The power of story
Before I get to the meat, you need to know my three daughters are a little twisted. At fourteen my oldest, who is now nineteen and ready to start her second year of college, said to me:
“Dad, if I tell you a joke that’s pretty bad will you promise not to get mad?”
After I thought something like Pshh, If she only knew… I said “Sure, Honey, lay it on me.”
It went like this:
“How many dead hookers does it take to change a light bulb?”
Holy cow, I thought, and my eyes must have widened a little because she laughed.
“I don’t know, how many?” I said.
Now, see, I am going to make you wait for the punch line. If I’ve offended you already, that’s fine, you can check out. But if you want some ideas on how to use songs to create great thinkers then hang in there and the punch line will just be a bonus. Not because you are secretly twisted or because me and my kids are openly so, but because it is an additional illustration of how our brain works and why, and what you can do to take advantage of that.
The power of song
Like jokes, songs capture our brain-but they put it to work in a deeper and more complex way. Where a joke is a powerful and visceral way to microwave your thinker like a burrito, one that you can’t help but love and grab out of the freezer when the mood for a quick, sinful snack strikes, a good song is a slow cooker that creates a hearty stew. A classic and satisfying thought-meal.
Let’s start with bad, sad country music.
In terms of country music, I think I’ve only ever owned a Johnny Cash album. I am not a huge fan of the genre, especially the new stuff that tries to pretend it’s rock and roll. But there is something about a country song that tells a story. Especially those sappy old ones about some guy’s cheatin’ wife, some kid’s dead mamma… I think it was Red Sovine that had one where a guy drives his truck to a flower shop to send his mother flowers for her birthday (because he isn’t going to go and actually see her on his trip to party it up in Florida). He meets a kid buying flowers for his mamma’s birthday, cuz he hasn’t seen her in a year. Well, you know where the boy is taking those flowers, don’t you?
If you don’t, give it a listen. It’s called Roses for Mamma. It “gets me” every time.
And you know why? Because it told a story that held you soft and gentle, just wouldn’t let you go, and delivered in the end-and I loved that! But I’m the type that could hear a few of Harry Chapin’s songs (after having already heard them a thousand times) and still tear up and get a lump in my throat. I play a few on the guitar and sometimes singing them becomes tough because I fall victim to the story. I think about it, I embrace the characters and their situations, I celebrate their joy with them, and feel their pain… In the minutes it takes for the song to play you might live their lives with them. Chapin’s Dreams Go By is a great example. A song that follows a man from the courtship of his wife in their youth to the visits from their grandchildren, with wistful “what-if’s” at each stage. But it’s a lifetime of powerful love with no regrets, delivered in a few minutes with a rather jaunty tune and a beat. It’s a happy song, really, but I well up with sentimentality because the world suffers from a lack of love like this.
How the pedagogy works
One of a teacher’s most powerful tools is story, especially one told well. Fewer students are coming to school having been spoken to in a brain-building, productive way these days, let alone read to or told great stories by an adult role model that loves great stories. Now, even when the book fair comes to school, it’s all flashy covers, books about magic tricks, dinosaurs and Captain Underpants… Yeah, I get the whole “Well you gotta’ get ’em hooked somehow, then you can build on that.” But you know what? By the time they come to school too much time has been wasted already.
Too many burritos and not near enough stew, you feel me?
As a parent or a teacher, if you can feed their young brains great stories at an early age, they will start to become more independent with feeding their own brains. They begin to search out stories, to dig into the story, pull out it’s bits and develop a palette for the flavors: what it is that makes the story funny, sad, surprising, scary… What makes this character the hero, the villain… and later on-what makes this character complicated, and complicated how. These are cognitive skills that, as they develop, allow the listener to become the creator and teller.
It also helps create the type of mentality that leads a father to sing Mary Had a Little Lamb with this slight alteration:
the teacher made her lock it up
lock it up, lock it up
the teacher made her lock it up
and for lunch they had lamb stew
Yeah, this was for Chloe, the daughter with the hooker joke. It was first grade, if I remember correctly, but I had sung it to her that way all through her childhood. She came home and reported how her teacher looked at her stunned, and how a few classmates had looked a little puzzled. Of course the teacher had been a colleague for years and knew how it was in my home so there was no counseling recommendation or anything. She told me about it and we had a good laugh. I still think the way I lay out the story is better, and more memorable, but hey-to each his own.
