Pass It On!

Pass It On!

The Journal of the Children's Music Network

Together in the Heart of Community:
An interview with Sarah Pirtle

conducted by Sally Rogers

I first met Sarah Pirtle many years ago through the People’s Music Network. Her dedication to the welfare of children and empowering them through music has been her life’s mission. Sarah is a pioneer in creating meaningful music about social issues and social skills. In the 1990s, Educators for Social Responsibility asked her to write down her teaching methods, resulting in a 300-page book and accompanying CD called Linking Up: Using Music, Movement and Language Arts to Promote Caring, Cooperation and Communication. She’s recorded over a hundred original songs through seven recordings; the first one was called Two Hands Hold the Earth. She’s received eight national awards for her children’s music. She is the author of four peace education books including An Outbreak of Peace, which received the Olive Branch Award for outstanding book of the year on world peace.

PIO!: So, Sarah, it’s the twentieth anniversary of CMN, and you are our founder. We want to know about you and how music became so important in your life.

SP: The civil rights movement had a big impact on me when I was growing up. I began learning and singing freedom songs when I was twelve. I felt that I was there in a chorus of people with a common purpose. I could feel how singing bonds people and brings us to a larger place. The passion of that movement became woven into my life. I could see as a young person how songs changed lives.

In the 1970s when I started bringing songs into my classroom in Cleveland, I discovered very immediately how singing bonds us, whether I was singing a song with a lot of humor, or a simple repeating song. Songs were a direct way to share love. Every child could experience at the same time that I cared about them when I was singing. They saw me looking at each one of them, and we could feel our hearts connecting. One way that I described this in the book Linking Up was to say that just like some people help protect endangered animals or plants, songs help preserve endangered human values and abilities such as cooperation and respect for diversity.

PIO!: Where did you first get a sense of the power of singing?

SP: At Rowe Camp in the Berkshire Mountains, in western Massachusetts. I was in junior high. After three weeks at Rowe Camp the first summer, I came home a different person. I had never connected with the values in my hometown in New Jersey because things were oriented toward money and social standing and that didn’t fit. At Rowe Camp I met people who made sense to me. Their lives were connected to the generations before them, and I heard that in the music. I learned Leadbelly songs and Phil Ochs songs and Pete Seeger songs. I like the term “generativity.” It means you’re connected to the generations before you, and you care about the generations to come. Through the civil rights songs I could feel in my bones what it means to be part of a living chain.

PIO!: How does this relate to CMN?

SP: I think we contribute to generativity. We care about the songs that came before, the people who sang them. When we pass on songs from the civil rights movement to young people today, for instance, we want all generations to know about that important time period in our history and we want them to know how to reach for their hearts toward something larger. Songs can help make us human, can declare that we care about the greater whole. And it’s not just the songs from the past that matter. Many songwriters today are pouring those same values into the contemporary songs that are being written. A simple song that’s fun can convey that same glee of being together that people generations ago found in the play party games or the songs from the Georgia Sea Islands.

In 1982 I started to go to the newly formed People’s Music Network [biannual gathering of singers for peace and social justice]. That’s where I met Ruth Pelham. She was a “way show-er.” Her commitment to children through her Music Mobile and her songs that she sang at PMN like “Look to the People,” and “I Cried,” and “The Turning of the World” gave many of us an expanded perspective of what children’s music could be about. I also remember the moment when I was sitting at a children’s song swap, and it was Stuart Stotts’ turn. He sang his song “World Citizen.” The song touched me so deeply: I thought, “How did you ever find words to express this important sensibility? Now that the words are here, we can convey this to young people through your song. Look what a song can do!”

I’m really aware that kids today have less of a chance to be outside and less of a chance to play with each other and invent games. When I was growing up, the important times in our neighborhood were when we were building clubhouses together or playing elaborate games of pretend and imagination. We were learning in those moments how to cooperate. What I found as a classroom teacher in the ’70s was that interactive music gave that same opportunity…

PIO!: …for play.

