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Thursday, December 31, 2009


Track 9: Tub-Tub-Ma-Ma-Ga-Ga

album: American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees

words & music by Lloyd Miller, arrangement by Chris Johnson, Ely Levin, Lloyd Miller, and Anand Mukherjee

lead vocals: Ulysses S. Dee (Lloyd Miller)

guest kid vocalists: Charlie Kil7gore, Hannah Finamore-Rossler, Elodie Keating, Isabel Thornton



If you get tired, do the Tub-Tub-Tubman
If you get mad, do the Martin Luther King
If you're feeling greedy, give it away like Gandhi
Hum, hum, if you're too tired to sing


If you get tired, do the Tub-Tub-Tubman

She never let anybody whine on the way

"I'm sleepy!"
"I'm hungry!"

"I want to go back to the plantation!"
"Stop whining, keep walking. We got ten more miles today."


If you get mad Do the Ma-Ma-Martin

Let me tell you, it's not easy

People can be so mean

But take somebody's hand, a woman or a man

I don't care if you can't stand 'em

Tell 'em "I'm stickin' with love, hate's too much for me."


If you get greedy then give it away like Gandhi

cos all you need are some sandles, some glasses and a mat

At least that's what some fella from Massachusetts told me

when he was tryin' to explain why he only traveled with one pair of slacks


As I've mentioned before, most Dees songs that actually make it on an album have been "battle-tested." We would say "kid-tested," but read on. This is a song that we've played for years for all different types of audiences -- babies, preschoolers, elementary schoolers, even surly junior highers. There have been a number of times that Chris (Booker Dee) and I have shown up at an NYC school to perform for (no joke) as many as 600 kids. If the kids are little (3rd grade and younger) they usually don't care what we do -- they just love hearing music and getting a chance to move around. If they're older, though, they expect to be entertained... and when two dudes show up in sport coats toating a banjo and an upright bass and calling themselves "The Deedle Deedle Dees" (usually mispronounced by the adminstrator whose introduces us first by threatening the kids that they better behave or we'll never ever come back) the odds are decidedly not in our favor.

That's where this and other workhorse tunes of ours come in. For starters, this song probably has the most famous names of any Dees composition (we prefer the lesser known heroes and villains of history, as our loyal fans know) so a good number of kids, whether they know a lot, a little, or nothing about the three namechecked people, at least feel some sort of familiarity with the subject matter. During the course of this song, they won't learn much more about these people than they already knew, but they (amazingly nearly all of them) "do the Tub-Tub-man" (walk in place), "the Ma-Ma-Martin" (take hands with someone next to them or, if this is socially unacceptable, pretend they're holding hands or, in extreme cases, just stand near someone), and "the Ga-Ga-Gandhi" (slap hands with someone). In my very brief pre-song intro I explain that they're walking because Ms. Tubman did a lot of walking, holding hands because MLK held other people's hands to show the police and others that he was strong and couldn't be ignored, and giving fives because Gandhi liked to give people things. Simplistic, yes, but efficient. If one of them, just one, looks up one of these people later, it's worth it.

A note on the first verse: according to eyewitness accounts, Harriet Tubman actually said "You'll be free or die" when runaway slaves protested that they wanted to turn back. She said this while brandishing a pistol. In a classroom situation I'll explain this to the kids, in an auditorium, it works much better to simply sing what's above: "Stop whining, keep walking..."

A note on the second verse: When kids groan in response to my request that they hold hands, I tell them to imagine themselves and everyone else in the school in Times Square (pre-Bloomberg's no-traffic Times Square). If all of you, every kid in this school, held hands and blocked the street, I ask them, could cars pass without hitting you? This explanation doesn't get the no-hand-holders to change their minds most of the time, but, if I'm a good reader of faces, most of the kids seem to get that the idea that holding hands doesn't only signify young love. It's a start.

A note on the third verse: A good friend of mine is a big fan of Rick Steves, the public television host who advocates traveling extremely light to the point that one has to wash and hang one's underwear every night. Re-read the lines in light of this fact.

