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On Censorship

On Censorship

It has been interesting for me to read the letters about the effect my old recordings have had on people throughout their lives. I am pleased that I have been able to tell the stories of my own life in a way that has touched others.

My original albums–released many years ago–were out of print for some years and I felt for a long time that some of the songs on those older albums were dated. After all, humor changes over time. Some things that were funny years ago when I wrote them are not so funny today. Besides, many of those older songs were reflective of what it was like for me growing up and that’s what I was writing about twenty-five years ago.

I never expected to make my living as an author and songwriter for children. My career grew out of a love of writing that I have always had. While in college, I was invited to come to a local school and give a concert. With a month to prepare for this first concert, I wrote a few songs including “I’m a 3-Toed, Triple-Eyed, Double-Jointed Dinosaur.” I entered that assembly room, took out my guitar and stood up in front of 300 kids, leading them through a chorus of “I Need You Like a Donut Needs a Hole” and the other songs I had written.

Some people say it is easy to write and sing for children and to some degree that is true; kids are the easiest group to work with if they like you….but they will eat you alive if they think you are boring or condescending. I was lucky. They laughed, giggled, shrieked and hollered.

But that wouldn’t have been enough to launch my career. Something else happened. When the show was over, I was immediately besieged by a horde of kids who wanted to know how I wrote my songs, where I got my ideas from and a dozen or so other great questions. This was learning at it’s best.

Within minutes, a teacher came up to them all and started screaming at them in a very disrespectful manner. She was telling them to be quiet and to get back in line and to “wipe those grins off your faces, you’re acting just like children.” I knew good material when I heard it. I quickly wrote down everything she said and went home and wrote a song about a mean teacher.

It became my most requested song in those early years.

Overnight I discovered that I could write about everyday experiences. I would be over my family’s house for dinner and my mom would try to get my younger brother to eat his food by comparing his plate with mine. “Look,” she would say, “Barry ate all his vegetables, why can’t you be that way?”. Being the oldest in the family, I remembered being compared to the older boy that lived next door…..and another song –“He Eats Asparagus, Why Can’t You Be That Way?–was born.

Of course, I’ve occasionally had people raise objections to some of the songs from my early albums. “Demonic anarchy,” one listener wrote, “I have added you to the top of my prayer list.”

Once, I had a handful of parents attempt to get one of my school visits canceled because the janitor in the school had seen my books and music in the display case along with the description that said I was “wickedly satiric.” Misreading the words, he reported to his church that the school was hiring a “wickedly satanic” author and they formed a group to protest my visit. In all fairness though, the group came and sat through my entire program and afterwards, a few of them came up to tell me how refreshing it was–and how sorry they felt for misjudging my work.

I remember a petition I received from a dozen teachers some years back who wrote to complain of the offensive, perverted and twisted sense of humor evidenced in my song titles. The petition went on to say, “At the risk of condemning your work without hearing it, we have no desire to listen to these songs.” I wrote them back and said that I thought what was really twisted was judging something without listening.

There’s no question that many of my older songs established my reputation as a “bad boy” of children’s music. I was twenty-one years old when my first recording came out; not much older than a kid myself. I remember writing in the liner notes of my first album that kids sometimes have to let off steam; silencing that is like plugging the hole on a whistling tea kettle; things are quiet for a little while…and then they explode!

Things exploded for me in 1990.

After performing in the County schools and libraries for fifteen years, I was told that I would not be allowed to perform in the schools in Anne Arundel County, Maryland anymore. A High School music teacher there had heard my old albums and objected to many of my songs on the basis that some of the students might take my songs “literally.” He asked the local arts council to remove my name from their list of “approved performers” and they did. It was the first time this had ever happened to me and though I was happy to be included in a list of authors who had been censored for their work–Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak and Judy Blume–I was concerned that some adults had totally misread my words–or didn’t listen long enough to catch the irony in my stories.

I was never advocating bad behavior in my older songs. I was making fun of it and I always thought that kids could tell the difference. I have used my writing to hold a mirror up to kids, bringing things out in the open where they can be laughed at rather than swept under the rug. I’ve always tried to write about real kids and how they are–not necessarily how they should be.

We run the risk of removing everything “questionable” from our library shelves. Should we censor the song “I Knew and Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” because there might be kids who go out and try to swallow insects after hearing it? In the “Three Blind Mice” you’ve got violence and cruelty to animals. At least there’s no bad advice in “Don’t Put Your Finger Up Your Nose.”

