So what exactly do you do?
I’m a performing artist, songwriter, storyteller, author, workshop leader, radio commentator/host, and educator. Mostly, I use language and music to talk about the way I see the world – especially the world that kids inhabit. – I figure I do about 200 shows a year –everything from standing under backboards in elementary school gyms to keynotes at educational conferences to concert halls with orchestras. I’m also an artist in residence at the Paul Cuffee School, a public charter school in Providence, RI, just to keep in touch with a group of kids and teachers on a continued basis so I know what they’re up to and what they respond to. On days when I’m not performing, my promise to myself is that I’ll write for at least an hour a day – it might be a song, it might be a chapter of a book, or it might be a piece for radio. I have figured out how to keep enough balls in the air to keep things interesting for myself. And those around me, too, I guess. While I can drive myself crazy, I wouldn’t be happy just being a songwriter, or just an author.
What makes you different from other singer/storytellers?
In terms of my audience – I’ve been entertaining families and kids for twenty-five years – long enough to start to see the second generation of kids come along. “My mom grew up listening to you,” is a comment I’m getting more and more, which is scary, but gratifying, too. And my interest is in trying to entertain both parts of the equation – kids and parents. I think good material ought to work on a couple of different levels – something for each segment of the audience I work with. At the heart of it is an effort to honor the emotional lives of people in a family and show it in a way that everybody can see and relate to. That’s an element that is often missed in family entertainment, and it is not all that easy to do. I love the notion that all people can be entertained together. There are times when I look out in the audience and see that we’re all sharing in something together, and I’m the catalyst for that. It is very rewarding.
I’m pretty interested in the connection between language and song – they go together in a great way – one complements and reinforces the other – and my shows and recordings reflect that. I don’t know of many other artists who combine music and story in the same way but I am telling stories, even in my songs and some of my stories also incorporate music. All of my work requires some listening and attention; my shows are not dance parties though they are very participatory.
What does winning the Grammy mean - twice now? Has it changed your life?
Winning the Grammy was a surprise – even the second time – and a wonderful one. To a great extent, it’s a sign that there are enough people in the recording industry – mostly artists and producers who work with children and families – who know and respect my work. While winning the Grammy in spoken word for children is a door opener in some instances, and though it changes how I’m introduced, it hasn’t, and probably won’t change the nature of what I do or how I live. It’s rare for an award to change someone’s life, I think. It was gratifying to hear from so many people – friends and strangers – who feel like they had some small part in being part of my work and were happy for me. That was pretty humbling. And, I wish that everyone could be so affirmed in his or her work – it would be a different world.
What are you trying to do as a performer?
I’m looking to build community, provide some common language for everyone in the audience and somehow speak to the feelings and experiences we all share. I feel like I’ve done my job when I see a kid elbow a parent, or vice versa, about a particular line, or song, saying, in a way, “See!” or “Hey, that’s us.” In a live performance, I also want the audience to feel like they’ve experienced something together, as a group of people. Thematically, I’m trying to bring some more tolerance to our world – whether it’s between parent or teacher and child, or different groups of people. My underlying concern is that we really have a small planet with limited resources and we have to do a better job at getting along with other living things on the planet, whether they’re humans or komodo dragons. Well – maybe not komodo dragons – they scare the heck out of me. Everything but komodo dragons. I think the messages in my work, even when it’s humorous, reflect that. In the end, I think we all have more in common than we realize or care to admit. One of my newest songs is called, “Everybody’s a baby about something.” The first verse is about my sister who has to have the noodles made just right. The next one is about the brother who has to sit by the window. And the third verse is all the things that adults do: the car got scratched, they lost their keys, got stuck in traffic… Then the chorus goes:
Everybody’s a baby about something.
Something makes everybody whine.
Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, , wah
It’s about the human condition. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Where do you think the place of music and stories should be in society (or family or both)?
Music and story are expressions of who we are as individuals and a culture. People use stories to explain their lives – who they are, what they want, where they’re going. In a way, the simplest definition of a teacher is someone who gives us stories so we can make our own –and that’s what I happen to do. Historically, music has been (until the past seventy-five years) an expression of community. Ipods are fine, but music’s greatest power is to be cultural – an expression of community. So, songs help define a family unit, a town, or a group of people who come to see me in a concert. And vocalizing is important for all of us – not just in the car with the windows rolled up. We ought to do it together. I learned from Pete Seeger that song leading is as important as songwriting and performing – it’s giving people back power they should have and building a community we all belong to.
How long have you been performing children’s music?
I started working with kids and music in college, running a day camp, and have been doing it ever since. I’m over fifty now – so there you go. I guess it’s my job.
Do you have any kids?
I’ve got two sons– Noah and Dylan, both of who are grown and in the world. They are amazing people (this from their father). And really, like another songwriter said, being a father “is not the thing I do best, but it’s the best thing I do.” They are both good musicians, and we’ll have to see if I’ve passed on the curse for performing. Both are writing songs and have a twisted sense of humor. Everybody always wants their kids to play music, until they discover the kid might consider it as a career. Ack! Whatever they choose is fine. Having grown up in a household that surrounded them with musicians, artists, social activists, international students and parents who (as they like to remind us) are ‘not normal’ they have a, um, slightly skewed view of the world. They seem pretty happy with it.
