard of Fred Astaire or Elvis and then asking them why they don’t know the Nicholas Brothers and Big Mama Thornton? (And then showing them the related Youtube clips).  How many of your kids know anything significant about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday? How many Orff students know the vibraphonists Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Marjie Hyams, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Stefon Harris? How much jazz are you teaching the children in your classrooms? How much are you sharing the music and the stories of these American geniuses admired the world over, but neglected in our own American education? Do you see how much greater your commitment has to be then merely taking songs off a list? 


I believe that true education is hard work. You see how much you need to know to pass on what the children will need to become humanitarian citizens. You see how courageous you’d have to be when your school tells you to wait for the proper month before you teach about the black folks, women, Asians, Latinx, Native American folks who did so much to build this country. You see how telling the truth of what went down in the past means exposing the truth about what is still going down in the present . Once you begin that real work, you’ll soon learn how that threatens those in power who depend upon ignorance. Crossing Oh Susannah off the list is not going to bother them. Telling the truth is. It’s not an easy road. 


But it’s a glorious one. Let’s go. And if you so choose, with your banjo on your knee.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021


There have been moments in the past two days when I haven’t sneezed for two hours straight. One was writing an article and the other was watching Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman in the riveting series “The Undoing.” So somehow intense engagement seems to be some kind of antidote for this pesky cold.


But not for long. It keeps returning, often in groups of ten sneezes in a row. So it got me wondering why people sneeze. Here's what St. Google said:


Sneezing is your body’s way of removing irritants from your nose or throat. Part of your nose’s job is to clean the air you breathe, making sure it’s free of dirt and bacteria. In most cases, your nose traps this dirt and bacteria in mucous. Your stomach then digests the mucus, which neutralizes any potentially harmful invaders. Sometimes, however, dirt and debris can enter your nose and irritate the sensitive mucous membranes. When these membranes become irritated, it causes you to sneeze. 


It then goes on to acknowledge other reasons like colds, flus, allergies, etc.  That’s the science part.


Then there’s the mythology. The ancient Romans believed that when you sneezed you were expelling a part of your soul. So people began to say “bless you” to keep you alive and whole. During the plague, sneezing was one of the symptoms so Gregory 1 suggested the custom of saying “God bless you” in the hopes that this prayer would protect them from an otherwise certain death. 


Is such blessing universal? Wikipedia notes that nothing is usually said in China, Japan or Korea, but all European cultures and some African and Middle Eastern ones have a customary response of blessing or wishing good health. Gesunheit in German, Salud in Spanish, prosit in Dutch, Naz Dravi in Czech, Shatam Jeevah in Hindi, Pele in Yoruban. And so on.  (Ah, it is in times like these that I regret not having a music class to teach tomorrow. I can imagine a whole speech piece based on sneezes and multicultural responses to them.)


That’s today’s news. I’ve sneezed four times while writing this. And was tempted to create some metaphor of some kind of sneeze that clears out the irritable people in one’s life, but decided to let it go. Of course, if I went out into the world sneezing these days, I would certainly clear out all people and fast!


Oh, and sternutation? That’s the fancy word for sneezing. Save it for your next dinner party.



Monday, March 29, 2021

Seven for Seven

Grouchy about sneezing 45 times in the middle of the night and 20 more this morning, this cold that I thought left hanging on with a  vengeance. Makes me feel dopey, not easy to sleep, I could use a Doc and I’m not happy about it all —and not bashful complaining about it here. In short, I am all seven dwarves at once, waiting for Snow White to come nurse me back to health. Though given the dismal track record of white women voters and the extraordinary work of black women, that story could definitely use a racial switch.


Some great artists were afflicted with debilitating sickness, but mostly they chose not to write about it. So I’ll stop here. Ah-choo!!!!!!