SP: Yes, for shared play. That’s the place where kids construct social learning. For instance, I made up a zipper song framework for the first grade class where I’d go around the circle and give every child a chance to say something they liked at that moment, and then we’d sing it so we were affirming what they said. I must’ve written this in ’74. The chorus was very simple. We just sang, “Jump, jump, jump, jump, jump.” During the time they were jumping I encouraged them to hold hands with someone and look at each other. I got really interested in how songs could create a pattern for positive social interaction.

I’m always on the lookout for something from us adults that we want to pass on to the kids. I got to meet Charles Walker, one of the founders of Peace Brigades International* when I was the peace education coordinator at Traprock Peace Center [in Deerfield, Massachusetts]. I asked him what was the main idea he wanted to convey to young people about resolving conflicts, and he said he wanted them to realize their options. He boiled it down to one key phrase: “There’s always something you can do.” That phrase became the seed for the first conflict resolution song I wrote.

This takes us back to having a sense of generations passing along wisdom. Creative conflict resolution is what villages for hundreds and thousands of years have been about, what people have always tried to work on. Music has been at the heart of social bonding in village life. I think of interactive heart-centered music as a central thread, one of the basic human tools for building values.

PIO!: Well said.

SP: So I taught myself guitar when I was twelve, and I would spend every afternoon with Pete Seeger’s Folksinger’s Guitar Guide. I also subscribed to Sing Out! magazine. I had the sense that a song could bring me to a different culture or a different time period. I had this tremendous experience of the power of song at a really young age, and I wanted the rest of my life to spring from that. I organized a hootenanny at our library with friends when I was fourteen. Folk music, both learning songs from other traditions and also writing in the folk medium, was very important to me. After going to Oberlin College where I was an English major, I went into classroom teaching. In my first year of teaching in 1972 I wanted to create something for the kids in my class as a gift, so I thought I’d make it a song.

PIO!: Were these music classes?

SP: No, I was teaching in a Montessori school. I wrote my first song, “There Once Was Woman Who Gobbled Swiss Cheese,” for middle school students. I was thinking about the traditional song “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly,” which I always found a little creepy. I did a sort of rewrite with a different tune in a folk style.

Later, I was a classroom teacher at the Independent School in East Cleveland, and I began to use music twice a day. Before lunch we’d do cooperative music and movement in a combination I called “discovery time,” putting together what I’d learned in training to be a dance therapist and taking dance classes. And then right at the end of the day we’d circle up and do song after song. We’d sing, “If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus,” and a ballad from the English folk group The Young Tradition called “The Hungry Child.” They liked funny songs, and they also liked deep complicated songs, and that was really interesting.

I began a whole decade of writing songs, but I never dreamed that they would travel. Like when I wrote “My Roots Go Down,” which is the song that’s probably been sung the most, I didn’t share it for three years because I didn’t realize that other people might want to sing it, too. It was a song that expressed an intimate connection to the earth. I wrote it walking outside in winter under a full moon. Music lives so close to the bone from inside me that at first I felt shy about sharing it.

I began to swap songs with people at conferences. One of the life-changing moments for me was getting a phone call from Jill Person from A Gentle Wind [an independent children’s recording company] when I was working at Traprock. There I was creating a complicated series of thirty-five enormous flip chart posters on facts about the nuclear arms race, when Jill called and said, “Did you write ‘The Woman Who Gobbled Swiss Cheese?’” What a contrast! She said, could we record it and do you have any others? So I sent her twenty of these songs that I had been developing, and since then we’ve done four recordings together.

I guess I carry this sense that a person’s growth depends upon support of others. There’s a reciprocal co-arising like an acorn needing sun and rain and the right conditions. Something happens inside you as an individual, but you also need to be socially supported. That’s what I thought about with CMN—for us to create a community with the right conditions to help each other to sprout and flower.

