Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
Last Friday my husband, Chuck, and I played folk music at the annual Farm Fair at our granddaughter’s school. We figured this was a great chance to expose the younger generation to a little-known-to-them genre, and in this way, to help keep it alive. We were told that there would be about 120 Kindergarteners in attendance. The Fair was to be organized into several stations among which the children would circulate, each one to have only 5-10 children at a time. We would set up in the corner of a classroom. Informed that our audience possessed an attention span of ten minutes at most, we were to bring just four songs.
I was excited but nervous. Would we be able to attract anyone to our station? Might we wind up as background music, like a couple of poor ignored nightclub singers. Since we would be competing with a multitude of other fun activities such as butter making and face painting, and possibly some real live farm animals, I decided to play it safe. I’d bring out the big guns and make our station not only a listening one, but interactive as well.
“I thought we were just going to play a few songs,” Chuck commented while watching me busily gathering a conglomeration of auxiliary instruments.
“Well, since we don’t know how this is going to come down, I think it’s better to have some back-up, just in case. You know, come prepared for anything,” I told him.
I managed to dredge up a nice selection, mainly percussive. Some were homemade. Sandpaper blocks, rubbed together, create a visceral friction sound. Various shakers, made out of plastic juice bottles and Easter eggs filled with noisy pebbles, serve as simple join-in instruments. To round out their experience, I included some more authentic instruments. Some Latin ones I had picked up at folk festival booths over the years included claves, hardwood sticks which hit together produce a resonant, sharp sound. A hollow wooden guiro, with its rows of carved grooves begged for a stick to rub them into making a rapid-fire, scraping sound. Completing the stockpile were the somewhat more usual tambourine, a couple of old-fashioned washboards with wooden spoons, and a washtub bass that I named “Bob”. At the last minute I threw in a wooden Appalachian limberjack doll, its jointed arms and legs ready to dance as the player held it over its bouncing paddle.
We decided upon traditional songs related to farm life: Old MacDonald and The Crawdad Song were no-brainers. Since we were performing in a public school we decided to err on the side of caution and play it politically safe. So for the song “Pick a Bale ‘O Cotton” we changed the words “O, Lordy” to “Oh, Mama”. Bill Staine’s “All God’s Critters” was a perfect song, if we switched out the words “God’s critters” for “the little critters”. We crossed our fingers that under pressure, no God words would slip out.
On the morning of the big day my husband pulled on his cowboy boots while I dawned bib overalls and a necklace with a colorful rooster pendant. We packed up two guitars, my fiddle and all the percussion instruments and headed out. At 7:45 a.m. we pulled up to the school, among scads of cars dropping off children. As we passed by one of the turquoise-painted picnic tables we noticed it was marked “Cow-Milking”. High above under its shade hung several rubber gloves, bulging with some kind of liquid, evidently all ready to be “milked”. The baby food jars filled with cream were already set out for shaking to make butter. One classroom door was marked “Small Animals Exhibit”. I knew it would be a good draw. Our room was easy to find. The sign outside read: “BISCUIT-MAKING, EXHIBITS, MUSIC.” At least we are in here with someone else, I thought, eyeing a table laid out with various children’s collections on proud display. Across the room one of the Kindergarten teachers was helping some parent volunteers set up for making biscuits. In the corner nearest the door stood two chairs and several carpet samples spread out theater-style, ready for little cross-legged listeners. Though I enjoy seeing the typical Kindergarten classroom, plastered with the latest lessons and artwork, I hardly noticed a thing today, being in a hurry to get unpacked. Halfway through the process our granddaughter’s Kindergarten teacher came in to fill us in on a last-minute plan.
“We thought you could help us out by keeping the children’s attention while they bring in the animals,” she said, leading me to a large painted circle on the asphalt outside. You can stand in the middle and all the children will stand around it. You’ll have to play in the round.…”
My first thought was panic. How in the world were we going to be able to pull this off? For one thing I couldn’t even imagine 240 pairs of little eyes and ears focused for more than a few minutes, let alone while live animals paraded nearby.
“We’ll do our best,” I said with a smile that was hard to maintain as the blood ran rapidly from my face. Hurriedly we rushed outdoors, my husband with his guitar and I with my fiddle. Soon children started streaming from their classrooms, encircling us.
