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Showing posts with label Songs of Freedom. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Songs of Freedom. Show all posts


New Baby Train (2004)

Written by Woody Guthrie

Illustrated by Marla Frazee

Gouache on French recycled Speckletone

Text set in Opti Powell Old Style

Little, Brown and Company

I love it when interests intersect, but with a medium as wide-ranging and far-reaching as picture books, I shouldn't be at all surprised when they do. Case in point: Woody Guthrie, whom I righteously love, and is one of those artists who seemingly just keeps giving, not even letting something as shitty as death get in the way.

New Baby Train was only recorded for the first time in 1999 by Kim Wilson on the album Daddy O Daddy, and then, five years after that, given the illustrative treatment by Ms. Frazee.

This book was our first experience of Marla Frazee, but we've always looked for her books since. She seems like she really gets it. The book jacket tells that she "visited train museums, studied photographs of the Dust Bowl, and listened to a lot of Woody's music while working on this book."

It really shows. I feel that every page is filled with comical body language and fun movement, but is also filled with wonderful details.... the oversized hand-me-downs on the barefoot children, the epic swaths of empty, dusty plains, the great twisting, geometric steel of the locomotive. Lots of texture. I can feel everything with just my eyes, feel the granular dust between my teeth.

If the setting for a Woody Guthrie song is desolate, the language is anything but, and this is no exception. It's tempting to just write out the whole thing, as it's hard to stop once you start.

You know, a lot of people ask me
I bet you'd like to know,
How do brand-new babies
get into the house?

The flowers bring some.
the trees bring some,
the birds bring some,
the cars bring some,
and everything else brings some.
I guess maybe the trains bring some.

And so the story-song begins, and so it goes, following our pint-sized Guthrie stand-in as he infiltrates said Baby Train to observe first-hand this extraordinary engine and report back. The babies are all wearin' their diapers, got their makeshift hobo sticks in hand.

All the little babies are lookin out the windows
wonderin' which house they're
gonna get off at, you know?

It occurs to me now that the whole thing kind of reads like a folksy antithesis to The Polar Express. Regardless, my beautiful wife bought this book when my son - Arlo - was just a few years old, and it has served as a great way to introduce him to the world of Woody Guthrie.


The Araboolies of Liberty Street (1989)

Written by Sam Swope

Illustrated by Barry Root

Thanks so much to Cynthia McDermott, Professor at Antioch University in Los Angeles, for providing this review! I was not familiar with this book before she contacted me, but I'm glad that has been corrected!

Only General Pinch would have the nerve to stop every child from having any fun in the neighborhood. Always on guard at his window, he uses his bullhorn to stop whatever he does not like, all the while threatening to “call in the Army.”

"I'll call in the army!"
His world changes when the Araboolies move in next door. They have strange animals who live in the house, they have a huge bed that the entire multicolored family sleeps in outside and they play and laugh. Unfortunately for General Pinch and his wife, the Araboolies do not speak English (actually we do not know what they speak).


Forever Young (2008)

By Bob Dylan

Illustrated by Paul Rogers

Text set in Clarendon

Ink, acrylic, and Adobe Illustrator

Atheneum Books for Young Readers

I am very pleased to say that my son liked this one very much. I wasn't sure, since it seemed on first glance like it would have more appeal for older Dylan enthusiasts and completists. I like the song, "Forever Young," of course, but its not one of my favorite Dylan songs, probably not in my top 10... or even top 20. I like songs best that tell a story, or at least suggest a story, and for a story-lover, Bob Dylan is a treasure trove. "Forever Young," however, has always seemed to me more of a series of platitudes and well-wishes.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young

It does not evoke within me a sense of place or time or character. So it's to Paul Rogers' credit that he was able to infuse the song with just these elements and create a story through his illustrations. Beginning with a wide-eyed youth gazing at Woody Guthrie sitting outside of Gerde's Folk City, "This Machine Kills Fascists" emblazoned on his guitar case, it follows him through adolecense, through Greenwich Village, the shows, festivals, the protests. Along the way, the backgrounds are littered with the likes of Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Pete Seeger, John Lennon, all those greats, and references to Dylan songs.

The illustrator's notes at the end give away most of the references, which may seem like cheating, but Arlo really enjoyed going back through the book afterward to see if he could pick out the hidden emblems. "Get some Dylan albums," he writes, "sit down, listen to the lyrics, look at the book, and see what you can find."


Which Side Are You On? (2011)

Retold by George Ella Lyon

Illustrated by Christopher Cardinale

Cinco Puntos Press

Phew, this one is great, great, great. A great book and an important book. This is only the second Cinco Puntos Press book I've reviewed (the other being the amazing Crossing the Bok Chitto), and I am extremely impressed. They know what's up.

My wife bought me a Pete Seeger album a couple of years ago, containing two CDs. The first had all of Pete's kid's songs and stories - Abiyoyo and the Foolish Frog and the like. But the second disc was filled with old union and labor songs. I'm happy to say, my 5-year old son Arlo took to the union songs just as well as the others, especially the rousing, "Solidarity Forever!"

One of the songs on the album was, of course, "Which Side Are You On?" and though I had no idea of the story behind the song, the tempo always strikes me when I listen to it. Most of are upbeat and filled with pride. They had to be. This one, however, feels mournful to me, creeping with dread.

"Come all you poor workers, good news to you I'll tell, of how the good old union has come in here to dwell."

It was written by Florence Reece in 1931, the wife of a coal miner and the mother of seven, and this story is told in the voice of one of those seven children, talking about her pa working in the mines, blasting and loading coal, putting food on the table, how they live in a coal company house on coal company land, and how their Pa gets paid in money that can only be redeemed at the coal company store.

"He says the company owns us sure as sunrise. That's why we've got to have a union. Pa says if miners get together and say what they want and refuse to dig coal till they get it our lives will get better," she tells us, adding, "They ain't better yet."

From there, the book takes a startling turn. Without explanation, the next page finds the children peeking out from under their bed while their mom hides behind a beam. Their pa is a union organizer and the thugs are after him. Should they call the sheriff? No. The sheriff is the man who hired the thugs in the first place. The book even calls him by name: Sheriff Blair, as does the song:

"If you go to Harlan County, there is no neutral there. You will either be a union man, or a thug for J.H. Blair."

Suddenly, a bullet zips through the wall, just as their mom yells out, "Any of you youngins got a pencil?" and so the song comes to be written.

"When the thugs finally quit shooting and we crawl out of hiding, we're sore and hungry, and our house is busted up, but Ma has written us a song."

I felt pretty swept up in the telling, but the author's note brought me down a bit, as she writes that there are "many accounts of how Florence Reece wrote the song and they won't all agree."

This version, however, comes only twice removed. A woman named Bev Futrell heard this version from Reece herself at her 85th birthday celebration. The story changes and grows, the song changes and grows. Verses have been added to the original song to reflect struggles through the years.

Here's the woman herself singing it.

And here's the group Rebel Diaz singing a version of it.

Please listen to both of these versions, in their entirety, one following the other, for an out-of-body experience.


This Land is Your Land (1998)

Written by Woody Guthrie

Tribute by Pete Seeger

Illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen

Oil on canvas

Little, Brown and Company

This is a beautiful book which should be on everyone's bookshelf, not just because of its cultural significance, but because its just beautiful to look at.

Maybe everyone knows the chorus and the first verse of the song- and they may even know that it was written by a guy named Woody Guthrie, but its a good bet that they don't know all six verses - which this book reproduces and illustrates, and that the verses become progressively more challenging as they go along, a song which begins as a pastoral appreciation of America's beauty becomes an indictment and a call to Freedom.
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