I could never have shared the songs I’d written without Jill’s encouragement. Her whole feeling about the value of children’s music had a big impact—her commitment to music that was respectful of children got indelibly printed. I feel that that influenced the start of the Children’s Music Network—to be meeting Ruth Pelham, and Stuart and Jill and Joanne Hammil and Phil Hoose and many others. We all felt like kin. It was an explosive feeling to meet other people who cared so much about children and knew music was a potent way to connect and give them new messages about life they weren’t finding in the mass culture. We understood what made each other tick.

So one time in Hartford, the Friday night of the People’s Music Network gathering, I was talking to Bob Reid, and we were saying let’s get some of us together who came to the children’s songs swap workshops and feel so similar. What if we took all the great traditions of the People’s Music Network like having round robins and formed a Children’s Music Network? So Ruth Pelham, Phil Hoose, Bob Reid, Bob Blue, we were all sitting there with some other folks, too, about seven of us. As I was looking around I realized that everyone there was very busy. If anything was going to go forward, it could be up to me to carry it. I didn’t want this to be a good idea that never became a reality.

At that point I’d been working with a few different organizations in peace education—one was called Interhelp [an international network of people sharing a deep concern for world conditions]. I’d been on the first board of Interhelp, and I watched the deliberate steps we did there to help build our organization in an egalitarian way. I applied this to CMN. We needed a guiding beacon, so I suggested that we talk about what our mission was, just to see where we all agreed. Then I went back home and got everyone’s permission to run with it. I wanted to respect that we were the people who had met each other so far, but there were all these others out there we hadn’t met yet who had a similar devotion to children’s music. I wanted us to be as respectful of the people unknown to us, so that it would not at any point become just a clique.

I thought if we could explicitly articulate our intentions, we would have a good chance at holding to them. It was like a blueprint. We agreed that we wanted the newest member of CMN to be as valued, to be as welcome, as the longest member. I wanted it to be that nobody thought they were coming into it too late. As each new person arrived in CMN, we could open up to them and be curious about their own interests and gifts. That we’d maintain a kind of open membrane as we grew the organization.

I wanted us to be structured the way nature is structured. A multi-cellular organism has differentiated parts coordinated around a common purpose. That’s how I thought of us. One of the first editorials I wrote was that in CMN we were like a rain forest where each part was important [see PIO! #42 “Classic Reprint.”] One of the things I was saying is that people who at that point had made recordings—if they were like the canopy of the rainforest, being maybe most visible, they were equal to the people who were the blue morpho butterflies, or who were another part of it, the tree frogs—it had to not be centralized around fame because fame is fleeting. A strong organism has an enduring purpose. There had to be this exchange between us that was based on love of children. If we could create a place where we could have that exchange, then we would last because we were made like nature. We would set ourselves in a stream of generations.

I kept envisioning that we would always have children at the gatherings. We’d have people who were involved in music in lots of different dimensions. We’d have radio hosts like PJ Swift, whom I really respected, and we would have families. I loved the variety of songs at the round robin! I can remember a family stepping up to sing a song they had created on a long car ride. It was about changing diapers. You could concretely feel during the round robin that the group cared about every song and every singer.

PIO!: I know when I joined CMN, that was what drew me to the organization. I think I joined the first year, and what impressed me was that there were a number of people whom I never heard of whose music I would never have bumped into had it not been for CMN.

SP: Yes!

PIO!: And how important it all was—each little piece, everybody had something to give to the big picture. It gave me great hope about the world, that other people are doing this work and that it is possible to change the world through music. When you’re at CMN it seems like that’s possible.

SP: It really does. We try to understand each other. It’s like feeling deeply seen. There’s nothing a person has to prove to be valued—it’s their inherent worth that we’re responding to. That’s why I got excited from the very beginning about figuring out how to have shared leadership. When it was time to divide up jobs to be done, we asked people to be realistic about how much time they had to give, and look for something they could take on that was up their alley. It felt like a barn raising.