A note on the kids who sing:

Isabel is my guitar student. I first worked with her over four years ago when she was in a second-grade production of Twelfth Night that my wife put on with her class. We wrote a bunch of original songs. Isabel, pardon the expression, played the fool.

Elodie used to be my guitar student. Both she and Hannah are, like Isabel, veterans of my wife's class and performers I admire.

Char7lie (he likes to spell his name like that, the "7" is silent) is an awesome drummer. He also, yes you guessed it, was in my wife's class. He wrote a rap about fish and chips that I still repeat in my head when things get bad.

A note on the first guitar solo: Yes, that is a guitar but that's not the only instrument you're hearing. There's also a pencilina there. The two instruments trade back and forth. See if you can figure out which is which.

What's a pencilina? Our producer, Bradford Reed, invented it. He used to play it when he was in the band King Missile and in the Blue Man Group (he was an original member of the cast, "before it went all corporate" as I've heard some folks remark). He now plays it on his solo albums and his scores for shows on the Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, and elsewhere. Check him and his "amazing pencilina" out here:


Monday, December 21, 2009

Party Girl

Track 8
Party Girl
album: American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees
words & music by Lloyd Miller, arrangement by Chris Johnson, Ely Levin, Lloyd Miller, and Anand Mukherjee horn arrangement by Roy Nathanson
lead vocals: Ali Hammer
kid back-up vocalists: Hannah Finamore-Rossler, Elodie Keating, Isabel Thornton
alto sax: Roy Nathanson
trumpet: Gabe Nathanson

Just when I thought my life would end
I talked to my friend...

Here's what she said to me:

You don't have to be a party girl
You don't have to spend all your time
shaking hands for FDR
Ellie, that ain't who you are

You don't have to be a party girl
You don't have to spend all your life
standing by the door
Eleanor, I know you can do more

Down in the coal mines
In the camps
Out with the working people

Be his eyes and ears
His legs and feet

My great depression began
The day Franklin Roosevelt won the election
He's the one with the big grin
I'm just the one beside him

Hick said "No...

A couple of years ago, a fan online asked for a song about Eleanor Roosevelt. For a long time I was really stumped by this request. Part of my writer's block had to do with Eleanor's notoriety -- she's so well known, she did so much, she's so well regarded. What more could I add? Even more important for me was the lack (as far as I knew at the time) of any complication or personality flaw or exciting incident that would provide the narrative hook on which to hang my song.

I finally found my hook for ER last year when reading Jonathan Alter's short book on FDR's first 100 days (a Deedle Deedle Dees book club selection, read about the meeting and the FDR-themed singalong I led here: In Alter's book, I read for the first time of Eleanor's friendship with Lorena Hickok, a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking journalist. Lorena sounds like a film noir stock character doesn't she? In the movies, of course, such characters were always male -- but that's only one of many ways that Lorena defied the stereotypes of the age. She was one of the most respected writers of the day and very much an insider among insiders in the small, exclusive world of 1930s and 40s Washington politics and media.

Only recently have researchers started to uncover more details of Eleanor and Lorena's friendship. Most signficantly, a biographer found a box of letters between the two a few years ago -- and after reading some of the contents, decided not to ignore what she found. The letters have since been published, and, at least to a 2010 reader, they sound very much like the writings of two people who were more than just friends. It's dangerous to read the language of another era with present-day ears of course, but read excerpts of the letters at the links below yourself and see what you think.

Ultimately, though, what's most significant in my opinion about the relationship is the influence that Lorena had on Eleanor. After FDR was first elected (the first of four times) Eleanor, contrary to the standard image of the smiling, supportive First Lady, was despondent and convinced that her life would now be horrible. In correspondence with Lorena, Eleanor sounds genuinely and severely depressed about her future as a party hostess and presidential spouse. Some researchers have speculated that she may have even been suicidal at this point. Lorena, as she did many times during their many years of communication with each other, doesn't soothe Eleanor with talk of how the job of First Lady won't be that bad. Instead, she tells her, in the blunt manner she was known for, that she should change the job to suit herself. She didn't say the exact words, "You don't have to be a party girl" (that's my pop music re-phrasing) but she did tell Eleanor to remake and expand the role of the president's wife. Pretty cool.

