Preserving the History of the Early Years
“We had three things in common—love of children, wanting to help build a world that works, and the belief that songs have power, that you can sing something into existence.”
What song did you hear that made you say, “I’ve never heard a song for children like this!”? Who was the person who first stretched out their hand to you in CMN? What conversation with someone in this network is one you’ll never forget?
This is the glue of CMN. When a whole slew of us were first finding each other in the 1980s and forging a community that could be ongoing, there were many steps that made it solid. As I try to put this down in writing, I want us to remember that song, that outstretched hand, that conversation as personal building blocks are crucial to us. I acknowledge and honor them even as I talk about dates and decisions.
The early history of CMN recounts not only people and places, but tells a story of deliberate choices to live out shared values and build a caring community through song. CMN began with an inclusive code of ethics that was consciously created among the thirty to forty people invested in the first years, most of whom are still engaged in our network.
CMN was built from a spirit of welcome. At a CMN gathering in Tennessee, a couple from Florida said, “We came here expecting to be on the sidelines among a bunch of stars, and instead we were welcomed in as equals.” It’s no accident that Frank Hernandez and Ted Warmbrand’s song, “Open the Circle,” has become a CMN anthem, because it gives voice to our commitment that the newest members are important and their gifts need to be recognized and incorporated.
The scene of children’s music into which CMN was born in the 1980s had a stream of influences. Educators impacted by folk music, especially by the work of Pete Seeger, were drawing upon folk-based songs for building friendships in the classroom. Fueled by folk and rock music, many young teachers and performers had taken up playing guitar as teenagers. Where once pianos were common in early childhood classrooms, guitars were also now in evidence. Another factor that certainly affected the central founders of CMN was the imprint of music from the civil rights movement; we were also impacted by the anti-Vietnam War movement as well as campaigns to prevent nuclear war, foster ecology, and address the inequities of sexism, racism, and ableism. We saw music as a way that children could learn about these points of view. When Pete Seeger sang “My Dirty Stream,” children could hear about the work of the Clearwater movement in cleaning up the Hudson River.
In Canada, children’s music performers like Sharon, Lois, and Bram as well as Raffi focused primarily upon traditional music, while many US performers were creating original music and looking for avenues for sharing it. We wondered how to help songs reach schools, homes, camps, and libraries. Through Mariposa in the Schools in Toronto, Canadian performers received federal support for their work. In the absence of similar government sources, artists in the United States looked for ways to develop mutual support and vehicles for professionalizing our work. The exchange that happened at meetings of adult folk music organizations addressed some of these needs, but none focused on music for children.
Another factor in the background of CMN’s rise was a change in the music industry: famous adult musicians in the United States started adding albums for children. We looked at our music as part of community building, not part of becoming successful in entertainment. We wanted to create a cooperative model rather than fuel a star system, especially since this was in keeping with what our songs were about.
Phil Hoose liked to say, “Our stuff is different from ear candy.” Songwriters drawn to CMN created music that took young people seriously yet had plenty of goofy humor. While a 1950s genre of children’s music instructed them on how to behave—like “never skate where the ice is thin” or “look both ways when you cross the street”—these CMN songs introduced thoughts of caring without being preachy.
At an evening round-robin CMN song swap, it was exciting to hear songs like “Hey, Little Ant” by Phil and his daughter Hannah. This song blazed trails by raising issues of bullying and helping children develop compassion for the underdog and respect for all life.
Important forerunners laid the groundwork out of which CMN developed. As CMN started, we investigated who had come before, and reached out to find those who all over the country were doing parallel work.
From the 1950s onward, many folk musicians in the United States performed family concerts of music selected for children. An earlier generation included Malvina Reynolds, Sam Hinton, and Ella Jenkins.
