Magic Penny Award

2010: Ruthie Buell

In naming Ruthie Buell as the CMN Magic Penny Award recipient, we pay tribute to one of our own long-standing members. We are proud to add this pioneering artist-teacher to our roster of outstanding recipients. All are people whose seamless lives and careers have made significant and unique contributions to children’s music, and whose lifetimes of work exemplify the core values of the Children’s Music Network.

Funny and free-spirited, a theatrically charged whirlwind, a bender of rules, a revered and renowned radio broadcaster, and a caring and demanding special ed music teacher, Ruthie Buell, aka “Uncle Ruthie” and “Miss Cuca,” embodies those core values in her heart and marrow.

Sporting many creative hats and more than one name, Ruthie is a songwriter and recording artist with five albums produced (and two more on the way), including Take a Little Step, The Mystery of Time, The Best of Uncle Ruthie, and Hanukkah at Home. She is a storyteller, an award-winning poet, an accomplished journalist, and an actor who, at a bouncy age seventy-nine, reels off Shakespeare sonnets over her morning coffee.

Ruthie’s original songs—hundreds of them so far—are born from her own real life and the emotional lives of her students. They are whimsical, hilarious, heartbreaking, comforting, playful, instructional, inspirational and empowering. She likes to think that her poetry—the spine of her songs—helps people of any age understand that they are not alone. Many of her songs can be found in CMN’s Pass It On! journal archives.

Her myriad accomplishments attest to an unshakably integrated life, and are truly impressive. In all of her facets she is, above all, a seasoned performer. But it is Ruthie Buell’s transformative work in two fields (either of which would alone merit the Magic Penny), and her unification of both, that compels that the 2010 CMN Magic Penny Award be hers.

Uncle Ruthie the Artist-Teacher

Ruthie is the creator and ongoing host-producer of the beloved benchmark children’s radio program on Pacifica Radio’s flagship station KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. The show, also syndicated nationally and streamed online, has been on-air for more than thirty-six amazing years, earning the title of longest-running children’s program in American radio. She is a cherished institution, communicating via the arts with more than three generations of young listeners.

The weekly show Halfway Down the Stairs is formatted precisely in the spirit of the A. A. Milne poem of the same name, which includes the line, “It isn’t really anywhere! It’s somewhere else instead.” It is a theatrically produced and entertaining sound collage of songs and stories, a multicultural and multilingual pastiche drawn from many sources. Rigorously avoiding preaching, didacticism, or “talking down,” Uncle Ruthie and her guests explore subjects most other kids’ radio ignores, such as gay and lesbian families, child abuse, and even politics. A loving, and therefore antispanking, antifighting, and antiwar theme resonates throughout each broadcast. Many CMN members, including previous Magic Penny honorees Marcia Berman, Bob Blue, and Suni Paz, have been featured on the folk-centered show, both on disc and in-studio.

Because Uncle Ruthie believes that a really engaging children’s story must be multileveled and have meaning for all ages, each story and song on Halfway Down the Stairs has a gentle message for every age group, from the very young to the very old.

Miss Cuca the Teacher-Artist

Ruthie has also used her extraordinary gifts to serve as a special education teacher for more than forty years. In this field, as well, she remains a dynamic trailblazer.

To the school kids she is “Miss Cuca” or just “Cuca,” and in addition to group singing, rhythm classes, and piano lessons, she often writes music on the spot—for classrooms, colleagues, curricula, and individual students who need or inspire a song. Many a student has felt the elation of hearing a new, personally dedicated Miss Cuca song.

Until a few years ago, Miss Cuca served as the music teacher at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Frances Blend Special Education Center, a public school designated solely for children who are challenged by developmental and physical disabilities in combination with vision impairment and blindness. Many of the students are bused from economically depressed sections of L.A. to the inner city school.

There, Miss Cuca annually created and directed student musicals and choral concerts. She instituted an innovative take-home-a-keyboard-and-practice program for her piano students, which required parents and other family members to turn off the TV and become supportive and involved.

Her rule-tweaking classroom, full of hands-on instruments, the walls postered with iconic images of Malvina Reynolds, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Arturo Toscanini, was a welcoming and popular gathering spot for her increasingly musical youngsters.

Miss Cuca proved to these students that they were capable of such disciplined learning and performing, and they found empowerment in understanding and adopting the positive life lessons inherent in the fun-filled process.

Currently, when most folks her age might be more than a decade into retirement, Cuca is actively teaching music to preschoolers through second grade at the Blind Children’s Center in L.A., a private school for blind, partially sighted, and some fully-sighted kids, from birth through second grade, established in the 1930s. It is supported by private donations; no tuition is charged.

Cuca loves it there, where she makes sure that her songs have a role in teaching math and science and English. “It is a wonderful school,” she says, [with] incredible people and an atmosphere of love and learning, joy and fun throughout the building and throughout the day. It’s how all schools should be!” It is Ruthie Buell’s kind of place. Recently she showcased her kids on her radio show, singing songs she wrote for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday.

It is a source of great pleasure for CMN to celebrate Ruthie Buell’s—and Uncle Ruthie’s and Miss Cuca’s—lifetime work with the 2010 Magic Penny Award.

Photo: Ruthie BuellPhoto: 2010 Magic Penny AwardPhoto: Magic Penny Award

Ruthie Buell receiving the 2010 Magic Penny Award, a quilt from her CMN friends

Award designer: Francie Ginocchio – Rochester, MN