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Back to interview part I

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Early Influences

Did you play music when you were growing up?

I had a guitar when I was growing up, but I didn't know how to play it. Some people say I still don't know how to play the guitar.

What kind of music did you like to listen to?

I had the early Alvin and the Chipmunks albums. David Seville would try to get the chipmunks to sing nice, pleasant songs about being good and instead they would sing about all the naughty things they wanted to do. It was refreshing to hear that rebelliousness--especially in 1959. In fact when I first started singing for kids, I made a flier advertising my songs that said, "picking up where Alvin and the Chipmunks left off."

You were influenced by Alvin and the Chipmunks?

Yes, I listened to the original albums from forty years ago and there was definitely an edgy feel to those old songs. I listened to a lot of music when I was little. I had the soundtrack to one of John Wayne's western films called The Sons of Katie Elder. Johhny Cash sang the theme music to that movie and I think that is how I discovered Johnny Cash's music.

Did you ever take music lessons?

I had one guitar lesson in elementary school but my teacher said I had no talent for the guitar and should consider another instrument--like the tuba! I always liked music and I always liked to sing. One of my earliest memories of childhood was riding the yellow school bus every morning to school, where I sat directly behind the bus driver and proceeded to sing just about every song from Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire album...of course the bus driver probably went home to his wife everyday and said, "Mildred, that crazy kid sang all the way to school again." Roger Miller was another favorite.

Anyone else?

I was a big fan of the Australian singer Rolf Harris. I had his album when I was about seven or eight years old and loved every song on it. Years later I can still remember every word of every song. I loved the unusual instruments he used on that album and the weird things he did vocally.

Do you have a favorite children's author?

Shel Silverstein is probably my favorite. I had his very early books when I began writing --The ABZ Book and Uncle Shelby's Zoo--and they definately appealed to my own sense of humor. Shel Silverstein was also a very funny songwriter. I had his early and wonderfully weird "folk" albums from 1962 and 1965--and he wrote some great songs but his better known books came out around the same time as my early recordings so I can't really claim him as an influence. We literally ran right into each other one day down in Florida, almost knocking each other down.

Were there other people recording for kids back then?

Not too many. After I released my first recordings, PJ Swift sent me some of the early recordings of Jim Copp and Ed Brown which I thought were wonderful. I even wrote two pieces on my Naughty Songs album that were homages to their work: The Poetry Lesson and The Man and The Chicken. I had the wonderful privilege of interviewing Jim Copp before he died and chatting about his work for a radio series I was recording.

Have you met any other famous authors for children?

Yes. Judy Blume and I have both been involved in anti-censorship forums and we met at a conference a few years back. It was a treat discovering that she was a fan. Jack Prelutsky has anthologized a couple of my poems in two of his books and we got to meet when we were both featured at an education conference together. I've met a lot of other authors when I do programs at library conferences and workshops.

Were you a good student in school?

I was only an average student until I got to High School and we began studying poetry. Books and literature really did change my life. The writer Henry David Thoreau influenced me when I read him years ago. "If only the birds with perfect voices sang," he wrote, "the forest would be silent." Later, the essay Think Little by Wendell Berry really had an impact on my thinking. He wrote about how doing the small important things in our everyday lives can really change the world.

Do you have a favorite writer now?

Yes, there are many: Tom Wolfe, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver to name a few. David R Slavitt is my favorite poet. My last semester at college, I had the chance to take my first writing course...and David Slavitt was teaching it and I knew his work. I often talk about his poems in my school visits and if the world was perfect he would be one of the most famous writers alive. He is a wonderful poet and a gifted novelist as well.

Do you have any favorite songwriters?

Leonard Cohen has always been a favorite of mine. His music has changed over the years but his writing is still crisp and amazing. He is not a writer for kids but his song "Hallelujah" was used in the movie Shrek. Of course he's been writing masterful songs for forty years and I have every recording he has made.

Did his work influence you?

I think the songwriter who influenced me the most was Loudon Wainwright III. I first heard his albums in 1970, a couple years before his "hit" with Dead Skunk. Good thing, too. His early albums are still among my favorites. Funny and heart breaking at the same time, his best songs are written about his own life and family. I discovered the songs of Townes Van Zandt that same summer.