What I did at the very beginning was seek out as many names of people who were involved in children’s music as I could find. I wrote them an invitation so that they could feel welcome and invited them to be part of the formation of CMN. I asked for their input. In those early days while I held the office and Pass It On!, both Ruth and I together held the direction of the organization.

At the first meetings, we took time for the business of getting the network started but we always combined it with a lot of singing. The glue was getting to know each other and swapping songs. Dave Orleans early on shared “Save a Tree for Me, Mister,” and you could just feel people saying, “Oh, I really want to learn that song.” People would take the time to seize a song they’d heard at a CMN swap and claim it as something they wanted to make part of their work as classroom teacher or put in their concert repertoire.

PIO!: Wonderful. You were talking about Rowe…it just seems to me that Rowe has been a very formative place for you.

SP: Rowe got me attuned to the fun of being in a community where people feel safe and open-hearted. It was also the place where I watched group dynamics at work. Even at Junior High Camp, we would have a theme talk on a very weighty contemporary topic and then we would get into discussion groups. As a shy kid I watched closely how the counselors led the group discussions in such a way that they deliberately asked each one of us what we thought. What I began to notice was how that made me feel welcome and how that made me feel part of things. I was looking forward to bringing realizations like this into how we set up CMN; so when we’d do a song swap, each person would have a chance to lead or request a song. When we’d hold a workshop, there’d be a balanced sharing. Also, we’d make room for other people sitting there to share things on that same topic.

PIO!: So the idea was to have a facilitator at a workshop and then open it up to everybody rather than having the expert lead the whole thing?

SP: Yes. We wanted people to be able to take leadership and offer what they knew and then also make room for what other people knew. I remember one of the first workshops I did at a CMN gathering which was on writing songs with children. I was exploring the benefits of cooperative learning, and I was teaching graduate courses. At the workshop we shared how we worked with children in songwriting. From the classroom residencies I was leading writing songs about ecology, I’d learned that if you’re writing a song with a whole class, the problem can be that the loudest voices get their words in; so I got excited about how you could get into small groups using cooperative learning formats where everybody’s thoughts could become part of the song.

When we write songs, a vulnerable interior voice gets revealed. The voice that comes out in songwriting taps an inner wellspring. I also remember that everyone at that workshop had experienced some kind of wounding or put-down directed to them around music—criticism of their voice, or negative words about their songwriting or their instrument playing. Everyone! If we felt put down but had kept going, but still felt the sting, what’s it been like for others? Music is such an essential but vulnerable medium—it’s our own personal voice being heard.

PIO!: What advice do you give parents and teachers?

SP: That music belongs to all of us. We get to think of it that way. Music directly builds community and fosters safety. It’s crucial that teachers and parents nurture a child’s voice and also not make fun of their own—not even introduce the thought that there really is such a thing as a bad voice. So I love it when Pete reminds us, “We used to be a singing nation,” because that implies that we can work to restore this.

I remember singing in kindergarten and how important that was. And I also remember a woman in our town named Capitola Dickerson. I went to one class she did at the “Y” where she was sharing rhythm instruments with us. When she handed me a tambourine, her manner communicated kindness and inclusion. It may seem hard to believe because of how young I was, but she changed my life. I actually sought her out ten years ago and called her up and put her on the CMN quilt. She respected me, shy kid that I was, and modeled how to invite children to come into music their own way. When I bring a basket of rhythm instruments and hand them out, she’s with me.

PIO!: You teach in the Creative Arts in Learning Department of Lesley University. How do you use these insights there?

SP: I train teachers in how to incorporate many forms of music in the classroom. For some the music class is the one they dread. I’ll often say during the first song, “Singing along is an invitation. Sing if you feel moved to. Listen if that feels better.” There are many ways of participating. To listen deeply is also to be part of music. It’s like letting that music stir you and bring you in when you’re ready. I want them to know music is a place where they can be themselves.