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Life with the Grandparents

Visiting my grandparents in Long Island was a monthly ritual in my childhood. We drove from New Jersey to the Staten Island ferry, where my sister and I had a contest to see who would guess which of the seven ferries we would get. There was the Hamilton, the Hudson, St. George, the Victoria, the Verrezano and two more which I’ll probably remember later today. Later in our monthly visits, we abandoned the ferry for the newly-built Verrezano Bridge, which made the trip faster, but less romantic. On the ferry, we often would get a fresh-baked salted pretzel and stand out on deck to as we passed by the Statue of Liberty. Then on to various turnpikes, past the parachute jump on Coney Island, past some small apartments that we called “Tinyland” because it seemed that it was built for some mythical fairies and finally arrived at my grandparents’ house in Levittown, one of the first planned suburbs built in 1947. Checking it out on Wikipedia, just discovered it was a purposefully segregated community closed to people of color. Boo hiss.


But apparently not to old Russian Jews, because that’s what my grandparents were, emigrated from Vitebsk, Belarus at the turn of the century, raising their five children in the upper East Side and then the Bronx, where my grandfather was a housepainter and later a landlord before moving to Levittown. 


My uncles, aunts and cousins would all converge at this monthly gathering and we’d hang out in the backyard with its large weeping willow tree, the adults playing pinochle, the kids playing ball and eating meals that included some disgusting (to me) pickled herring and some more appealing fresh-baked honey cake. My grandmother had Parkinson’s and I don’t remember too much about her (she died when I was 8 or 9) and my grandfather had a gruff exterior, but was a nice enough person. I don’t remember any conversations between the two of us or doing a single thing with him except for a brief game of catch one time.


Such a contrast to the grandfather I have become. I’ve done more and talked more with my grandkids in one day than my grandfather did with me in 12 years (my age when he died). I just took them to the airport this morning after another glorious six days together spent playing music, reading stories (both ways), telling stories, playing cards and board games, biking, hiking, visiting three different playgrounds, cooking, playing catch/ Paddleball/ Frisbee/ Spud, watching old movies and so much laughter and so much delight in their sparkling personalities and deep intelligence and surprising insights. Several times in the visit I got the physical sensation of a love so strong that it hurt! 


And none of this is praising my own grandparent skills or my wife’s (she’s wonderful with them as well). For I need them as much as they need me. And perhaps more. 


Saturday, March 27, 2021


 This is my 3,000th Blogpost. 10 years writing, with 227 followers and 477,654 all time pages read and 1288 comments (statistics courtesy of Blogspot— I’m not keeping track!). 

In terms of pages written, that puts me numerically up there with Tolstoy and Victor Hugo and yes, "War and Peace" and some “The Miserables” have flowed through this Nile River of shared experience. But also much joy, wonder, astonishment, gratitude amidst my small complaints and large outrages. 


To mark the occasion, I thought I should try to capture the essence of it all. Reduce the endless “blah-blah-blah” x 3,000 to a single blah or two. What’s the point here? Why am I doing this and what do I hope to communicate?


There’s the story of the sage who told the disciple:


“I have both God and the Devil inside of me.” 


“Which one is stronger?” asked the disciple?


“Whichever one I feed.”


As good a metaphor as any for this work. From the inside, I’m struggling like all of us as I daily choose which one deserves my attention and try to organize my life around that diet. From the outside, there are the forces fighting for my attention, trying to stoke my fear and anxiety for their own profit or political purpose and part of the drama is my ability to distinguish the true from the hype, to see through the used-car salesmen, to refuse their offer.  And then there’s the question—especially as a teacher—of what I feed in others.


As the title implies and the 3,000 posts testify, I have been blessed—with the help of Carl Orff, jazz and my own intuition— to have found a way to create an instant community of divine souls through the simple vehicles of playing, singing and dancing together. I have the power to help re-awaken dormant inner children hungry to play and explore again after being locked in the closet by the demands of adulthood. And equally the power to invite the evolving adult to step up to the responsibility of moving toward being a life-sustaining elder and eventual ancestor. I’ve lived a life of awakening Spirit in a church without dogma, blind faith or required belief. My hope and aim is—and always has been—to feed the God in each child and adult I have the good fortune to teach. 