How have your kids influenced your music and stories?
At various times, my kids have provided some material for me – through their stories, their behavior and my reaction to it, or their comments about life. As they got older, they became judges of my material, and are pretty insightful now about what makes a good song or story – they have grown up around musicians and storytellers, and know more about it than I did at their age. The best thing about it, though, is that they understood my work, and appreciated it, which is a gift to me that a lot of parents don’t get to experience. It wasn’t bad for them, either, to have a father who performs for kids, although, my younger son did threaten to make a t-shirt that said either “No, I’m not going to be a storyteller” or “No, he didn’t tell me stories – he was telling them to you!” But that’s what a wise guy father gets – apples falling close to the tree. Now, of course, their job is to keep me up to date with what’s happening musically. They’re always filling my iPod with things they think I need to hear. Or giving me books I need to read. They’re usually right.
What about your writing for books? How does that fit into your schedule and performance work?
It’s one more thing I’m interested in and working on. I still feel I have a long way to go in becoming a good author. And the publishing industry is tough – at least for me, even though I’ve had some success in getting published. I’m hoping that I can write one or two books that are very well received, and that will open the door towards more work. There are many similarities across the different disciplines in art, and that’s fascinating to me. From my interest in writing, I’ve learned that it’s the showing up – the habit of work – not the inspiration, that is the real measure of whether you’re an artist. Or at least a very good craftsman.
What advice would you give new parents in raising a child?
A few simple things – it’s a fine art, not a science, and you’re bound to make some mistakes, but kids are pretty resilient.
That said – eat dinner together whenever possible – language, culture, manners, and love are all learned at the table.
Limit the diet of media – the kids whose parents screen the amount and content of television and video are almost always better off. The stories you have are more important than any on the television. Doing things is better than watching others do them.
Read to them – kids need a lot of language early.
Take the time to explain why you’re doing things in a way they can understand – a lot of times a good explanation saves some knockdown, drag out fights over everything from ice cream to naps to borrowing the car. And then, when the explanation is clear, one reason is good enough – I went through a period in our house when the boys called me “Dr. No.” I can live with that.
Leave the things around the house that you want them to use – piles of books, instruments, art equipment, balls of various kinds. We sacrificed instruments and books - they are furniture to be used.
You have been performing to children nationally for 25 years and after seeing many generations of children in audiences, how do you feel about the relationship between parents and kids from when you started out to today?
The relationship between parents and kids has stayed the same for eons, but the conditions have changed. The almost incessant noise of the media and hucksterism is exhausting, and the pace of life we have created makes it hard to stop and think about what’s important. As a result, we don’t think and instead we respond to stimulus. We talk to each other less now, we’re less active in our communities, and we don’t know our neighbors as well. All of those interactions – things we’re missing - can foster a wealth that isn’t measured in dollars. As a result of our missing them, we feel isolated –both as individuals and families. But really, that’s something that we can change. Humans need contact with each other, and in a family, it’s really up to the adults to try and make that happen.
I think kids come to school today with much less cultural background – missing a web of support and understanding that a family and culture has traditionally provided. That can be something as simple as knowing Mother Goose rhymes or the words to ten different songs. Again, this can be changed, and it would be nice to have leaders that really encouraged this, rather than just pay lip service to it. In my work, I try not to reference the latest gadget or fad, but instead talk about the interactions that have been the same since the first parent asked the first kid to take the mastodon bones out of the cave to the midden heap.
“WHY DIDN’T YOU DO THAT?”
“BECAUSE I FORGOT!”
Those things don’t change – and our ability to learn hasn’t changed either – it’s regenerative. Ironically, we call ourselves the richest country in the world, but most people feel trapped by circumstance. I think we can do better than that.
What’s the best part of your job?
It’s hard for me to choose. I love writing and creating new things, I love music – I’m happy playing guitar or piano an hour or two a day. And, when the conditions are right, there aren’t many things better than performing. And believe it or not, I like the people I stand in front of – I find people, and kids especially, particularly interesting. Hotel rooms? Not that great. Delayed flights? Nope. Anxiety about whether I’ll ever write another good song? Horrible. Other than that, I’m lucky, I work on something I love every day and I get to make people laugh. Spreading joy in a world that’s short on it is a great way to spend time.
What’s in the future for Bill Harley?
I have a recording of some of my favorite folk songs (Songs We Sing) in the works and am working on the next book in my Charlie Bumpers series. I've received a commission with composer/friend Paul Phillips to write a family opera for the North Cambridge Family Opera Company. Called Weedpatch, it's loosely based on historical accounts of Oklahomans who immigrated to California’s Central Valley in the 1930s. And, I'm planning to write a book for parents about storytelling. I’m spending a lot of time now thinking and talking about how story works in people’s lives, and how story and song can be used in learning environments and at home. This has led to a deeper investigation of language. So, in a way, while still performing and creating works of art, I’d like to talk more about story and song’s place in the world and in our lives. My blog “Song, Story and Culture” continues to be a discussion about many of the topics I'm thinking about.