They found their places, and stood dutifully quiet, serious and expectant. We started to play. No response. They remained blank-faced, like little overly-mannered statues. We played some more. Still, nothing but stares. We broke into “Pick a Bale “O Cotton” and I, in desperation, started jump and turning around, acting out the chorus line “jump down, turn around” while Chuck held down the guitar and vocal part. Finally our granddaughter’s Kindergarten teacher directed the children to jump and turn around. It was like she had pushed the “Go” button; about half of them leaped into action along with me while the other half remained motionless. What to do to bring the rest of them along?
“Didn’t you have any breakfast this morning?” my husband yelled out, chidingly. Suddenly the motionless ones started to laugh and then to join in. Just in time, because I was beginning to run out of breath.
Suddenly a voice came over the loudspeaker. We all knelt to the ground, intent on listening. “Welcome to our Farm Fair,” it said. Then it started into some general directions. When it finished, someone pointed toward the gate. We all waited, expectantly.
Soon a young woman entered with a large spotted pink pig in her arms. She trekked across to an area hidden from view, behind a few bales of hay. Minutes later someone led in a couple of goats, then a wooly sheep, which all ending up out of sight. Amazingly all the children stayed in place; not a one moved. It was as though someone had turned them all back into stone. Finally a couple of parents took a few of the children by the hand and started in the direction of the animal hideaway. Over 100 pairs of eyes followed them as they slowly crossed the yard. Not a word was said, until suddenly we saw one of the senior Kindergarten teachers bustle across after them. We all knew what would happen next. Sure enough, the unauthorized scouts were hastily ferried back to wait with us multitudes.
Finally the loudspeaker came up again, announcing that the Fair had begun, whereupon all the children scattered. We made a dash for our music station. When our first customer approached we nabbed her by immediately offering an instrument.
“Would you like to play in our Farm Band?” I propositioned. Shaking her head, she took a step back. All we could do was start playing, so we did. As others approached I went into pantomime mode, grabbing an instrument just long enough to demonstrate it, laying it within reach, then picking up another one. It was like putting cheese out for mice you’d like to catch. They were intrigued but stayed back a safe distance. Evidently they had never been up this close and personal to music like this.
Finally a few brave ones one by one picked up instruments. Soon others joined in. Then the brave ones graduated on to asking to play the guitar and fiddle. “Sure, I said, as Chuck kept up rhythm on his guitar.”
We were off and running. During the next three hours a continuous stream of young music enthusiasts visited our “booth”. We played our four songs over and over and over again to the rhythmic racket of ping-pong-skritch-ricket-shake-bonk-boom, the high, eerie sound of the fiddle and vibrational strum of the guitar. The children didn’t care what we did, as long as Chuck kept up the rhythm so they could play along. I spent most of my time multi-tasking: sitting on the end of the bouncing limberjack paddle, while playing the washboard with one hand, and with the other, holding Big Bob’s Bass stick so someone could pluck his boom string. Intermittently I’d drop one thing to demo an instrument for a newcomer. Little hands reached in eagerness. Very few if any words were used; it was truly show and do. Soon the Kindergartener attention span record was broken for good.
“Are you getting tired yet?” I would ask, to which the answer was always a vigorous shake of the head, “No”. One mesmerized boy would have played the guitar for the entire time, except that we had to insist he give it up now and again for a yearning classmate.
Parents snapped photos right and left and it was no wonder why. They could see their children’s eyes sparkling with pride: “See what I can do!” But the children would have played even if there was no one there to watch them, for the music had taken them far beyond any of that. The look on those young faces was of pure joy, focused yet faraway, as though they had entered a sort of never-never land. Free to play with abandon, they poured their hearts into the moment and everything turned to magic for us all.
When our granddaughter’s Kindergarten teacher popped her head in to check up on us, we knew we passed the litmus test, because she soon disappeared, never to return. Everyone was totally engaged and happy; and that was all that mattered to her.
But for us it was the answer to a prayer: that we be able to bridge generations, to pass the love of music-making on to these young ones who will surely take up where we leave off.