Of course, that God is not that bearded white guy with his capricious moods and his vindictive punishments deciding who shall smite and who shall be smitten, but that un-nameable Spirit that lies behind, within, throughout all sentient beings. And the Devil is not a horned red creature making deals and threatening eternal hellfire— goodness knows we have enough of those walking in the halls of Congress—but it is us when we make the wrong mistakes, get into the wrong kind of trouble, make the cowardly choices when we don’t step up to our own promise. And then try to blame others for our own failure.


So in this decade of sharing my triumphs and tribulations, my faith and my doubts, my affirmations and my outrages, there it all is stretched out behind me, a long, long litany of trying to write the world into some sort of coherent shape and meaning, a place to take the wild horses stampeding in my head and let them loose to run for others to witness. I often wonder whether on some long rainy day—and it would take at least a Noah’s flood of 40 days and nights—I might read through them all again and see what they have to say to me.  Not likely, but it could be interesting. 

So thanks to all you faithful readers who have stuck with me, my hopes that they’ve brought you some comfort, affirmation, intriguing new ideas, entertainment and/or inspiration and tomorrow, I imagine I’ll just forge ahead with 3,001. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Forward and Back


“You can only go as far forward as you can reach back.”  Old proverb


I came across this pithy reminder about why I care so much about history. And why as a nation we are stuck in the eddy of the next mass shooting, the next police violence, the next hate crime. The news appears to us as random aberrations and “tragedies” asking for “our thoughts and prayers” when in fact it is the logical result of the unquestioned choices we have made over and over and over again. As long as we remain ignorant of those ever-cycling forces, we continue to be at their mercy. And it is clear beyond question that these forces are anything but merciful.


Of course, knowledge of history alone solves nothing when it is taught as it has been, as a dry series of dates and wars and successions of leaders. History is always tied to culture, tied to the prevailing notions about power and justice and our proper (or improper) place in this world. It is always tied to the limits of our knowledge, be it scientific, religious, humanitarian and the proper flow out of those swirling stuck eddies is to move downstream to the wider bodies of knowledge. We not only need to not what happened, but consider why it happened and measure it with the moral lens of what we now know and what we need to do to stop the things that harm us over and over and over again. 


And we know so little. When our reach into the past goes about as far as yesterday, our vision of the future can only travel as far as tomorrow. But when we immerse ourselves in the old stories, the histories we want to halt and the mythologies we want to re-awaken, our vision enlarges. That’s precisely the kind of education we need, in schools, in talk shows, in literature and film, in dinners with the neighbors (coming soon!). 


Reach back. Move forward. Simple to say, difficult to do. Let’s go. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

When the Hate Stops

I woke up sick this morning. Not the dreaded COVID, but that familiar feeling of a horrible sore throat, something I haven’t had for over a year. And of course, I was angry about it. Three more days of the grandkids visiting and I didn’t want to limp through it feeling sorry for myself. Or angry at Malik for giving me the cold! 


So as I was shaving, there were three or four of those drain flies who just will not go away. 

And in my anger, I wanted to kill them. And to my credit, I didn’t. Maybe I was remembering the old samurai stories of these professional fighters who weren’t allowed to kill in anger. (Though really, is it better to kill dispassionately?) Or I simply understood that yes, I was still annoyed with these damn flies and have no second thoughts about killing them when I can. But somehow it felt better to kill with annoyance than displace my anger about getting sick and take it out on them. Are you with me?


James Baldwin put it eloquently: 

 “I imagine that one of the reasons that people cling to their hates so stubbornly is that they sense that once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their pain.” 

And that speaks volumes of the millions who latched on to Trump as a shield to avoid looking at the pain in their own lives. Not only the unavoidable pain of simply being a human being, but their own personal failures and inadequacies that they’re unable to own. This is not politics, it’s character. It’s psychology. It’s the learned ability to face one’s shortcomings, carry one’s grief and not project it out on to others to avoid having to deal with it. It’s a lifestyle based on some twisted need to always have an enemy and to dump all one’s anxieties, fears, failures, shame and blame on to them. It’s about being mad about getting a cold and wanting to take it out on innocent drain flies.


