Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Eight
By Thomas Amoriello Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Immediate Past Chair
The “Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books” series continues with article number eight as we focus on two works by author Gary Golio. Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow and Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars focus on the genius of two celebrated figures in the guitar world. Both wielded guitars and vocally interpreted lyrics leaving a unique mark in the history of music. James Marshall Hendrix (1942–1970) and Willie Johnson (1897–1945) were African American musicians who utilized the art of the blues in acoustic and electric approaches to reach their audiences whether playing on a street corner for change or electrifying the Woodstock Music & Peace Festival in front of a generation.
A visual artist, musician, and psychotherapist, Gary Golio is the author of the New York Times– bestselling Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow—A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, recipient of a 2011 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. His other books include When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan; Spirit Seeker: The Musical Journey of John Coltrane; Bird & Diz: Two Friends Create Bebop; Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song; Carlos Santana: Sound of the Heart, Song of the World; and SMILE: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry). His forthcoming books include Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars (2020) and Sonny on the Bridge: A Surprising Story about Jazzman Sonny Rollins (2021). Each of these books highlights an artist’s roots and influences, promoting the idea that artists are models of persistence and commitment, embodying values of imagination, hopefulness, and self-acceptance.
Please feel free to leave comments on social media for open dialog or reach out to me at email@example.com to share which music-themed children’s picture books have been a success in your classroom. On behalf NAfME, I would like to thank Mr. Gary Golio for sharing his thoughts with the membership.
You have created children’s picture books based on the lives of Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan, and more. What drew you to these musicians, and did you create each story utlizing a certain structure, polish, and edit, or are you pretty spontaneous and like to improvise?
The books I write—often about legendary musicians whose work I love—are stories that my still-very-active Inner Child would like to hear. As a kid, I was always searching, looking for roadmaps in the lives of people I admired, trying to understand how one becomes a great artist or a good human being. We are all born with talents, and our experiences—but more importantly, our desires—shape and develop those gifts. From what I can see, dogged persistence is an essential ingredient, exemplified beautifully by Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Charlie Chaplin. These people grew their art and music out of love and determination, and it’s a wise child who learns, early on, that what we accomplish in life is more about who we choose to be and how we choose to live.
As for the way I create each book, the “voice” and structure of every story comes from how I feel about that person’s life. I listen to the music (whether they’re a musician or not), and let it guide me in telling the tale.
Many describe the blues music of the early to mid 20th century as being similar to todays hip hop and rap stylings—sometimes dealing with similar lyrical subject matter such as poverty, love, loss (death), and injustice. What are your thoughts on the comparison?
I think that’s exactly right. And I would add to that something I recently saw on a blues association website: that American music is completely indebted to the Black experience and the legacy of African sound for what it is. Without gospel, spirituals, and what led to the blues, there would be no jazz, no rock and roll, no R&B or soul, no Rolling Stones, and certainly no rap or hip hop. Black Americans have always taken the tears and joy of their lives and given us gold in return. Hendrix, Holiday, Coltrane, Parker, Gillespie, Rollins, (Blind Willie) Johnson, and countless others—not just in music, but in dance, theater, visual art and film, we stand upon their shoulders. The Beatles: didn’t idolize Chuck Berry and Little Richard for nothing!
Beyond your Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow book, how would you describe the magic of Jimi Hendrix to today’s youth if you were teaching a middle school general music lesson about him?
To convey (just a hint of) Hendrix magic to a group of modern-day kids, I would show them how he strapped a rocket to blues music (the foundation of Jimi’s songs and sound) and used that thing we call an electric guitar as a sound machine, capable of taking us to new worlds in our hearts and ears. Jimi made the guitar speak new languages because he let his imagination direct his playing and thinking, and that is the great lesson of his art. There was a lot of sadness in his early life, but he used those tender feelings—particularly for the mother he missed so much—to fuel his music. Yet the range of his sound, and the mood he creates within each song, tells us that he was always exploring, reaching for new worlds slightly out-of-reach.
“He pulled the strings and let it snap back, tapping gently with his finger, up and down the neck, to get just the right notes, over and over. Until he could play the sound of raindrops, singing as they fell.”—Gary Golio from Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow
The haunting and chilling “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie conjures emotions the way that perhaps someone feels when listening to a requiem or Grave work of a historical composer. Do you listen to music when you write, and how did this specific work inspire you to tell the story of the great blues artist to children?
Willie’s song—“Dark Was the Night,” based on an older English hymn—is truly haunting, mysterious, and evocative in the best of ways. It’s not frightening, but it does reach down into your bones and soul because it’s about the essence of loneliness and being a human being—and all that without any real words! Blues music is similarly about essence, about the power and purity of direct emotions, about all the feelings we have in common—fear, sadness, anger, jealousy, hope, yearning, and love. A blues song may be tender, piercing, wistful, even funny, but it doesn’t mince its words or pretend to make nice. And that honesty is what the blues—and Willie Johnson’s story—is all about: A poor blind boy who takes the grit in his life and creates a pearl, becomes a beloved and sought-after street singer, turns into a popular recording artist (in the early days of records and phonographs), and then dies in poverty, forgotten until his music is rediscovered decades later. How the story of a life is never really over, often surprising us with its desire to be told. And how the simple song of a blind man ended up on a Golden Record, shot into space, where it now speeds through the heavens on a never-ending and mysterious journey, a fitting tribute to its creator.
Voyager’s Golden Record: “Dark Was the Night”—Blind Willie Johnson
“Being blind didn’t stop a person from singing in church, or on street corners. Besides, this was a way to use your words, and your voice, to lift people up. Now you were back in the light.”—Gary Golio from Dark Was the Night
Beyond being in a classroom sharing these stories with children in a storytime way, personally I am a collector and lover of music-related children’s picture books, being fascinated by the combination of “lyrics” and art. What are a few music picture books that you have admired that you feel other educators could benefit from?
