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Saturday, October 24, 2009

John Henry, Ezra Jack Keats, and You

Just back from the Ezra Jack Keats concert at Symphony Space. So fun! The event was hosted by Abena Koomson, one of the stars of the new Broadway musical, Fela! She read a book by Mr. Keats as did Sonia Manzano (Maria from Sesame Street!) and Dominic Colon (The Electric Company). Randy Kaplan played three new songs based on Keats books and so did the Dees. Thanks for a great morning, everyone!

Some folks at the show were asking where they could find recordings of the new songs we performed. We sang songs based on the Keats books, Apt. 3, Over in the Meadow, and John Henry. We're talking to the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation about the possibility of recording these tunes so hopefully, sometime soon, you'll be able to hear full studio recordings of all the great new tunes that Keats books inspired. Wouldn't a compilation of all these songs be an amazing kids album? In addition to the Dees and Randy Kaplan, past Keats events have featured Astrograss, They Might Be Giants, and other excellent performers. Check this blog for updates.

I also wanted people to know where they could read and hear more about the John Henry story. After you read the Keats book (a unique and powerful retelling of the classic tale), you should first check out a few of the endless songs that have been written about this legend. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger's takes on what is probably the most well-known "John Henry" are both good starting places. Springsteen does this tune as well and I have to thank him for introducing so many Brooklyn kids to this old song (They request it at birthday parties now -- mainly because they've heard Springsteen's version.)

Some other songs in the JH canon not to be missed:
Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues" -- untouchable
Leadbelly's "Take this Hammer" -- I sing it to my daughter in the swing

Grown-ups should definitely pick up Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of An American Legend by Scott Reynolds Nelson. He hunts through the prison records and finds a man who could very well be the historical John Henry. Details in many of the stories and songs about John Henry point to him most likely being some of chain gang laborer and Nelson's explorations are a thrilling trip through the early days of building industrial America by hand.

This is how we swing... John Henry!