Marcia Berman began making recordings in the 1950s and later teamed up with Patty Zeitlin from the West Coast. As former preschool teachers, they had experience observing children. They created music that showed respect and helped express feelings. For instance, Marcia’s “The Angry Song” gave everyone a chance to sing, “You can’t hurt me, but you can yell a lot.” Won’t You Be My Friend and Everybody Cries Sometimes were albums they made together. Marcia’s song “I’m Not Small” was interactive. Marcia comments, “I wanted them to feel more power in their lives even in their imagination. It was a time when children had fewer choices.” Patty’s song “Spin, Spider, Spin” invites a child to feel close to spiders and not feel frightened. These kinds of lyrics hadn’t appeared before in the genre of children’s music.
Ruth Pelham founded the Music Mobile in 1977 in Albany, New York. By taking her van of instruments and programs for music making out into neighborhoods, she opened up a whole new sense of the potential of music to build community. Her song “Under One Sky” became a beacon because it was both catchy and meaningful as it talked about unity.
Several performers in the late 1970s intertwined social change music with appreciation for traditional music. Nancy Schimmel created distinctive topical songs on political and ecology themes. Sally Rogers became a nationally recognized performer in the folk tradition and later served as CMN president. As part of her body of political music, Bonnie Lockhart, who also became CMN president, wrote “I Still Ain’t Satisfied” in 1972 as an anthem for the national women’s rights movement. Each of them performed and wrote music for all ages.
Children’s radio programming started in the 1970s and early 1980s. PJ Swift’s Pickleberry Pie began in California. Jeff Brown in Juneau, Alaska had a popular program called We Like Kids. They both made contributions to CMN and the field in general as described below.
On the West Coast, Peter Alsop began producing children’s music in 1975. An organization called Children’s Artists Making a Living (CAMAL) started. Marcia Berman, Uncle Ruthie Buell, Dan Crow, Patty Zeitlin, Mallory Pearce, JP Nightingale, and Charles Krauss were active members of CAMAL. Dan has commented, “CAMAL was instrumental in developing the interest in children’s music in Los Angeles beyond animated characters.”
In 1981, educator Jill Person started A Gentle Wind recording company in Albany, New York with her husband, Donald Person, and they devoted the company to meaningful music for children. Paul Strausman, Ruth Pelham, Betsy Rose, Cathy Winter, Sarah Pirtle, and Lisa Atkinson were among the first artists they recorded by 1984.
In 1986 Evelyn Weiss, Priscilla Prutzman, and Nancy Silber published Children’s Songs for a Friendly Planet, a book of peace songs from the Children’s Creative Response to Conflict program in Nyack, New York. It included the work of many songwriters who later were part of CMN.
CMN Came Out of PMN
In the early 1980s, Stuart Stotts, Ruth Pelham, Bob Blue, Ben Tousley, Bob Reid, Patricia Shih, Barbara Wright, Phil Hoose, myself, and a number of others from around the United States started attending East Coast gatherings of the folk music organization called Songs of Freedom and Struggle (SFS). Those of us who were singing music for children began meeting informally during those gatherings and organized workshops at SFS where we could learn each other’s songs. For instance, Gil Raldiris introduced his song “Mi Cuerpo Hace Musica,” and workshop participants helped it to travel.
Out of that interest, Ruth Pelham organized a separate two-day gathering in March 1982 in Albany, New York, along with Jill Person, John Ragusa, Terri Roben, and Cathy Winter, which brought together people who focused on children’s music.
Around 1983, SFS merged with People’s Music Network (PMN), and the joint organization went on under the PMN name. The children’s song swaps became a scheduled part of the yearly gatherings’ programs, and people began being in touch with each other informally between gatherings.
PMNers shared the belief that songs have power, that by singing together with meaningful lyrics a new awareness is brought into being. A song like Stuart Stotts’s “World Citizen” illustrated the potential of songs that could awaken children to new, larger possibilities. Patricia Shih’s “The Color Song,” written in 1984, stirred listeners. Many of the participants began making cassette recordings of their original songs.
Saturday night round-robins and daytime workshops with song swaps—features of CMN conferences—were brought from PMN. We were dedicated to the equality of each and every person, adult and child. In the sequence of a round-robin, a five-year-old might perform after Pete Seeger, and then we’d hear from a children’s librarian who used music. This format gave equal weight to each offering.