A note on the performers: We're privileged to have jazz legend Roy Nathanson and his son Gabe (now 12 years old, 11 when he recorded it) doing the horns on this song. Roy wrote the Afrobeat-inspired horn part and he and Gabe performed it together in the studio. If you've never Roy's music, you must. He's done a lot of different things, so make sure to sample some of all of it --- his work with the pioneering Jazz Passengers, his super-fun experiments with the Lounge Lizards and John Lurie, and his collaborations with Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry, and others.

Here are a few specific recommendations:

Otto von Dee says start with the album, Plain Old Joe.

Roy's newest album, Subway Moon, which has a companion book of poetry:

Roy's jazz opera featuring Elvis Costello:

Find Roy's shows and other stuff at this MySpace. By the way, the Hot Johnsons, the bluegrass/jazz/klezmer/soul string band that Chris (Booker Dee) and I play in when not onstage with the Dees, will be opening up for Roy in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, this January.

We're also very excited to have Ali Hammer, formerly of Rasa Radiata, an NYC band that also featured Dees drummer Ely Levin (AKA Otto von Dee), on vocals. She also sings lead on "Do the Turnout" and back-up on "Xu Lapi Knewel, New Jersey."

LINKS to learn more about Eleanor and Lorena (parental guidance suggested):

a play about Eleanor and Lorea

read some of their letters here:

a published version of their letters:

Alter's book:


Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Brooklyn Bridge Song

I went looking for Roebling's house
on a windy afternoon

And though my daughter couldn't speak
she told me what she knew

She cried until we reached Number 110,
a house of air

I was looking for
a place
that wasn't there

And while the great bridge
was spun across the sky

A man with ruined legs
watched the work through a spyglass

Each morning, he sent orders to the men
by his love's hand

Do their ghosts still live where
cars drive into the night?

We went walking on that same bridge
She slept the whole way across

While I told her of its history and
the lives that were lost

A few blocks from City Hall
I bought us pizza, the first we'd shared

"More!" she said
and stood up on the chair

And while the great bridge
was spun across the sky

A man with ruined legs
watched the work through a spyglass

Each morning, he sent orders to the men
by his love's hand

Do their ghosts still live where
cars drive into the night?

A rooster was on Emily's lap
when she took the first ride across

And a president
shook Wash Ro's hand
on the day the bridge opened up

But while my girl and I
stood on the Brooklyn side

I had very different thoughts

I looked toward the Fulton Ferry dock
and saw the old man's foot get crushed

I watched the water lap at the tower stones
and saw the men set to work as the caisson shut

I felt my own legs stiffen
as if the bends had stricken them

Do ghosts still live?

12 books for 12 songs for 12 months

The Dees are putting together the reading list for our 2010 bookclub. We're going to do a different book for each song on our new album, American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees. That's 12 books for 12 songs for 12 months.

We need your suggestions. Books for grown-ups and books for kids. We're actually doing two lists of 12 books, a parent list and a kid list. Below are the subjects of the songs. Have you or your child read any great books on these topics?

Amelia Earhart

John Muir

The Lowell Mill Strike

Bennie Benson and the Alaskan Flag

César Chávez and his fasts

Satchel Paige

The Mexican Muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, José David Alfaro Siqueiros

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok

The Brooklyn Bridge

Susan B. Anthony

New Jersey

We're making arrangements with a local Brooklyn bookstore or two to create a special Deedle Deedle Dees display featuring our book club books. Any book clubs near you that you think might like to participate?


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Put on the Dress

Track 11: Put on the Dress

album: American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees
words & music by Lloyd Miller, arrangement by Chris Johnson, Ely Levin, Lloyd Miller, and Anand Mukherjee
lead vocals: Otto von Dee (Ely Levin)
guest vocalist: Bill Childs


Put on the dress
Put on the wig
Put on the little round classes, I said

Stand up in class
You know what to say
Read your report
then shout "ERA!"

Nobody told me to be Susan B. Anthony
Nobody told me to be Susan B. Anthony

They said write a report, make it biography
They never said I'd have to dress up and be
The person I researched for the whole world to see
But even if I'd known...

