Magic Penny Award

2007: Sarah Pirtle

When Studs Terkel interviewed Sarah Pirtle for an hour on his radio program, he focused on her award-winning young adult novel An Outbreak of Peace. He said that he found the book as meaningful for adult readers as for teenagers. One of the hallmarks of Sarah’s acclaimed work—her books, recordings, and concerts—is that she speaks to all generations. And, thankfully for us, that means she speaks and sings to children. On September 26, 2007, at its annual gathering in Albany, New York, the Children's Music Network presented Sarah Pirtle with perhaps the most cherished honor in Children's Music: the Magic Penny Award. Each year since 1999 CMN has given this award to an individual whose work over the years has celebrated the positive power of music in children's lives.

Honoring Sarah was a special joy, since she was instrumental in the founding of CMN. As a singer, songwriter, author, lecturer, workshop trainer, and esteemed teacher, Sarah Pirtle has been at the heart of CMN for twenty years now. Sarah is a leader in creating meaningful, respectful music for children. She has recorded over one hundred original songs for children ranging from “The Mahogany Tree,” about protecting the Mexican rainforest, to songs describing everyday efforts to solve conflicts, like “Walls and Bridges.” She has received eight national awards for her four recordings produced by A Gentle Wind in Albany, New York, and is known for connecting ecology songs and songs about cooperation.

Sarah delights in teaching others how to write songs and encouraging people to use music to create connection and community. Many of her songs, like “My Roots Go Down,” sound like they have been around for a long time. The inclusive, life-affirming spirit in her songs is also in her leadership. She works to make vivid a shared Tree of Life where all generations can grow together.

As a classroom teacher in the 1970s, she began writing for her students, and today, in her concerts and school residencies, she continues the practice of creating a new song for each community she meets. Educators for Social Responsibility asked her to create a text book of the songs that she developed over two decades of work in classrooms across the country. Linking Up: Using Music, Movement, and Language Arts to Promote Caring, Cooperation, and Communication has a text of 300 pages and a CD with forty-six songs. Linking Up shows teachers how to use music to develop positive social interactions. In it Sarah writes, “When music enters our classroom the mood can shift in a moment. Joy erupts. New thoughts and feelings are shared. What was stuck can become unstuck. Moreover, we reach the place where children construct their basic social understandings. Songs tell the news of the village, help children learn how to interact, and teach the basic joy of community. Songs are a glue that link us to rhythm and breath, to nature, and to the mystery of ourselves as individuals who are also within a community.”

Sarah teaches in a graduate program of Lesley University where she emphasizes that “music belongs to everyone.” She describes teachers as preserving endangered human values and abilities: cooperation, mutual regard and respect for diversity. As a peace educator for three decades, she has expanded what it means to teach peace so that unlearning racism, respect for all dimensions of diversity, and earth awareness are integral to building peace.

She is the author of a young adult novel called An Outbreak of Peace, which received the Olive Branch Award for the outstanding book of the year on world peace. The award citation read, “Sarah Pirtle’s sensitivity to young people and their feelings simply shines through.” In a media tour for the book, she focused upon teaching our children alternatives to violence. Pirtle gave over twenty radio and television appearances in Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis, including interviews on the Minneapolis NBC-TV affiliate Minnesota Public Radio and Boston television.

She focused on peace education in her master’s in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1981, and taught the first graduate course on conflict resolution in New England in the 1980s. For a decade she has taught teachers throughout the country how to integrate music into the classroom for the Creative Arts in Learning Program of Lesley University.

Her song “There’s Always Something You Can Do” has been used widely in the New York City public schools to teach conflict resolution. Her songs capture a child’s experience. “Talk It Out” begins, “I’m so angry, I can’t see straight. Talk it out? I don’t want to do it,” and shows the repairing of a friendship in a realistic way that all ages can relate to. In fact, one of the hallmarks of Sarah’s work is that she speaks to all generations.

Sarah was invited to perform at the Hudson River Clearwater Folk Festival when her first recording, Two Hands Hold the Earth, became the favorite of Pete Seeger’s grandson. As a twelve-year-old, Sarah taught herself to play guitar using Pete’s Folksinger’s Guitar Guide, and her goal in life was to be like Pete Seeger. She never dreamed that Sing Out! magazine, which she subscribed to as a teenager and read cover to cover, would one day carry songs of hers, let alone that she would have a chance to learn more directly from Pete.

Her first song, “The Woman Who Gobbled Swiss Cheese,” appeared in The Silly Songbook Collection by Esther Nelson.   Sarah’s songs from her seven recordings have a crossover appeal for all ages and have been recorded by Sharon, Lois and Bram, Bonnie Lockhart, Two of a Kind, Velma Frye, Tom Pease, and many others. Most recently Common Thread Community Chorus of Toronto included her song “My Roots Go Down” on their greatest hits recording.

As a gifted teacher, she has led workshops at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, Omega Institute, the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, Rowe Conference Center in Massachusetts, the Appalachian Peace Education Center, and the Michigan Reading Association Conference on Reading and Writing for Peace. She has given keynote speeches for conferences such as the Minnesota Head Start Conference and the Wisconsin Association for Mediation in Education Conference.

Macmillan/McGraw-Hill hired her to create a group of songs to accompany books in their reading series.

Recently she wrote a dozen educational songs for Scholastic, released in Circle Time Sing-Along: Flip Chart and CD featuring songs that build community. For instance, when Scholastic wanted a song to help children feel calmer, Sarah created a simple song, “Breathing In and Breathing Slow,” where children pre-K to first grade put their finger on their nose, their lip, their chin, and feel the air move to help them develop self-awareness.

Twenty years ago singers from around the country came together out of their concern for meaningful children’s music. Sarah listened to the common interests and, with others, took the action needed to weave together a solid organization to help birth the Children’s Music Network. She did dynamic outreach to develop the network, and she set up the methods for gatherings and shared leadership so that each new person entering the organization could give their gifts and find their place. Sarah was the first editor of Pass it On!, CMN's journal. What has become a sophisticated print and Web-based journal began as a few brilliantly written and edited pages that Sarah hand-cranked, stapled, and mailed from her home office several times each year. Within these early pages, Sarah launched a series of interviews with leaders in children's music that continues to this day. She sees CMN as passing on timeless and universal values, sharing with children folk song wisdom, and caring for the next generation. It is a source of great pleasure for CMN to celebrate Sarah’s life and her work with the 2007 Magic Penny Award.

Photo: Sarah Pirtle recieves 2007 Magic Penny mp-photos

Phil Hoose (right) looks on as Sarah
Pirtle receives the 2007 Magic Penny
Award presented by CMN President
Frank Hernandez (center), who first
joined CMN at Sarah's invitation.

Photo: Sara with the mp-photosPhoto: 2007 Magic Penny mp-photos (front)Photo: 2007 Magic Penny mp-photos (back)mp-photos by Allen Zak

Sarah with the award, whose design incorporates allusions
to Sarah's song "My Roots Go Down."

Award Designer: Harriett Morton – Tuscon, Arizona