The pedagogy is anchored to the power of the story and the enjoyment found in listening and telling and talking together as meaning is searched for and responses are shared, respected and honored. And if it is wrapped in music it makes the experience deeper, even more memorable, and therefore more readily available for complex levels of thought.
I can even tell you the moment when my songs-can-be-great-stories world was first rocked. It had to be a country song, of course (it’s a real love/hate relationship). Still not a fan of the music, but this song did it so good I can even explain the stages my brain went through. A definite savory stew moment where my mind bit, tasted, and then went whoa! I was barely a teen, but I never listened to songs the same way again.
How it happened to me
I was probably 13 years old. My stepfather was a huge country fan, so it was playing all the time. George Jones, singing that very well-known He Stopped Loving Her Today came on. Now I had heard it a million times, and the whole story of the George and Tammy (Wynette) drama existed in my periphery, so I knew the song… But maybe this was the first time I had really listened because of…well, you know.
Girls. Once you get interested in them and you think your heart has been broken, you’re more receptive to all that $#!+ . This is how it went on that fateful day-lines of the song, followed by my thoughts.
He Stopped Loving Her Today (George Jones)
He said “I’ll love you till I die” (Hmmm…kinda sappy and sweet, but hey, it’s a country song.)
She told him “You’ll forget in time” (Ouch, buddy! The ol’ “it’s not you, it’s me,”…that’s gotta hurt.)
As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind (Yeah, okay, you miss her…I get it)
He kept her picture on his wall, went half-crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all, hoping she’d come back again (now it’s starting to feel a little loser-ish…c’mon guy)
Kept some letters by his bed dated nineteen sixty-two
He had underlined in red every single “I love you” (Uhhhh…now it’s a little weird, dude. You gotta move on.)
I went to see him just today, oh but I didn’t see no tears (Yes- Finally he’s over it! I wonder what happened.)
All dressed up to go away, first time I’d seen him smile in years (A vacation-great idea! Go somewhere tropical, pick up a cute girl on the beach…You da man!)
He stopped loving her today (‘Bout freakin time!)
They placed a wreath upon his door (Huh?…I’d prank my buddy while he’s away too, but that’s weird- I don’t get the wreath joke.)
And soon they’ll carry him away (“Carry him awaaaaait a minute…)
He stopped loving her today (OHMIGOD…He said I’ll love you “til I die”! He loved her, she left him and he still loved her, and he’s all dressed up in the coffin with that embalmed peaceful grin and there’s a wreath on his door and the pall bearers will carry him away, and, and… He loved her til he died!)
The first time I really listened, I got what my girls call “the feels”. It happens anytime I hear a great song or read/hear a great story.
And now here’s how I’ve use it
When Chloe, my first-born (dead hooker joke girl), was itty biddy: singing songs, dancing, telling stories, doing the voices and making stuff up about the stories, talking about characters…all that was common. On top of that, Chloe had a touch of the performer in her. So one of my favorite things to do besides teach her naughty lyrics to kids songs was to teach her the real lyrics to great story songs. It started with Cher’s Gypsies Tramps and Thieves and Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue. For Cher’s Gypsies, Chloe once asked
“Dad, why did the men ‘lay their money down’?”
My response was “I guess her mom musta been a real good dancer.”
It’s the story a young girl whose life story was molded through being an outcast of society, some unsafe sex with a drifter and the resulting daughter of her own, while at the same time being empowered by her personal and cultural identity. Chloe was very cute doing a Cher voice as a little girl. Way cuter than me doing it that’s for sure. I didn’t explain the sex with a drifter part-just the other stuff.
