Sharing a Musical Vision
An Interview with Ruth Pelham
Ruth Pelham is the 2014 recipient of CMN’s Magic Penny Award. Ruth is one of the founding members of our organization and served on the CMN board for many years. She is a singer, songwriter, a performer, an educator, conference presenter, workshop leader, and much more.
Ruth grew up in a singing family of four. She spent her summers at camps where counselors shared inspiring songs of political activism. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison where she began writing songs and performing for audiences whom she taught to sing out in full voice about issues of equality and justice. She didn’t coin the term zipper song, but she certainly became the master of it with the likes of “Under One Sky,” “Look to the People,” “What Do I Do?,” and so many more, all of which are sung across the nation in schools and at festivals and rallies.
To read more about Ruth’s work, read Phil Hoose’s 1997 interview in the Winter 1997 issue of PIO! found in the members section of the CMN website.
PIO!: Ruth, in 1997 Phil Hoose recorded a wonderful interview with you giving many details of your background and history with the Music Mobile. But now it’s seventeen years later, and Music Mobile is thirty-seven years old. You are, of course, that much wiser as well. How has the organization grown and changed both you and the community during these passing years?
RP: Music Mobile’s been a major vehicle that’s pushed me to grow. When I started it in 1977, I’d never written a grant or been responsible for running a not-for-profit organization. I had to relate to all kinds of people, from the city workers (who maintained the Music Mobile van and cut wood into sticks for our instruments) to the bankers, newspaper reporters, city officials, and, most of all, the people in the neighborhoods who came to the programs. I was shy, lacked confidence, and didn’t really have a clue about my own strengths. But I believed in my vision, and that compelled me to keep going. Now, because of all of the challenges I’ve faced—and succeeded or failed at—I’m stronger, and more confident, and way more skilled in many areas than I could have ever imagined.
PIO!: Say more about that for you and for the community.
RP: For me, there’s been so much continuity amidst lots of change. What’s a constant is the push and pull of having to choose between my local organizing work through the Music Mobile and putting time and attention to my career as an educator and songwriter on a national and international level. Sometimes those two paths have been completely compatible and other times it’s like choosing between two treasures I adore. And that’s true for so many of us who are driven by multiple interests and the urge to make a difference in multiple ways.
PIO!: You’ve made a difference for tens of thousands of people around Albany and surely in other places, too. But especially in Albany, you and Music Mobile are part of the fabric of life, like the Pied Piper who never goes away.
RP: Yes, people often liken Music Mobile to the ice cream truck. But we don’t sell ice cream. We give away love. Truly. That happens by setting up situations for people to actively care and pay attention to each other in loving ways, by singing, laughing, figuring things out together, helping, and recognizing common needs. Interaction is a constant at our programs and it also happens when I drive down a street with the Music Mobile song playing from the van. People turn their heads, wave and smile, and sing along because they remember the song and associate it with a special part of their childhood. Neighbors sing spontaneously with neighbors. And that makes my heart sing. Music Mobile has given people a common focal point. It’s like the common beat of a shared heart.
PIO!: What’s an example of the coming together you’re talking about?
RP: Oh, there are so many, but a very recent one stands out. I was in a pizza place collecting tomato cans for the kids to build bongo drums from. The store owner and the manager told me they were best friends from childhood, and that they’d come to Music Mobile as kids. Then one by one they began to sing the Music Mobile song, each one adding their favorite lines as best as they could remember. Then in walked a young couple and they both squealed, “Oh, you’re the Music Mobile lady! I came as a kid!” But neither of them knew that the other one had been to Music Mobile! From their reaction, it was a big deal. We laughed and hugged and reminisced and then the five of us carried the cans to my car. Well, getting out of his car was a guy in a pickup truck who looked very familiar to me. It turned out he’s the city carpenter who had cut my wood a few months before, but I didn’t recognize him out of context. Turns out that he had come to Music Mobile as a kid! So all of us stood around singing the Music Mobile song right there in front of the pizza place. Here they were, mostly strangers to each other, but I tell you, it was like a family reunion.
PIO!: Through the years your work has taken you far beyond Albany. I noticed on your website the international outreach portion of your work. What is the common thread that runs through those experiences?