Engaging young people in social justice and bringing them visions of citizenship was paramount to the founders. We devised ways to write songs with children, and we collected songs that children wrote themselves, like these lyrics written by Amanda Hogen of Syracuse, New York, in 1993, when she was thirteen years old. Amanda sang, “One small voice can change the world alone. One small voice, then another joins along, and all we need is a few more voices, too, and when we’re done the whole world will be singing.”
The goal of our efforts at the time was more distinct than creating a network of people dedicated to all kinds of children’s music. We saw that children became empowered through music to think about global issues and express their own personal concerns. We helped them voice their own thoughts, stand up to show respect for others, and express their caring for the earth. We were trying to get our songs and our teaching methods more widely accessible to children, to schools, and to camp counselors, to help children become empowered voices in our society.
During a winter PMN conference in Hartford in 1987, the formal organizational launch of CMN happened. On Friday night, instead of listening to the concert in progress, Bob Reid and I stood in the hallway speaking about the idea of starting a CMN, a takeoff of PMN’s name. (We didn’t realize we were carrying forward ideas that Ruth Pelham, with others, had raised five years earlier. She had organized a roller skating party in Albany to help children’s musicians band together.) To test out if others liked the idea, Bob Reid and I called together a Sunday lunch table of children’s performers. The group embraced the name of Children’s Music Network and wanted it to form parallel to PMN. Ruth, Joanne Hammil, Bob Blue, and Phil Hoose were actively part of this launch. I asked people for ideas about the mission of CMN and took notes. There was easy consensus. Seeing a great need to build upon the momentum, I offered to launch CMN and agreed to set up an office in my home. Over the next years, there were many crucial steps I took that allowed CMN to evolve and develop.
As a first step, I contacted every children’s performer in the United States that I’d ever heard of and asked people to give their input. A real turning point was my correspondence with two people who immediately understood the potential, Sandy Byer from Toronto, Canada, and Marci Berman from Los Angeles, California. Sandy Byer wrote the Kidsbeat column for Sing Out! She became an immediate supporter who has continued to be actively involved to this day. Marcia Berman was interested in building a California region CMN. Marcia commented, “That early letter inspired us with a new vision of what was possible. We didn’t really know the people on the other coast at this time. Phone calls were expensive, and we didn’t have enough contact with each other’s music.”
As a second step, I created a newsletter to make it all real and tangible and named it Pass It On! I instituted its different departments and sections, many of which we still use today. Phil Hoose began a long commitment of creating high-quality interviews with children’s musicians. These are available on the CMN website in the PIO! archives.
The first editorial was called “Like a Rainforest.” It talked about valuing all the many ways adults were connected with children’s music—as teachers, radio hosts, parents, songwriters, and performers. I posed this guiding question: How can the wide range of people dedicated to caring for children through music support each other cooperatively instead of competing, as is often the setup in the music industry?
At this stage, people weren’t available for separate meetings, so I strategized a way to gather and anchor the fledgling organization. As a third step, that summer of 1987, four months after the Hartford meeting, I asked people to come several hours before the PMN gathering started in order to focus on CMN. We met at Camp Thoreau in Pine Bush, New York. Barbara Wright was there, as well as Sally Rogers, and a circle of maybe twenty people.
Ruth Pelham co-facilitated those meetings, and we worked as a team, building from our shared roots in the feminist peace movement where consensus is used to make decisions. Many people who are still active in the network and have played important roles were in that circle. Sandy Byer traveled from Toronto, and Dave Orleans came from New Jersey.
As a fourth step, that fall I put together the first freestanding CMN gathering independent of a PMN event. It took place in Amherst, Massachusetts, at the Hitchcock Environmental Center. Thirty-five people drove far to attend—like Steve Schuch from New Hampshire and Lorre Wyatt, who was associated with the sloop
As a fifth step, I fleshed out the idea of creating regions. I reached out to CAMAL to indicate that we on the East Coast wanted to honor and respect all they were already doing so that we could build CMN together. Marcia asked for some guidelines, and I wrote out a booklet about how to found a region. It spoke of ways we kept things equal in PMN and drew upon my decade of involvement with the Interhelp Network.