I'd still be Susan B. Anthony!

This song was inspired by a story that Bill Childs, host of the award-winning family radio show, Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child, told me. When he was in school, he was assigned to do a report on an important historical person. Bill, without any prompting from his family, chose Susan B. Anthony. Pretty awesome. Only after he had made this choice did he learn that the assignment required dressing up as one's subject and delivering the report in front of the whole class. Bill was the only kid in the class who chose a historical figure from the opposite gender -- a variable the teacher apparently hadn't considered when she created the assignment.

Bill didn't, however, change his report topic nor did he try to get out of the dress-up clause in his teacher's instructions. True to form, he "put on the dress" and did the presentation. And now, you can hear the adult Bill Childs speaking the lyrics during the second verse of the song.

More important than this fun story, though, is the story of Susan B. Anthony herself. Ever since elementary school, I've known that she was an advocate for the right of women to vote. But until recently, this is where my knowledge of this extremely important activist stopped. Instead of just listing some of the cool stuff I found out, I thought it might be more fun to make a little quiz. If you answer all three questions correctly, you'll get a free copy of American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees.

Susan B. Anthony Quiz
1. For what crime was Susan B. Anthony arrested?

2. When Susan B. Anthony was a child, what did one of her teachers refuse to teach her because she was a female?

3. Why did Susan B. Anthony split with fellow activist Frederick Douglass?

You can find the answers to these questions pretty easily online. But if you'd like to read more extensively about her and other activists, try one of these books.

for grown-ups:

Voices of Protest! Documents of Courage and Dissent by Frank Lowenstein, Sheryl Lechner, and Erik Bruun -- I just got this book as a present. Looks terrific.

Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns -- Ken Burns' documentaries are all right, but I prefer the companion books.

Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words by Lynn Sherr --
Definitely read some of her speeches and essays: he knew how to hit people where it hurt.

for kids:

Susan B. Anthony: A Photo-Illustrated Biography by Lucile Davis -- lots of interesting pictures from her era

Susan B. Anthony: Fighter for Women's Rights by Deborah Hopkinson and Amy June Bates -- an early-reader chapter book, good for elementary students

- Lloyd (Ulysses S. Dee)

Monday, December 14, 2009

The new album is here! (Right here next to me)

We had a great time at our CD release concert and video shoot this past Saturday, December 12th, and we can't wait for you to hear the album! Squid, an NYC-based video director and visual artist who was an original member of the Blue Man Group's production team, shot the whole concert -- primarily to use as a stand-alone video for the song, "Little Red Airplane," but also to carve up into clips that we'll put online soon.

The album, as many of you know, is called American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees. The clunky, obvious title is our attempt to make it very clear what it is we do. Traveling the country the past years, the two questions we're most frequently asked are:

"So are you guys like the Wiggles?"

"Are you on Noggin?"

We (cue violins) have grown tired of these questions and so have decided to reduce our band to the simple equation that now adorns the new record. I'm sure it won't help. But who cares? We just want people to hear these wonderful new songs that we've been working on for so long.

Here's the track list:

1. Little Red Airplane

2. John Muir

3. Do the Turnout

4. Growl Growl

5. ¡Sí Se Puede!

6. Bring 'Em In

7. Tres Muralistas

8. Party Girl

9. Tub-Tub-Ma-Ma-Ga-Ga

10. The Brooklyn Bridge Song

11. Put on the Dress

12. Xu Lapi Knewel, New Jersey

I've already posted about Track 12. Tonight I'll post about Track 11. Tomorrow... you get the idea. I'm posting full lyrics plus background info on each song. And sometime in January and February (in time for our winter tour) the brand-new Teacher's Guide to the Deedle Deedle Dees will be complete and ready to mail to you (let us know if you want one).

By the way, if you need copies of either of our albums right away, please write me at CDBaby sold out of Freedom in a Box last week and although we've sent them some more, these CDs -- as well as copies of the new album -- might not be online for sale until next week. Just tell me how many you need and when you need them by. If you live in Brooklyn, I might even be able to drop them by your house.