RP: Wherever I go, children and adults join me to sing along. It’s always a challenge given that I don’t know the language of the country I’m visiting. But what happens is that someone from the country speaks English, and translates the words and what I’m saying in between the songs. That happened when I went to the Soviet Union in 1986 and also in Sri Lanka when I was there after the tsunami. This February I was in Uganda as part of a project that takes wonderful care of fourteen street boys by raising enough money for their food and housing and schooling. Ronnie Sseruyange, the coordinator of that project, and I set up a Skype session between second graders in Albany and his Ugandan kids. The Music Mobile staff taught the second graders several songs in the Ugandan language and the Ugandan staff taught their kids songs in English. And when the Skype session happened, the two sets of kids sang the songs together and talked to each other through a translator. How hopeful it was to see two groups become one, half a world away.
PIO!: So many of your songs are upbeat and paint a world where love, hope, kindness—those kinds of human qualities—are predominant. Where in you does that come from?
RP: For sure, I’m not naïve, and I know in every fiber of my being that life can be truly awful. So often I’m deeply troubled by what I see in the world, at home on the streets of Albany, what I hear on the news, what’s going on behind the closed doors not only of families but of the global institutions of finance and power. And what I see inside myself, too. Conflicts. Contradictions. Ways of being that sometimes are not the best person I want to be. And communities that are not the best they can be. But something happens to me deep down when I write songs and do my programs. It happens during conversations with strangers. I love that! Something wells up in me that knows we are basically good and that we can all do a whole lot better were it not for greed, poverty, ego, and lack of time and focus to live in a more connected and gentle way toward each other.
PIO!: Given the scope of your work and the passion of your vision, have you ever thought of expanding Music Mobile, its personnel and its programming?
RP: That’s a good question. Now that I’m sixty-five, many questions about the future come up daily, as is natural at this stage of life. Yes, I want the body of my work—the songs, the pedagogy, the community organizing part of MM, the connection to social work, recreation, education, and youth development—to continue. I want to bring this resource to a wide group of people who can apply it creatively according to how they want to do it. Not necessarily to have people go out into the communities in a van. Maybe that would happen, and that would be great. But to take the essence of my work and have its many elements be tools for people to use to accomplish their own purposes for bringing goodness to the world.
I have staff members at MM who have been with me for many years. One of them is Lavon Watson. He came to MM when he was five. He’s now thirty. Lavon takes a very major role in the programs. He leads songs and activities, and really has down what MM is all about. During the summers we’ve had other staff and Americorps volunteers who have come back several years in a row. Additional administrative staff come and go as funding is available. Most of our funding comes from grants, fee-for-service contracts, individual and business contributions, and in-kind services. We have to do this fundraising, even though it takes a huge amount of effort and time, because most of our programs are free to participants. We also have a hard working board of directors who, like so many of us, are devoted to peace and justice values.
PIO!: A big part of MM’s focus is on building self-esteem and leadership skills.
RP: Yes, a big part of MM is giving people the opportunity to be leaders, to be seen. I love to give the example of an incident that happened in the ’90s. We were at a park loading up the van after finishing a program that had been going on for a good hour and a half. There were still at least twelve kids hanging around helping us when a little boy came up with a dead bug in his hands. Of course the reaction from the kids was, “Ee-ooo! Gross.” The kids looked at him like he was weird. When I saw that, I went inside myself, and thought, “These kids need to learn that bugs are wonderful, a part of life right in their neighborhood, so they don’t squash them,” as is the lesson in Phil and Hannah Hoose’s book Hey Little Ant. The other thing that I wanted was for the boy who had gotten looked at in the weird way to be seen by the kids in a different way: as smart and capable and as a leader. So I asked him and the other kids to come make a circle. We spent a good half hour with the bug. It became a lesson about death and dying, about what is different and what is the same about the bug and about people. It was a lesson about the relationship and the commonality between people and the life around us, whether it’s a tree or an insect or a flower. In cities, a lot of kids don’t get that, period.
The music piece came in at the very end, after we buried the bug. The kids decided that the boy who had brought the bug over would be the one to put the bug in the hole they dug together, collectively, cooperatively with a stick. It was all about problem solving. How do we bury the bug? Well, we have to dig a hole. Well, how do you dig a hole? You have to do it with a shovel. But we don’t have a shovel. What’s like a shovel? Guess we’d better go get a stick. So it was a whole process of discovering how to make things work in the world of a neighborhood.
At the very end of this, the kids said, “Now we have to write a song!” I was ready to leave, but I couldn’t leave, because they really wanted to write the song. So we wrote a song and it went:
Goodbye, bug, we’re sorry you’re gone.
You are a good bug, and we’ll miss you
Flying in the air, crawling on the ground.
We’ll remember you forever at Colby Park.
We’ll miss you. Yes, we love you.