But I didn’t. And neither should you. 


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Tough Enough (Though More Than I Thought)

Though I’ve been through it often enough (cough, cough) that I ought to know, still this sentence surprises me. 


Do you get it? Or do you need more incentive, like giving you water in a drought or offering you some dough hanging from a bough? It’s a tough puzzle. 


This came to mind when my 5-year-old grandson Malik was reading Harold and the Purple Crayon to me and almost effortless negotiated his way through a maze of words that he never should have been able to read. And yet he did. 


Short Proud Pop-Pop moment: Malik turned five this summer and started to work his way through the Bob books, the beginning readers along the order of “Bob sees Ted. Ted sees Bob.” He went from Book 1 to Book 12 and each victory was given the attention of 4thof July fireworks. When we re-united in December, he had reluctantly edged into the second series of Bob books.


Then three weeks ago, in a hotel in Ashland, he opened a drawer and pulled out the Holy Bibble (his pronunciation) and started reading from Genesis. But I mean actually reading it! During his week-long visit, he astounded us reading fluently through 4th and 5th grade level books and understanding what he was reading. And fiercely plowing straight ahead without stopping to sound things out in sentences like “fiercely plowing straight ahead without stopping to sound things out.” How could this be? And two weeks after that, here he is again reading some of the words in the opening sentence with no explanation whatsoever as to how they work and why they shouldn’t work except that English is one strange and difficult language!


So in case you missed it, here’s the opening two paragraphs again with a hint:


“Though I’ve been through it often enough (cough, cough) that I ought to know, still this sentence surprises me. 


Do you get it? Or do you need more incentive, like giving you water in a drought or offering you some dough hanging from a bough? It’s a tough puzzle.”


Whose idea was it to give the same 4 letters some 5 or 6 completely different pronunciations? And exactly why is English the new universal language?



Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Bach's Belated Birthday Bash

I was six years old when I began taking organ lessons and thirteen when I quit. My swan song was performing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Minor on the high school organ, a triumph that was recorded on a record I still have. When I switched schools in 9thgrade, I had the good fortune to land in one that had just built a 2,000 pipe organ and so I continued to play Bach for the next four years. 


It’s not easy to house a pipe organ in your home, so I switched to playing Bach on piano. Especially in the last ten years or so. The French Suites, the English Suites, the Two-Part Inventions, the Goldberg Variations. Recently I dove into the Preludes and Fugues, 24 of them in one book and another 24 in another. That will keep me busy!


Each piece offers so much: a callisthenic work-out for the fingers, a re-firing of the analytic mind, a tour through the 12-keys of the Western canon and a balm for the heart and soul. Each day is a re-affirmation of how far the human mind can reach, who deep human emotion can go, how wide the imagination can travel. Each day I marvel at this man who wrote so many notes—probably a few million—and each and every one in its proper place. I could spent a few hours composing a simple arrangement for the 4thor 8thgraders and here is this man, with quill pen and paper, creating music of extraordinary complexity day after day after day. It simply never fails to astonish and astound, at once making me inspired by the possibilities of the human mind, ear, body and heart and abashed at how little I have accomplished. 


And so on March 21st, Bach would have been 336 years old. And he is! Because as long as his music is played, he is very much alive and still with us. Preparing for the return of my grandchildren ( a mere two weeks since they last came to visit from Oregon!), I missed the occasion, but yesterday I made up a little game, teaching them how to properly sit and listen to music at a classical music concert and how to applaud politely at the end. And then I played Prelude No. I in Volume II of Preludes and Fugues and they listened in rapt silence. And their applause at the end was sincere. At 5 and 9 years old, with no formal training, they could feel the beauty and energy of the piece. 


And so Bach was re-born yet again in the minds and hearts of a new generation, a perfect birthday present for him. Happy belated birthday to Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach!


