Thoughts To Chew
Framing Our Songs
by Stuart Stotts and Peter Alsop
Stuart Stotts: Many years ago at a CMN gathering (I think it was in California), I went to a workshop that you were leading about performing. The conversation was geared toward how we could use music effectively to address issues important to both kids and adults. While we talked about specifics like audience seating and pacing of material, the thing that stuck with me most was about “framing.” Although I had thought about it before, I hadn’t heard it put so clearly and simply. Basically, the idea was that as performers we don’t need to have a song for every idea or issue we might encounter. What makes a difference is how we set up the song, or the context we put it in. Many songs can serve multiple purposes. Some songs are pretty specific and don’t necessarily reach beyond their particular focus. Others can be adapted widely. So rather than having ten different specifically targeted songs for every program or theme, there are many songs that can serve double, triple, or more duty.
Peter Alsop: I’m so glad that you got that and have found it useful! Singing for families provides us with a great opportunity to help kids, families, and even teachers. We can present an idea in our framing story as we introduce our next song that might model for them a way to address something they feel really stuck about, something going on with their family life that’s been troubling them.
Right. The idea of framing my songs really helps when I do school and library programs. Often there is a request to tie into a subject or theme, like Black History Month or the environment or bullying. It’s been helpful to provide a song or a framing story as the way into conversations about these sometimes loaded subjects. It can help the grownups see how they might bring the subject up, and then I can also model how they might address it with their kids by watching the way I talk to the students at the school.
Exactly! Yaaay! I’ve been excited recently about the #MeToo movement. It’s so great that women are speaking up in such numbers. That old pattern where the first woman who speaks up about a sexual predator or any sexual abuse gets blamed for “wearing provocative clothing” or “having a history of many sexual partners,” or is accused of “leading a man on, then changing her mind” after he became “too helpless” to stop his advances. Right? When numbers of women come forward with the same allegations about a man’s abusive behaviors, it’s so much harder to attack and blame the survivors. And as a male family singer/songwriter, my work needs to be with the little boys and men. I’d love to put out an album of songs for them that could address these issues in some way, to provide, as you say, a way into some conversations with boys and families that might help enlarge that child’s circle of caring to include little girls and women, instead of continuing the pattern that often sets up girls and women as “the other different tribe” that men and boys must “deal with.”
Right off hand I can’t think of many kid songs that one could do in a school setting to generate discussions about how to raise boys to be sensitive to girls, or train them to be emotionally aware advocates for gender equality. It’s hard to do songs that raise awareness about gender or sex issues in an elementary school.
True...but sexual abuse and rape aren’t really about sex, they are about the misuse of power. In 1980, I wrote “It’s Only a Wee Wee, So What’s the Big Deal” about a kid’s reaction to how grownups seem to focus on gender all the time, and I address some of the power issues that kids have to navigate growing up in our gender-laced socialization processes.
From It’s Only a Wee-Wee
by Peter Alsop
© 1981 Moose School Music (BMI)
It’s only a wee-wee, so what’s the big deal?
It’s only a wee-wee, so what’s all the fuss?
It’s only a wee-wee, and everyone’s got one,
There’s better things to discuss!
As soon as you’re born grown-ups check where you pee
And then they decide just how you’re supposed t’be
Girls pink and quiet, boys noisy and blue
Seems like a dumb way to choose what you’ll do!
You don’t actually play that in schools do you?
I did. Once! The kids loved screaming “wee-wee” during the chorus, but after school, when their parents asked them, “What did you do in school today, dear?” they answered, “We sang about wee-wees!” The principal told me his phone rang off the hook all evening! So I learned that even though “Wee-Wee” seems like a kids’ song, it’s really for parents, to get them laughing and thinking about how we limit our children’s possibilities by focusing on what we think of as gender-specific behaviors.
It’s hard to think of any kids songs that address #MeToo issues directly, but with framing there are many other songs that can serve that purpose. One song of many that comes to mind is “Won’t You Be My Partner,” a zipper song by Bruce O’Brien and his daughter, Emma.
From Won’t You Be My Partner
by Bruce O’Brien & Emma O’Brien
Won’t you be my partner to walk in the woods, (3x)
I am brave and you are brave and I’m brave, too.
In true zipper song fashion, we can zip in almost any activity: go down the slide, touch a worm, sing this song, etc. I’ve used this song for many years in different ways and it always works with young children. The lyrics can certainly provide a way into a conversation about treating each other fairly and equally, regardless of our age or gender. In this song, both people, or indeed all of us, can be brave. It’s not a competition. In fact, we could add that others’ bravery can encourage our own bravery. Being brave can be collaborative. These are ideas that challenge traditional ideas of what it means to be a big tough boy or a man.
