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Sunday, November 30, 2008

FDR songs

Anyone have favorite songs from the FDR era? Send them to me. Preferably inappropriate or surprising tunes.

Apparently more songs were written about FDR than any president. Check out this NPR piece:

This book and its accompanying album also look pretty amazing:
I'm officially adding it as supplementary reading for the first meeting of our American history book club.

So to summarize, buy or check out the following books immediately:
The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter
Roosevelt's Blues: African-American Blues and Gospel Songs on FDR by Guido van Rijn (make sure to get the accompanying CD)

As I choose some favorite songs, I'll start posting chords and, if possible and legal, sheet music so that everyone who's planning to attend one of our in-person meetings in Brooklyn with an instrument can start practicing.

I remain
your obt svt,
Lloyd (Ulysses S. Dee)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

First Book Club Meeting

You might have noticed that I changed the date of our first American history book club meeting in my last post. I realized that mid-December was pretty soon to ask everyone to have a big book read, especially with all the holidays.

Our meeting is now set for mid-January. It looks like there will be at least one in-person meeting, possibly two. A lot of folks on parent yahoo groups in Ditmas Park and Park Slope have expressed interest so I might have a meeting in both neighborhoods. If you'd like to be part of one of these neighborhood groups, e-mail me at We will also have an online discussion option for non-Brooklyners -- ideas on how to do this? IM? Twitter? Skype?

Our first book is The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter so I'd like everyone to start looking for songs, images, and other interesting creative works from the FDR era. Our meeting, as I've already mentioned to some of our prospective members, will not feature a typical book club discussion. Rather, it will be a singalong of songs that people in FDR's day might have sung + a workshop during which we'll create new songs, visual works, and other materials that we can use to teach kids and other adults about what we've read. Instruments of all types, visual arts materials, and food and drink will all be welcome and encouraged.

I remain
your obt svt,
Lloyd (Ulysses S. Dee)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

American History Book Club for Parents

So, I'm finally starting the American history book club I've planned for a while. You should join. We'll read a new book every month and discuss online and -- if possible -- in person. If it happens that we have a few book club members in Brooklyn, for example, I'd definitely like to plan a meeting at somewhere convenient for all of us. Somewhere the kids can play while we talk about the book.

The first book, for the month of January, is The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter. Yes, this is one of the books on FDR that Obama has been reading. When I read about this book in the New York Times yesterday, I decided to bump my original choice, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmstead and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski. I just thought it would be fun -- for once in a my life -- to read something topical and current (see p.s. below). We might read the book about Olmstead during a future month.

Questions? Suggestions on how to conduct our online discussions or where to meet for our possible in-person discussion. Please let me know.

Our meeting (s) will happen mid-January.

Lloyd (Ulysses S. Dee)

p.s. My "topical and current" comment above is not meant to imply that Olmstead is in any way not topical or current. In fact, his works of art are essential parts of my daily life and regularly keep me from falling into despair. For much of my adult life, though, I've tended to avoid current events and the latest news updates in favor of tales from the distant and not-so-distant past so reading a book that I read about in the newspaper is a very novel experience for me.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Free songs for teachers

Help me with this problem:

This winter I'm going to go into the studio with my band, the Deedle Deedle Dees, to record the material for two new albums. One of the planned records is a collection of nature songs I've written for the toddler nature education and music program that I teach in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. It will include songs about folks like John Muir and Frederick Law Olmstead for older kids as well as the simpler tunes about ducks and trees that we sing every week in class. The other album is a bunch of new American history songs, many of which we've been playing live this past year. Amelia Earhart, Satchel Paige, Emily Roebling, and some of our other favorite people from the past will all make appearances.

Once these albums are recorded, we have two options. We can:

A) have them pressed and released and sell them just like we did our last record, at shows and online Our last album, Freedom in a Box, has sold nearly 1000 copies in this way.