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Hedge School

In a world in which people of color have been victims of colonialism, genocide, slavery, war, oppression, there seems to be one group of white folks that share some of this history— the Irish. The colonizing British forbade their language, their religion, sought to destroy their cultural identity, all with the same tactics used in all corners of the British Empire that wreaked such havoc on black folks in West Africa, South Africa, East Africa, Australia, the Caribbean, the U.S., on Asians in India, Malaysia, Hong Kong and beyond. 


One of the tactics was to forbid education, to keep the populace ignorant and make reading and writing inaccessible and in fact, the teaching of it illegal. But the history of colonialism has a parallel history of resistance and Ireland was no exception. In the early 1800’s, the Irish began teaching their children in what was called Hedge Schools, underground gatherings out in the hedges (though in actuality, mostly indoors). The monoculture of Empire was purposefully subverted by Hedge School teachers not only trying to teach the basics of the 3R’s, but to maintain the Gaelic language and keep the forbidden Catholicism alive. 


I love the image of classes gathering in the bushes and the subversion of the monoculture by keeping the gifts of traditional culture alive. In a similar way, the alternative school movement of the 60’s in the U.S. was a Hedge School of sorts refusing “the Establishment,” keeping the humanitarian practices of Montessori or Steiner or Pestalozzi or Dewey alive and growing, refusing to treat education as training for the monolithic military-industrial complex and digging down into the roots of a shared humanity through attention to critical thought, literature, poetry, the arts and social justice. 


The San Francisco School where I taught for 45 years began as one such place, founded in 1966 with Montessori at its core and slowly and organically growing beyond what Maria could initially envision, especially in the arts. We took our shoes off before coming in the school building, served our own healthy hot lunches, went camping for as long as 7 days and reveled in both a whimsical and deeply serious ceremonial calendar which we created to fit our particular character. 


Just about all surviving such schools now have a tuition 30 times higher, have joined associations of independent schools, have drunk the Kool-aid of computers in all classes and while talking the talk of independence, creativity and diversity, have somehow become part of the new monolith of Corporate Culture and so many look alike, feel alike, act alike. 


And the same process at work in that other Hedge School, the work of Orff Schulwerk gathering in elementary school gyms or church basements or university dance studios. Where we once danced to our own drummer, now it’s often the National Standards or the Curriculum Committees or the school “best practices” learned at some Conference that is calling the tune and disguised as freedom, we’re dancing to the proscribed steps. 


It’s time to bring back the Hedge School. Outdoors in reality and/or spirit, intimate and particular, in conscious resistance to monoculture and dominance of the powerful. See you at the rhododendrons. 

Pecking with a Purpose

Like everyone, I live two lives. A day life where I am mostly in charge. I choose which piano pieces to play and for how long, where to go for my daily walk or bike ride, what to cook, what evening TV to watch (last night the classic film Laura – it holds up) and so forth. 


And then a night life where I descend into dreams and someone else is in charge. Still many dreams about teaching at school (sometimes in my underwear), giving Orff workshops hither, thither and yon, missing flights at airports.  


Last night’s was sitting next to the extraordinary jazz pianist Art Tatum and watching as he served up  Tea for Two up and down every note of the piano at his usual lightning speed.  But there was one curious moment when all but one octave of the keys simply disappeared and he pecked around with his right hand only trying to get to some essence of the tune with limited choices while shouting “Knowledge! I need knowledge!!” It was musically interesting and philosophically intriguing and then the dream switched to a small town where I was walking back to my hotel with a dog, cat and two chickens. At some point, the night muse dictated the title phrase “pecking with a purpose,” I dutifully wrote it down at 3:30 am and here I am the next day. It seemed so profound at the moment and now it just seems odd. 


But you take what you’re given and just as chickens peck around all day for any available food to sustain their life, so does the pianist on the keyboard look for spiritual sustenance. With intent and purpose. 


As my daughter used to say, for better or worse, that’s my DTOD—"deep thought of the day.” And may I recommend listening to Art Tatum if you never have? 