I was also listening to the early songs of Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and especially Phil Ochs. Another influence was John Prine. I was sixteen in 1970 and heard Kris Kristofferson singing in Central Park in New York. He told the audience he had just gotten back from Chicago the night before and heard a new songwriter. He sang two of John Prine's songs that night and I spent the next two years bothering every record store owner I knew trying to find out when Prine's first album would be released. In fact it was the songs of John Prine and Kris Kristofferson that were really responsible for me playing guitar.

When did you start playing guitar?

I started late. After High School, my friend Mary and her family were going out west and invited me to come along; every night, we'd sit around the fireplace in a cabin in the mountains outside of Tucson, Arizona. We'd all sing while Mary's two older brothers played guitar. And they played all my favorite songs by Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and John Prine. That was when I realized I wanted to learn to play the guitar and my early song writing was very reminiscent of these songwriters; I hadn't found my own song writing voice yet.

I've never heard of some of these writers. How come?

I have always been drawn to writers who aren't part of the mainstream of popular culture. And I tend to like songwriters who are also storytellers, like Guy Clark and John Hartford.

Anyone else?

Jack Hardy and David Massengill are two other favorites. Jack has been writing great songs for decades. I first heard him play in 1976 and immediately fell in love with his song writing, his voice and his playing. He's got over a dozen albums out and I have favorite songs on each one. I discovered David Massengill a couple years later. David has written some wonderful songs that tell funny, witty and heartwarming stories. We sponsored a house concert for Jack Hardy a few years ago and I was happy to find out that Jack's kids--now grown--had my early albums growing up. Last summer, I got to play at Jack and Laura's Festival of the Bards in Calicoon, New York.

You said you were going to be a teacher...was that what you studied in college?

Actually, no. I wanted to be a teacher but I studied literature and film; my wife says I majored in cowboy movies. Film is another wonderful way of telling stories.

What kind of movies do you like?

John Wayne was my hero when I was a child because of the "Westerns" that John Ford made with him. It was great to watch these films again as an adult and see how complex they really are. They are much deeper than what they appear to be on the surface and tell very interesting stories. John Wayne often plays against his own image in many of these films; in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he shoots the "bad guy" from a darkened alleyway, thus violating his own moral code in order to do a higher good.

But good guys don't do that, do they?

That's what makes the film interesting. In The Searchers, the character he plays is clearly not the moral hero in the film. He's heroic but his character is flawed and vengeful. That of course helps make this film a masterpiece from it's opening shot of a ranch house door opening, to the final image of the door closing, leaving him outside of the community. You have to watch a good film carefully or you will miss the important stuff that's happening on the edges.

What do you mean ?

In The Searchers there is a scene that reveals much about the main character's motivation, but the camera is focused on another character swishing his coffee around in his cup when he accidently observes a moment of tenderness that he shouldn't have seen. It happens quickly and is never commented on, but the film centers on what has been revealed in the background of those few moments.

But it's a cowboy movie, right?

Well, its really much more than that. David Slavitt wrote a wonderful poem about the film Ride The High Country by Sam Peckinpah, another one of my favorite movies. I love how Peckinpah first establishes the need for law and authority and then has his characters break the law in order to serve justice. It's a complex film that works on many levels, like a good poem. Peckinpah's Western films have a depth and morality to them, despite the way they appear on the surface. And isn't that the mark of a wonderful poem: to work on two levels and reveal the real story that lurks beneath the obvious plot lines?

Did these movies influence the way you write?

Well, they influence the way I think, so they must. Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo is another Western favorite that is really about so much more than what appears at first glance. This movie probably has more quotable lines than any other film and though it has its quirky moments, it is really a wonderful film about redemption and the value of the individual.

Do you have any other favorite films?

The film The Seven Samurai is a three and a half hour black and white masterpiece by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa that was made the year I was born (1954) and still resonates with a power and spirit that amazes me every time I watch it. Charlie Chaplin's City Lights is another film that I would put on my list of films everyone should see. It's a silent film from the 1920s and if you are not moved by the last few minutes, check your pulse.

It sounds like you wanted to teach film. If you didn't have the job you have now, is that what you would have done?

I have the absolute best job in the world and really can't imagine doing anything else. I don't think I could find anything that would be more fun and rewarding. I think the best teachers really teach because they love sharing knowledge. I think you become a teacher because you want to expose people to the things that you are excited about; the things that you find enriching and give life real meaning. I would have loved a job where I could share my love of music, literature, poetry and film. And really that is what I I guess I really am a teacher also.