B) not have any physical CDs pressed and give the songs away free

Most of the people to whom I've mentioned Option B, have demanded to know how I expect to make any money by doing this. I tell them that we still haven't broken even from the first album and that we have nothing to lose by trying something new. Granted, Freedom in a Box came with a free coloring book that ran up production cost, but even if we eliminate this nice extra and just press a simple CD like other bands do, breaking even is really the best we can hope for financially from these new CDs. More importantly, not enough of our albums aren't getting into the hands of the people we want most to have them: teachers, librarians, and the kids in their classrooms and libraries. Some schools and libraries have bought copies and we've given away many more to the schools and libraries where we've performed, but most of our customers are well-off New Yorkers who can afford to come see us perform at Manhattan prices ($15 a person). We're happy these parents want our album, but ultimately we want to reach a wider audience with our music and don't know how.

When I say "a wider audience," I'm not saying that I want a marketing platform like Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel -- instead I want to be able to communicate directly with teachers and parents around the country so that I can give them songs that will help them teach their kids about what is important to them. The internet is an ideal place for this kind of a dialogue, but right now I don't know how to make it happen. In other words, I don't know how the Deedle Deedle Dees can afford to give away our music for free unless we happen upon some amazing grant that will fund this venture for several years.

Do you have any ideas? Can you help us? Our library of original educational songs -- not only about American history, but also science, literature, and "core academic subjects" as they like to call them -- is ever-growing and there's no way we can afford to record and release all this material in the traditional way. Ideally, we'd like to create a digital online resource that any teacher or parent can visit and take away what they'd like to use. No more albums, just songs on demand. For free.
A musical American history textbook, written by the Deedle Deedle Dees with your help. A book that's never finished, that keeps growing as more of you supply us with suggestions and ideas. How can we do it?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

New songs from PS203 in Brooklyn

Today the Deedle Deedle Dees performed with fifth-grade students from PS203 (on Avenue M in Brooklyn) at Southpaw, a rock club that opens during the day once or twice a month for a family show. Over the past eight weeks, the kids have been writing songs with me based on what they're studying in social studies. The four songs we debuted today were:

Lucy & Fanny - a song about two women who were central figures in the battles for voting rights in America. Lucy Stone was an early advocate for the vote for women and an abolitionist. Fanny Lou Hamer was a sharecropper who (to quote the words the kids wrote) "tried to vote and got beaten black and blue." She went on become a fearless civil rights worker.

More on Lucy at the National Women's Hall of Fame:

More on Fanny Lou at this SNCC website:

The Grizzly Bear - A song with a simple premise: the most dangerous animals on Earth are humans. The class that wrote this song was very interested in climate change, pollution, litter, and other environmental issues and this was our musical response:

The grizzly bear
the snake
the hawk in the sky
the shark in the sea
and the wolf in the dark night
fear no animal 'cept humankind
the hungriest killers are you and i

we got teeth that tear holes in the ozone
feet that make filthy footprints in oceans
machines that fill our air up with poison
eyes that are blind to all the destruction

and always wanting more...
but there's not much more...

St. Bessie Blues - a true hip hop song, this song lifts the famous opening verse of "St. Louis Blues" for its chorus then tells the rough-and-tumble story of Bessie's Smith life in rapped verses. Here are some of their rhymes:

My name is Bessie Smith and I love to fight
I got into a car accident just the other night
I sing at lots of places where they have lots of crimes
All the money I get is always worth lots of dimes
I died in the hospital just the other week
Man, people thought I went to sleep!

Trapped in the Attic -- based on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. If you haven't read this, read it. If you're a high school English teacher, put all those copies of The Great Gatsby back in the closet and read it with your class. If you teach a younger grade, paraphrase the basic story for them and have your kids write a song like we did. Here's the chorus and first verse:

I was trapped in the attic
I was trapped in the attic
I was trapped in the attic

I had a peephole
trapped in the attic
I had a peephole
trapped in the attic
I watched my children grow
trapped in the attic

Why was Harriet trapped in the attic? Read the book and find out!

Coming next post:
A breakdown of how the PS203 kids and I wrote the songs. Feel free to steal my lesson plans for your class!