As a sixth step, I raised funds from friends so that I could keep running the office. It was another way to expand.
The aim was to create a stable organization to which many could contribute. When PMN met in Beacon, New York in the summer of 1990, the “snowball” got larger and grew into something sustainable by a larger group. This was the first time a wider circle made a commitment to long-term investment. Bob Blue and Phil Hoose both joined the board at this time. This was the “meeting under the tree” that many people still remember as one of the coalescing events. In the next year, 1991, CMN became incorporated and also gained nonprofit status.
Through the work of Marcia Berman, the first West Coast national CMN gathering was organized in Los Angeles in October 1992. Miriam Sherman, Jacki Breger, Tom Armstrong, and Milt and Stefani Rosenberg were part of building the region and the conference. It was a milestone because it brought together a wide variety of singers, and we discovered that people were willing to travel long distances to attend. Ernest Siva gave a very moving presentation about the music of his Serrano and Cahuilla heritage, focused on the traditional indigenous ways of creating from an inner place connected to nature. He told us that by writing new songs and by passing along songs from long ago we were connecting to a common life source.
People Kept Us Moving Forward
That’s a look at the very earliest years when “the boat pushed off from the dock.” I want to highlight crucial work during the first ten years that helped to make us solid. I can’t list all those who regularly attended gatherings, but am focusing upon those who worked year-round. Here’s a short summary.
The first major turning point for CMN occurred when three people came forward as key leaders. Joanne Hammil brought her high standards and smart ways of operating to the network. Although not officially elected president until 1994, she performed the duties of one from 1991 to 1993, and was very active as part of the steering committee, which was the precursor to today’s executive committee.
Andrea Stone and her husband, Ron, took the helm at the office. Those three people really made CMN what it is today. They knew how to do things professionally. Andrea and Ron brought Pass It On! to a whole other level—from a photocopied newsletter to a journal that they supervised, edited, and printed. They organized our early independent gatherings, created a computerized member database, reached out to other professional children’s music organizations to forge ties and visibility for CMN, and helped build CMN regions around the country. At that time Andrea worked as a guidance counselor, and she made a recording of CMN songs that she used to help children express their feelings.
Major board meetings began at the Stones’ home in New Jersey in 1989 and continued at Joanne’s in Massachusetts. A core group of people traveled long distances to meet face to face. Young people gave input as members of an advisory committee for some years during this period (since children couldn’t be officially on a board and make corporate decisions). They included Andrea and Ron’s children Spencer and Stephanie, Joanne’s daughter Lisa, Phil’s older daughter Hannah, and my son Ryan. This was the time of long meetings and carefully made decisions about how to keep the organization inclusive and not self-promotional. Barbara Wright was also involved year after year, and some board meetings were held at her home. Joanne worked as the Stones’ right hand, and together they managed to stay on top of all the complex details of running the organization. These three showed a rare combination of professional know-how, diplomacy, perseverance, and insightful wisdom about human nature.
In 1993 Marge Corcoran was hired to take over some of the tasks that Andrea, Ron, and Joanne handled, such as membership processing and dealing with mail. In 1994 Joanne Tuller took on some of the logistical tasks three hours each week. But we realized that we needed more formal help.
In January of 1995, Caroline Presnell became the office manager, and later the national coordinator, serving through 2010. She had the administrative skills needed to help solidify and undergird the organizational structure and also assist with implementation of board actions. Having paid staff in place for day-to-day tasks lifted some of that burden from board members. The board called Caroline “the Queen” because her good sense, clarity of detail, and impeccable values allowed the network to flourish. Her work with Pass It On! began in the autumn of 1995. She began functioning as production editor early on, and continued with that work through 2014. In addition, working with a succession of PIO! editors, she often assisted with copyediting.