Saturday, March 20, 2021

Letter to Garrison Keillor


Having just finished Garrison Keillor's memoir That Time of Year, I was struck by so many parallels in our very different lives. And so I decided to write him a letter. Not knowing his address, I'll just place it here. If you know him, feel free to pass it on!


Dear Mr. Keillor,                                                                                


It seems that all good writers are saying the same thing— “You are not alone.” 


That general truth sometimes is an astounding particular truth. Having just spent 19 hours with you listening to your Audible memoir, I’m struck by so many parallels in our very different lives. No reason that you should care, but if you want to brew a cup of tea and read on, you might find it interesting to see so many points of intersection between our separate stories. As follows:  


• In 1975, one year after you began your radio show, started a music program in a progressive school in San Francisco. Based on the Orff approach to music education, I taught kids from three years old to eighth grade. 


• You stumbled into a mythical world that captured the imagination of millions, I stumbled into an emerging school culture where “all the women were smart, the men good-looking and the children above average.” We helped shape the hearts and minds of thousands of children and in my parallel work training teachers to make kids happy through music, indirectly touched a few hundred thousand kids. 


• You had a helluva good time with a small group of people doing good work far beyond their job contract simply because it's satisfying and fun to do good work. The teachers I started out with did exactly the same. The head of school was the 2nd grade teacher who shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure, why not?” when a group of parents suggested he take over that job. He was always “Terry” to us and sat with us around the peanut-shaped table that a parent made as we considered where the next brick in our world-as-we-wanted-to-see-it building project should be laid. And like the Roman architects of old, we stood under the arches we constructed when the scaffolding was pulled away. If it fell on our heads, it was our fault and it was back to the drawing board. Nobody looking over our shoulder, no National Standards to uphold, no triplicate lesson plans to turn in, just good teachers with good sense who loved what they did.


• You sang songs without any formal training as a singer and got to sing duets with some remarkable musicians. I sang songs without any formal training with 100 remarkable musicians—the elementary school children— every day for 20 minutes. Every day! The full tapestry of America’s rich folkloric cloth, from the train songs to the frolic tunes to the cowboy songs to the sea chanteys to the hero ballads. And then the marvelous “happy songs” from the 30’s—Side by Side, Sunnyside of the Street, High Hopes, Pick Yourself Up—alongside other greats from the Great American Songbook. And songs from each and every continent in some fifteen different languages. You’d walk into the audience and create an instant community with Home on the Range, I did the same each and every day with children. Now I have a monthly Zoom sing with alums who are in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s singing the old repertoire, now with their kids on their lap or by their side.


• You told stories that created pin-drop listening without a piece of paper in your hand. Though not as artfully, I did the same at select Singing Times, at the school ceremonies, around the campfire on the school camping trips. And then every year, we brought stories to life in plays based on the old fairy tales/ folk tales/ myths with original scripts that I wrote, kids playing music on Orff instruments, singing, dancing and of course, acting. And always humor. No play got through without the Shirley joke in it at least once. 


• Like Cole Porter effortlessly moving between a poetic “purple night in Spain” and “cellophane,” you kept high and low culture dancing together and it worked brilliantly. I did the same, creating a cycle of ceremonies that included:


-      Welcoming kids on the first day of school with Bulgarian bagpipeswater-pouring ceremoniesBalinese gong-ringing.


-      A ritual Halloween performance based on Intery Mintery. a nonsense nursery rhyme.


-      The annual St. George & the Dragon Mummer’s play with a Dragon, Giant, Fool and that quack Doctor John Brown who has been to “Italy, Spittaly, France and Spain.”


-      A serious Martin Luther King Ceremony with the roof raised as kids join together to sing We Shall Overcome,combined with the story (true) of how just hours before he was murdered, Dr. King had a pillow fight with his colleagues. 


-      The Cookie Jar Contest. Quarter-finals/ semi-finals/ and finals to see who can win this rhythmic kid’s game. Winner gets a cookie jar of cookies and if they beat me, I take them out for an ice cream sundae. (Happened once in four decades).