Yeah, it works great. “This Little Light of Mine” can be used the same way. Our job is to think up a story to frame it. Maybe a little boy starts to “boy-splain” something to a little girl, who feels like she’s being spoken down to, so she sings him “This Little Light of Mine” until he gets it, finally sees the error of his little boy ways, and sings along with her! The frame story can model how to gently set a safe boundary with someone we like.
Which is why I like the concept of framing nondirect songs with a direct story to give it a different context. It seems like the easiest way to get these ideas out on the table.
I just thought of a kids’ song that’s pretty direct! I sang on the backup choruses with my friend Steve Denyes. He works hundreds of dates each year in the schools and libraries of San Diego with his group Hullabaloo. The song is called “I Wear Pink”!
From I Wear Pink
by Steve Denyes
© 2016 Steve Denyes
I play with dolls and I wear pink
I don’t care at all what anybody thinks
I started lovin’ pink when I was a kid
I wanted to play like my big sisters did
We dressed up in pink, with pink ribbons in our hair
We had fun and we danced like we didn’t have a care
All my sisters loved me and taught me to be proud
So when I sing this song, I sing this song loud!
That’s a song folks could use right now to open the door for discussions with kids about feelings, and about how boys can learn to treat girls with equality and respect, even before they reach puberty. Beyond simply modeling how to open up ideas that kids and adults might want to talk about, which is certainly important, there are a couple other perspectives that relate to this idea of raising boys and girls to live healthy emotional lives. One is simply the idea of asking for help. “Won’t You Be My Partner” does that beautifully. It’s hard for many of us men and boys to ask for help, because doing so is a way of expressing vulnerability, and that can be scary. It’s also a way to open a connection with someone else, maybe a girl, which many boys and men would like to do, but find difficult.
That’s for sure. There are lots of men nowadays trying to figure out what’s abusive and what’s just “taking the lead.”
The main thing is to make sure that when one person or the other says, “Stop” or “I’m scared” or “I don’t think I want to do this anymore,” then the other person needs to listen and not force their own agenda on the one who wants to stop. That’s about misuse of power. This is a powerful yet simple concept to discuss and reinforce with kids.
And we can teach that to little kids. They know that adults have more physical power. I’ve got a song called “Bigger, Bigger, Bigger” that addresses this directly. But it’s not enough to just build awareness about differences in physical power; it’s also about understanding emotional power, like the threat of emotional or social retribution or violence. I think you know my song “My Body.”
I’ve used that song on and off over the years. I love its message of self-empowerment, and the fun that’s in it, too. Plus, well, it’s just catchy.
I recently received Kari Kovik’s new CD, It’s You I Like, and she recorded a great version of “My Body” with a very sweet note attached:
I love the way “My Body” turned out! Actually, this song gets a lot of positive feedback from my listeners. I was at a party last night where a mom of a two-month-old told me it was her mantra during her labor. That’s a first! Also, a preteen used it to explain to a boy who liked her, to stop touching her. In these times especially, I think its message is so powerful, and I’m so glad I got it on this album when I did!
Here’s the song on a YouTube video if you’d like to see how I performed it in front of a live audience many years ago at a fundraiser for Kid Power.
by Peter Alsop
© 1983 Moose School Music (BMI)
My body’s nobody’s body but mine!
You run your own body, let me run mine!
My nose was made to sniff and to sneeze
To smell what I want, and to pick when I please!
My lungs were made to hold air when I breathe,
I am in charge of just how much I need!
My legs were made to dance me around
To walk and to run and to jump up and down!
My mouth was made to blow up a balloon
I can eat, kiss, and spit, I can whistle a tune!
No one knows my body better than me
It tells me, “Let’s eat!” it tells me “Go pee!”
Don’t hit me or kick me, don’t push or shove
Don’t hug me too hard when you show me your love
Sometimes it’s hard to say “No!” and be strong
When those “No!” feelings come, then I know something’s wrong
‘Cause my body’s mine from my head to my toe
Please leave it alone when you hear me say “No!”
Secrets are fun when they’re filled with surprise
But not when they hurt us with tricks, threats, and lies
Our body’s one body, one voice is heard
We each sing for freedom when we sing these words!
Thoughts to chew, indeed! I’d be curious if CMN folks, or any other people, have songs that address these current and important issues, either through a direct song or through framing connections.
Me too! Please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and let us know. We’d also love to hear any responses or thoughts about the conversation we’ve started here! We look forward to hearing from you!