I was concerned that sometimes all it takes is one person to object to one thing, and an author’s work is pulled from the shelves of a school or library. One person can say, “I don’t like this and therefore it shouldn’t be on the shelf” and an entire community is not allowed to have access to the work.

I told a friend about Anne Arundel County’s decision and she called “The Washington Post,” which ran a front page cover story in their arts section about it. The story was also picked up by television and radio stations, magazines and newspapers all over the country. Of course, the school board said it wasn’t censorship. I was interviewed daily and talked about how the school district was looking at my work too literally, missing the point completely. “There’s no question my songs are satirical,” I said. “There’s no question they’re slightly outrageous and silly, but they’re not dirty and they’re not offensive.”

The media coverage included a mass of letters to the editor as well as editorials and op-ed pieces written in my defense. One paper published my letter to the editor where I wrote, “My work shows students that songs and stories can be written about their own experiences and feelings. Educational systems should appreciate alternative paths to learning, not put road blocks in the way to free expression and diversity of thinking.”

If the deeper implications of the ban were not so serious, it would have been silly.

I started issuing stickers for my old recordings that said, “Warning: the songs on this recording may be offensive to some people. Children are advised to use discretion in exposing adults to this material. Exposure may result in a sense of humor.”

For a brief period, I became known as the “controversial” singer for kids. Even my books were not immune. Around this time, I had a teacher object to the artwork in one of my books; “Insect Soup” portrays a dung beetle, dressed in tux and tails, carrying a silver tray. On the tray is a neatly rolled ball of dung and a glass of red liquid in a wine glass. “We don’t want to advocate alcohol consumption,” the teacher commented to me. By this point I was feeling a little frisky and asked her if she really felt seeing a glass of wine might inspire kids to drink–and if so, wouldn’t they also want to taste the food that was pictured next to it? We were, afterall, talking about a picture of a dung beetle!

Every author has these stories.

Have we become too literal minded?

Have we lost our sense of humor along the way?

Some months after the media coverage of the censorship of my work I was given a “Special Recognition Award” from the Maryland Library Association. “Your ability to communicate with children and excite them to read,” they said, “is noteworthy.” The local Anne Arundel County library went out of their way to acknowledge that they had nothing to do with this attempted censorship and the librarians there were especially ardent fans.

A month after being told of the award, I was asked to perform at The White House. “That’s the way that the world goes round,” John Prine wrote, “You’re up one day, the next your down.”

Just as the original story began to drop from the headlines, it was a front page news story again: “Banned singer to perform at White House,” one headline read. Another said “Singer banned in local county to perform at White House.”

People told me that I was lucky and couldn’t buy that kind of publicity, but I had schools cancel concerts, and parents and teachers who had been fans for years would call and say, “we love your work but we are afraid of anything controversial this year.”

It was a tough year. The ACLU came to my defense and I was eventually reinstated in the schools.

I play in the county all the time now and remember my very first concert after I was approved to return. I wondered if I should comment on the ban and decided not to. Halfway through my concert, I played my song, “Underwear.” When I sang the last line of the song–“Underwear with lots of holes is a sorry sight/look around and try to see who’s wearing their’s too tight”–every teacher in the audience stood up and gave me a standing ovation.

It was worth the trip.

A year later everyone had forgotten about the story and my bookings had returned to normal. I was asked to go on a TV talk show and talk about the experience, one year later. I hesitated; would this just remind people about the banning on my work, just as schools were beginning to call again?

I have always felt strongly about issues of censorship and free expression and agreed to do the show. A television producer who’s children had my books and recordings saw the program and asked me to host the TV series, “Field Trip.”

That’s the way the world goes round.

I have been fortunate. I have been extremely successful in carving out my own little niche in the world and doing it in my own way. I’m sure some of my songs still rub people the wrong way. “A man who has no enemies,” Ambrose Bierce wrote, “probably has no friends,”

In this era where the Mark Twain School bans “Huckleberry Finn” from its shelves, I guess I can’t really complain. I know of no writer who has truly excited and inspired kids to read who hasn’t had someone question his or her writing. A writer excites the imagination. A writer stirs emotions and feelings. But it does sadden me when I hear of a school that decides not to allow their students to hear my songs or read one of my books because someone might object. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, its the kids who are being cheated.

Of course I am older now. I have children of my own now. I have written many new songs from a totally different perspective….but there is still a common thread that runs throughout my work. It is a sense of the wonderful absurdity of everyday life and a celebration of the day-to-day. My work is not for everyone. But it is for those who still want something a little different.

Barry Louis Polisar
February, 2003