-      The Samba Contest. 1st– 5thgraders create dance routines while Middle Schoolers play scintillating Brazilian rhythms. 


-      Mud Pie dessert on the last day of school—ice cream, oreos, chocolate sauce and the ritual earning of the Mud Pie. One minute of complete stillness and silence from the kids while I make fart sounds and such to try to make them laugh. If they do, they lose their Mud Pie. (Though we always secretly restore it.)


-      After the final arms-locked singing of Side By Side, the teachers line up outside for a Hug Line and the kids go through hugging each one as they head off into summer. 

(Will it be restored after the Pandemic? We shall see.)


In short, you felt the grand pleasure of taking things seriously with a relaxed touch, of hitting some moments of profundity amidst the jokes, made more powerful because of the jokes. Working with kids, both in my formal music classes and in these school celebrations, I knew it had to be fun, it had to be playful, it had to make kids giggle—and it did. And also brought some deep serious moments that will echo down their ages. 


• You kept at it for 40 years. I did the same for 45. (Just retired last June). If it’s worth doing, it’s worth hanging in for the long haul— and we both did. 


Interesting? Hold on, there’s more!


• Times changed, as they do, and inside of your show and inside of my classroom at the turn of the century, we were luckily able to go on our merry way. But outside, the lawyers were circling, the corporate culture was sending in spies, the fear-mongers were knocking on the door and the rule-followers had their books open taking notes. Our head retired in 2008, administration populated like rabbits from 3 to 25, the pronouns “them” and “us” replaced “we.” Risk committees were formed, decision-making hierarchies that felt like giant pinball machines replaced talking around the peanut table, the ball bouncing down the chain of command triggering the flashing lights and bells and whistles, a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. What a kid might feel if you looked at them funny was a three-hour meeting with a team of therapists. The school that publicly admired Martin Luther King suspended me twice and put me on probation for a year for the crime of speaking truth to power and many (though not all) of my once-courageous colleagues fell strangely silent. 


Your chapter CEO had me jumping up and down in the car while I was listening! I’m not famous enough to get the big sharks circling, but I related 100% to the darkness of feeling that an issue that could have been handled with fingernail scissors was attacked with a chain saw. Like you, I struggled with that Shakespearean betrayal and had to find my own way out, which I did—though without the help of a black woman priest (such a lovely story you told there). But finally I can talk about it without my voice raising and it does help to know that others have suffered the same— and yet more so. (Having reached a greater height, you fell to a greater depth and shame, shame, shame on all those people who sat by and just watched without offering a hand. Or turned their heads away). 


• And a bonus connection: Fred Newman came to our school twice, once to work with the kids and once to give a workshop to local music teachers. Such a stellar human being!


So there you have it. A New Jersey kid Jewish by blood, Unitarian by upbringing, Zen Buddhist by choice grows up and moves to California and gets paid for singing, dancing, playing music with children and somehow feels connected to a Minnesotan raised by the Brethren who also gets paid for storytelling and singing. Both have the incredible good fortune of building a life around a strange set of skills that have no obvious slot in the marketplace, get to travel around the country (and the world—I’ve given Orff teacher courses in some 48 countries) and hang out with people—kids and adults— who maintain our mutual faith in goodness in spite of all the media evidence to the contrary. You help restore the childlike wonder of grown-ups listening to a story like they’re kids and I get to work with the kids themselves and as you say, “nothing you ever do with children is wasted.”


There’s my evidence for the court in the case of “We are not alone.” Of course, the big difference besides the glorious magnitude of your success and the modest scale of my own, is that I listened off and on to your show for decades, have read just about all of your books (particularly loved Homegrown Democrat), love your three poetry collections and your written introduction in each, have seen you live in San Francisco some 10 or more times, both with the show and without. You haven’t read any of my nine books or taken an Orff workshop with me—but hey, if I give one in Minnesota in the next few years, I’ll invite you.  Like you, at almost 70 years old, I feel like my best is yet to come. May it be true for us both!


In great appreciation and gratitude,


Doug Goodkin: Music teacher