Think of all the work that took place at any one time behind the scenes—people writing fundraising letters, organizing fundraisers, ironing out conflicts, serving on the board, writing for PIO! It is impossible to name all the people who helped build the network in those early days, but I want to single out performers from two other regions not yet mentioned. Three men from Wisconsin—Bruce O’Brien, Tom Pease, and Stuart Stotts—and four women from the Bay area—Bonnie Lockhart, Nancy Schimmel, Lisa Atkinson, and Ingrid Noyes—were crucial in building a bridge toward where we are today. They exemplified the fact that many people were already operating with similar values and would be buoyed up by banding together in a network. Their ability to meet at yearly gatherings in New England and then in California also helped strengthen CMN, and their stellar songwriting opened people’s eyes to what was possible.
Lisa Garrison, who was there at the start, steadily made contributions by grant writing and creating her column, The Rose and the Apple Tree, for PIO! Bruce O’Brien from Wisconsin and Sue Ribaudo from the New York Metro Region organized a large landmark gathering at Camp Kutz near New York City and both continued doing work, with Sue on the board. Dave Kinnoin made an early commitment, and his cookies became a creative way to fundraise at gatherings. Susan Keniston helped maintain PIO! while working with Bob Blue and later became editor herself.
PJ Swift was a key person nationally in the field of children’s music radio, and she made it possible for CMN members to get a list of all the children’s radio shows in this country. As her work enlarged, her program—Pickleberry Pie, a syndicated public radio program for kids—evolved into the Children’s Music Web and Kids’ Public Radio. Jeff Brown from KTOO Radio in Juneau, Alaska created a book and cassette set of his favorite children’s songs that he played on his We Like Kids programs. Their work in radio helped give CMN a sense of expansion.
Lisa Atkinson, Bob Blue, Tom Hunter, Jill Person, Miriam Sherman, and Paul Strausman have died, but their integrity and their contributions are woven into what we have become. Their conversations and songs are certainly significant in the tapestry of our organization. Tom Hunter said, “I want my music to be grounded in the realities of what kids and teachers know. I want it to ring true, as it helps people laugh, cry, remember, celebrate, and learn.”
What year did you join the network? I don’t want to leave you out. What a difficult task it is to write down this early history, knowing that many names might accidentally not be here. This is a complex story to tell, and I want to respect everyone who had a role in building CMN from the 1980s through the mid-1990s.
Here’s a perspective on longevity. Looking at the number of active members in 2007, twenty percent of that total had joined by 1992; in other words, they had joined in the first five years of CMN and were still involved. Jumping to those who joined between 1992 and 1995, we find many who remained as key contributors to CMN and went on to be board members, past and present. These include Ellen Allard, Beth and Scott Bierko, Katherine Dines, David and Jennie Heitler-Klevans, Mara Sapon-Shevin, Barb Tilsen, and Kim Wallach. Reading those names, you can sense all their contributions that followed and still continue to the present.
Pass It On! invites you to share your recollections, not only about these first ten years, but about the years that followed. I hope more people will write articles to provide other details. I want this initial article, attempting to set down CMN’s complex history in writing, to honor the intangible process of starting a flame that has now continued beyond the twenty-five year mark.
Keeping Our Shared Values
“May the work we do make the world we live in a little more worthy of our children.”
—Tom Hunter’s song quoting Pablo Casals
Each CMN Board of Directors meeting used to end with this song by Tom Hunter, as the call would go out to “form the corporate structure” and people gathered in a large hug hold.
I said at the outset that this article is a history of deliberate decisions to maintain values as much as it is a history of the individuals’ involvement. The glue of CMN is not only in the humor, the joy of community, and the sharing of infectious songs. It’s also in the inner tuning fork that keeps us “tuning up” to what is best for the whole.
CMN uses a model of consensus and modified consensus, and has from the outset. We work from a “group brain” instead of working from the limiting territory of our egos and our own personal needs.
We look to make decisions from a place inside us that senses what will serve the greater good. This broad vision of a beloved community of people who respect children has created circles within circles, where the circle is open for the newest person at the heart of CMN.
Heartfelt thanks to Caroline Presnell for her extensive and invaluable fact checking, editing, and intensive involvement in helping this story be expressed.