There are some great music-related picture books out there, to be sure. Some I’d recommend are: Rock and Roll Highway (about The Band’s Robbie Robertson, written by his son); Muddy (about blues great Muddy Waters, by Michael Mahin); When Marian Sang (about Marian Anderson, by Pam Muñoz Ryan); Clara Schumann, Piano Virtuoso (middle-grade biography, by my wife, Susanna Reich); Mysterious Thelonious (by Chris Raschka); and Joni (about Joni Mitchell, by Selina Alko).
“Music is music, and music is the essence of life.”—Gary Golio
The goal of many music educators is to inspire a life-long learning of music and inspire amateur music-making. Are you a musical person, and do you play an instrument?
Everyone should make music in one way or another, whether it’s with some spoons tapped against the leg, a less-than-perfect voice (like Bob Dylan’s), a simple cigar box guitar, a pennywhistle, Fender Stratocaster (a la Jimi), some bongos, a cello, or a didgeridoo (Aboriginal Australian instrument). Music is music, and music is the essence of life. And yes, I play a few instruments—acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin (back in the day), banjo, a smattering of piano, and my mouth/vocal cords (much to the distress of my long-suffering wife! 😉 ).
What are a few words of wisdom that you would share with current music educators who have innovative approaches in the year 2020 to teaching what is relative to youth compared to the old-time “open up the method book to page 147” approach?
Use the amazing tools available today! Show kids a video of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” in London in 1959, and let them hear how she shapes those last few words of the song with her love and rage as you’re left speechless. Let students hear Jimi—without seeing him—as he makes the sounds of whales and dolphins, dive-bombing war planes, a wailing ambulance siren, the crashing of waves and exploding rockets, and let them imagine how he’s doing that just with a piece of wood and some steel strings. Give a class the few simple materials needed to make a cigar box guitar, and let them see for themselves how the most ethereal music can come from a few bent notes! Be as imaginative with your teaching methods as the great musical artists were with their hands and voices, but don’t forget to crack open a book once in a while, too! 😉
Read past articles by Thomas Amoriello Jr.:
- Kidz Are Gonna Rock
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Seven
- Guitar Class in 50 States: Coda
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Six
- From Sting to Sky: Interview with Ex-Scorpions Guitarist Uli Jon Roth
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Five
- A Grownup Conversation with Raffi
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Four
- A Conductor’s Tale: Interview with American Young Voices Conductor Francisco J. Núñez
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Three
- A Cultural Treasure: Interview with Sharon Isbin, Julliard Classical Guitar Program Founder
- The Season’s Greeting’s Guitarist: Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Al Pitrelli
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Two
- The Student Teacher in the Guitar Classroom
- Double Trouble: Interview with Innovative Musician Gabriel Guardian
- The Patriotic Guitarist: Master Sergeant Alan Prather of “The President’s Own”
- Interview with Progressive Funk-Rock Guitarist DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight
- Heavy Metal Guitar: Neo-Classical Style
- Heavy Metal Guitar: From Times Square to Netflix and Beyond
- Make a Sound! Interview with Drummer Michael Bland
- What about the Electric Bass?
- An Article for Jazz Educators: Interview with Guitarist Kevin Eubanks
- Hip Hop Empowers: Interview with Harlem-Raised, Boston-Based Hip Hop Artist Billy Dean Thomas
- Heavy Metal Guitar Style: Virtuoso Shred Guitar with Toby Knapp
- Adult Education: Rock Camp
- Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books
- Empowering the Musician in Your Classroom
About the author:
Thomas Amoriello Jr. is the Immediate Past Chair of the NAfME Council for Guitar Education and is also the former Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association (NJMEA). He has had more than fifty guitar and ukulele advocacy articles published in music education journals in Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, Illinois, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. Tom has taught guitar classes for the Flemington Raritan School District in Flemington, New Jersey, since 2005 and was also an adjunct guitar instructor at Cumberland County College, New Jersey, for five years. He has earned a Master of Music Degree in Classical Guitar Performance from Shenandoah Conservatory and a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Rowan University. His primary teachers have been Alice Artzt, Glenn Caluda, David Crittenden, and Joseph Mayes. He has performed in the master classes of Benjamin Verdery in Maui, Hawaii, and Angelo Gilardino and Luigi Biscaldi in Biella, Italy.
During his time on the NJMEA board he has directed guitar festivals and drafted the proposal to approve the first ever NJMEA Honors Guitar Ensemble. Tom is an advocate for class guitar programs in public schools and has been a clinician presenting his “Guitar for the K–12 Music Educator” for the Guitar Foundation of America Festivals in Charleston, South Carolina, and Columbus, Georgia; Lehigh Valley Guitar Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society Festival, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; NAfME Biennial Conferences in Baltimore and Atlantic City; as well as other state music education conferences in New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. He has twice been featured on episodes of “Classroom Closeup–NJ,” which aired on New Jersey Public Television. He is the author of the children’s picture books A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo and Ukulele Sam Strums in the Sand, both available from Black Rose Writing. He recently made a heavy metal recording with a stellar roster of musicians including former members of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and Dio that was released on H42 Records of Hamburg, Germany. The record released on 12-inch vinyl and digital platforms has received favorable reviews in many European rock magazines and appeared on the 2018 Top 15 Metal Albums list by Los Angeles KNAC Radio (Contributor Dr. Metal). His next recording is a 5-track EP called “Dear Dark,” which will be released by Ice Fall Records on cassette in March 2020 and features former members of Megadeth, King Diamond, TNT, and Dokken. Visit thomasamoriello.com for more information.
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September 14, 2020. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)