“Are These Stories True?

May/June News 2019

“Are these stories true?” The question came from a fourth grader who was seated at a desk at the back of the classroom. It was inspired by an age-appropriate but honest description of life in slavery. It’s a question that I’ve heard many many times, and as always, I smiled, and then in as calm a voice as I could muster, I said, “Yes, these stories are all true. I know it’s hard to believe. But you don’t have to believe me. You can look them up.”
This is work I love to do. I get great joy performing for thousands in groups small and large, and traveling the world singing at house concerts, in concert halls, festivals, and in famous art centers. There is nothing, however, like the magic of being in a local school somewhere in America talking about issues that many adults think we should hide from kids. My programs on the Underground Railroad, slavery, and Civil Rights are moments when I feel the most hope for the future of our world.

Kids are honest, open, curious, and more than happy to entertain themselves if you don’t happen to be interesting or if you seem like you’re trying to hide something. Whether I’m telling a story to 200 kindergartener-to-third graders, or I’m teaching “Wade In The Water” to the most cool, disinterested-looking 9th-through-12thgraders on the planet, my 40 years of engaging with students from every region of the country in concert, classroom, or during a residency has taught me that there’s a way in. The goal is somehow to discover the way in together, and music and story help students discover, engage, and then demonstrate their learning in ways that are not only fun, but universally effective.

In pictures and letters that come through the mail weeks after a performance, students show that lessons on Harriet Tubman, Henry “Box” Brown, or the marching children of 1963 Birmingham have hit the mark. Teachers report, “The students are still singing those songs, and they’ve made connections to present-day students in Parkland, Florida and Columbine, Colorado.” The connections between past and present become more than words on a page. One of my favorite pictures was drawn by a second grade girl after an Underground Railroad program. She drew herself crying, with a thought bubble showing a girl in slavery. I love the drawing because it demonstrated the emotional impact of slavery, her understanding of injustice, and her ability to reflect on it.

Some days I’m arriving with the janitor at 7am, others I’m doing workshops for educators, and still others I’m leaving a college classroom at 10:00 at night, but it’s all work that makes me feel vibrant and alive and the positive effect on my life and work is deeper than I can say.

In learning, joy, and song,



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