A Boy Named Sue is just a fun song. There’s a curse word at the end that I taught her, but I also taught it to her with the censorship “booop” near the end after the father-son brawl. With my children I teach them that part of demonstrating maturity in your learning is being judicious sometimes about how when and where to use what you’ve learned . Sue is a song about a man looking back on the trials and tribulations in his life caused by a father and a name. Chloe was singing it half-sedated as she was wheeled away for heart surgery when she was ten years old.
The ability of a good story-song to draw you in, to keep you listening and help you learn is why I use songs whenever I can with my own children. We are constantly singing together. And because I’m no dummy- I choose songs a little more carefully for use in school. I can’t go warping other peoples’ children.
Other people’s children
First, let’s finish up with one of my own:
Q: How many dead hookers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Must be more than five, because my basement’s still dark.
Sad songs about a dead guy who never got over his wife leaving, naughty gypsy girls and a cowboy beating up his estranged father in a saloon might not be as bad as dead hooker jokes, but they’re still not classroom ready. There are some much better choices that are great for incorporating into your instruction for essential aspects of literacy. One fine example is Right Field.
Written by Willy Welch, this song was brought to my attention first by Peter, Paul and Mary. After learning that Willy wrote it, and then reaching out to him about plans to teach my class the song and the story, he graciously sent me the sheet music with guitar chords that go with it. As far as I know Willy still performs and if I was near enough I’d get him to my school and my classroom. I am a poor substitute for the pros, but that class of clowns way back when did a pretty good job with it, and I’d bet this year’s class will do a great job.
I believe that because:
It’s a great story. Beyond the character/setting/sequence of events-type stuff, there are some deep thoughts wrapped up in it. The song is a story told from first person point of view about events in the singer/teller’s past. The first verse sets the stage in a couple of ways. It describes weekends during the summers of youth-a glorious time of life indeed.
Saturday summers, when I was a kid
We’d run to the schoolyard and here’s what we did
We’d pick out the captains and we’d choose up the teams
It was always a measure of my self esteem…
It also hints there at a matter most important to kids: self esteem. And this here is an awesome hook for pulling students into this song through the story it tells. Now I am not going to put down the lyrics in their entirety, but to support the self esteem take, the next verse goes:
Cause the fastest, the strongest, played shortstop and first
The last ones they picked were the worst
I never needed to ask, it was sealed,
I just took up my place in right field.
Now if you don’t know why that’s a self-esteem thing, the chorus tells you:
Right field, it’s easy, you know.
You can be awkward and you can be slow
That’s why I’m here in right field
Just watching the dandelions grow
The singer is recalling being the kid that was always the last pick. The inept, awkward non-athlete picked last every time…so much so that he just goes way out to the spot where the useless ones on the team go-to watch the dandelions grow. But for the sake of story and reader skill-building, turning point and character change are story elements that are ripe for study in this song.
Because as the song progresses, the singer describes being lost in a daydream of making a fantastic catch on the run, but then “coming to” and praying that the ball never really comes out to him. During this mental break, if I were to have this song played out on stage, actors in full costume would enter on both sides: little cupie angels in baseball caps with bats over their shoulders would twinkle-toe across the stage, hotdog vendors would pirouette, and popcorn salesmen would prance-tossing popcorn like magical pixie dust. If I do it with my class this year, that’s how I want to do it.
But now…turning point!
It becomes clear that the singer has lost track of his game. He’s out in the field, he knows some stuff happened but he’s not sure exactly what…but he realizes that everyone is looking his way and shouting at him.
Then suddenly everyone’s looking at me
My mind has been wandering; what could it be?
They point at the sky and I look up above
And a baseball falls into my glove!
(And then character change!)
Here in right field, it’s important you know.
You gotta know how to catch, you gotta know how to throw,
That’s why I’m here in right field, just watching the dandelions grow!
There are other songs that I plan on using this year when they apply to the content we cover, and I’ll be writing more about them, but this is about story and Right Field is a song that kicks off the year in a great way. It’s about kids, how they interact and play, how they feel about themselves and each other, and how easy it is to slip into low self esteem and how easy we can make it to lift everyone’s self esteem- if we remember we’re all playing on the same team.
Use those good songs when you find them. Dig into the stories. Print out the lyrics and sing along. It is a fantastic way to inspire readers.