After we finished writing the song and singing it together, again I thought I was leaving. But they said, “No, you need to record that!”
So I agreed and we recorded it. I was leaving and they said, “No, no, no! Now we have to play it driving around in the MM van when you drive out of our neighborhood.”
And that’s exactly what we did. They showed such pride and power, understanding that they had just done something really transformative for everyone, even for the bug. I was greatly moved by their urgency to share their experience with their neighborhood through their song. That’s some of the hard work of Music Mobile. You decide the programs are an hour, but you are there for two hours because something spontaneously happens. That’s one reason Music Mobile street programs have worked, because I’ve allowed them to spill over, which is very different than when you work in a school. You have one hour, you finish, and you’re gone.
PIO!: Yes, there’s very little time in school for reflection and application of what you learn.
RP: There’s a freedom on the street to allow structures to evolve organically out of the needs of the people and purposes of the program. That’s a concept that I always teach when I teach college students or do adult workshops and want them to appreciate the power of spontaneity and flexibility.
PIO!: There must be a great deal of spontaneity when you drive around the neighborhoods in the van. Where did your idea for the music van come from?
RP: I guess I originally modeled the Music Mobile after the ice cream truck. It’s a concept that makes so much sense, to take the music to where the people are. It’s been a really powerful organizing tool to just go out on a street corner or into a park rather than people having to have money or transportation to go across town.
PIO!: Frankly, I’m surprised that among CMNers, or other people in your circle, someone hasn’t come to you and said, “Hey, Ruth, can I build a program where I live modeled after MM? Has that ever happened? If not, I suspect a lot of people think, “I could never do it like Ruth does it.”
RP: That’s been one of the questions all along—can Music Mobile exist without Ruth? Is it my personality, my style? I think it’s a combination of both and so much more. I think some of the foundation of MM is so logical and obvious in a way. I believe it’s very replicable.
What I’m hoping, now that I’ve spent thirty-seven years doing this work in schools, neighborhoods and parks, libraries and playgrounds, is that I’d like to do some shifting of where I put my attention, so I can bring MM to another level.
What I’ve seen from my staff through the years is that they learn from me and then present the songs and activities using their own styles and personalities. In terms of the lessons and music, oh yes, they can surely be replicated. But what I haven’t seen is people going out in a van gathering neighbors. And I have to tell you, it takes a tremendous amount of work on many, many levels to do that. You have to build up a relationship of trust with the people in the neighborhoods that you’re inviting to come to the programs. That takes a way of relating to people that is at the core honest, patient, being good at listening to people and understanding them beyond what their words are saying. So if someone says, “No, I don’t want to go to the Music Mobile program,” you have to dig a little deeper to find out why. Ask, for example, “Would it help to have a friend come with you?” You have to coax people. Sincerity and humor work well. You have to ask what’s keeping them from deciding to come and what would make it possible to join in. On days when it’s really hot out and we’ve been driving around for a half hour and the kids still don’t come out of their homes, we have to keep going anyway because we know there are people in the houses. And the point is for them to come out of their houses, get away from their techno toys, and engage with their neighbors by singing and doing creative and fun things together.
PIO!: Yes, asking and listening to people to find out what they need rather than presenting what you think they need is an important lesson. Ruth, you were one of CMN’s founders. How has CMN changed and grown since its inception and what are your hopes for the organization?
When CMN began, our roots were grounded in peace and social justice because so many of us had been in college in the sixties. Much of what is taught in schools today as almost status quo was quite radical in the early CMN days, like teaching about peace and recycling. I would hope that CMN always is true to those roots and at the same time can embrace the fact that we don’t all have the same belief systems. We don’t have all of the same political viewpoints. But we all have a similar love for children, and that drives much of our shared values and vision of the kind of world we want. Just as was true back when we founded CMN, we still need to come up with ways to flip racism and greed and homophobia and all of those “-isms.” The power of oppression and injustice is strong as steel, and that’s why it matters so much what we sing and teach about. The world has to change, and we are truly among the movers and shakers to do that.
PIO!: Your songs are among the classics of children’s music and are part of the national folk music song bag. What is your hope for how your songs can be used to further the values that you hold so dear?
RP: Thanks for recognizing my songs in that way! What I hope is that the vision of humanity that’s infused in the lyrics and spirit of my songs will give people strength and inspiration to carry us on to a better world. I write my songs so they can be easily sung and, because of that, be passed along from group to group and generation to generation. My songs are a means of creating circles of hope, circles of inclusion. It’s from people singing together that ripples of change will heal the world, and I’m so grateful to be one of our voices.