One of the things that I’ve felt over the last decade during the Magic Penny Awards is that we’re not only celebrating just that one person. Through that person we’re celebrating the wonder of how music builds community. This may seem ironic, but when CMN began, I was against the award because I didn’t want any one person held up above anybody else. And then I watched the wonderful way that people figured out to run the awards and saw a whole different feeling generated there, different than what I’d feared. Like you’d learn about the decisions Ruth Crawford Seeger made in her life and gain inspiration and new possibilities for how to live. And when I look at all the Magic Penny people—Marcia, Nona, Malvina, Woody—there are these things, these decisions that they were doing in their lives, which perhaps nobody else noticed. But the award said it did matter.

PIO!: It seems that almost everything you do with music has to do with honoring the person—either the person who’s created the music or the person who’s singing the music. I’m just so impressed by the all-inclusive way you make music. How did you come to that?

SP: I’m a person who still goes out and hugs trees. I get nourishment and refreshment from talking to new people. Like when I’m on the airplane I always want to find out the story of the person next to me and for me it’s like the water of the soul. If I can really understand the person’s life, it feeds me so deeply—I love to feel like we’re literally, as Ruth says, that “we’re all a family under one sky,” or that we’re literally in a web of life. My hope for CMN is that we fan the ancient flame of community-building music.

PIO!: It’s about strength. There’s such strength in those words.

SP: Yes. When I come back from a CMN gathering, I’m glowing and reverberating. I can remember one time, at the end of the round robin, Ruth and I looked at each other and we said, “We’re in heaven, aren’t we?” We were glowing with happiness from looking around the room. I could see faces that on Friday night I didn’t know, but now we all knew each other better and had become one single body.

My son Ryan grew up in CMN along with Spencer and Stephanie Stone, Jo’s [Joanne Hammil] daughter Lisa Olshansky, and Hannah Hoose. He grew up with that sense of being in a CMN village. Ryan and I had a delightful thing happen recently. I was having lunch with Bonnie Lockhart and we were talking about inner strength and everyday bravery. And so we decided to write a song together with another friend, Jan Thomas. Ryan played piano on it. I got a phone call from a woman who does yoga with children. She wanted to use that song on her video. Like milkweed pods and seeds on the wind, you don’t know where things will land.

PIO!: Have you recorded that song on a CD?

SP: Yes, it’s the last song on the CD, and it’s the title song. I think the phrase, “everyday bravery” relates to us in CMN because what we do with music and children every day matters.

PIO!: What would you wish for the future of CMN?

I hope we keep reaching out to teachers and families, keep having it be a place that nourishes all types of involvement with children’s music. I hope that we will continue to value a lot of dimensions of diversity present in the people who take part. That we would learn the Afghan songs that Louise Pascal has made possible for us to hear, described in the last Pass It On! That we would connect with Israeli and Palestinian children’s songs and that we would have more and more of a global flavor. I hope we will use technology to exchange songs with people all over the world and that we keep reminding ourselves that this thing that we do really matters at a time when there’s loud, loud voices to the contrary. It is crucial that every CMN gathering is not only an oasis for us, but also a time of waking up. We should build into the structures of our gatherings places to focus our awareness, particularly on issues of struggle and conflict in the world.

PIO!: Conscious awareness…

SP: It’s tempting for us to just create a cocoon when we get together. But it’s essential that we don’t do that, but instead keep broadening the sense of us. One of the reasons that I wanted to invest time in starting the Children’s Music Network was that I could feel that things were heating up in the music industry in the 1980s. For the first time, the arena of children’s music was perceived as a potential cash crop.

PIO!: Well, that was the time when Raffi was starting to take off and no one could figure out why and suddenly larger record labels were making a children’s section. And then Disney, of course.

SP: What I’ve always loved about Raffi is the gentle direct way that he relates to children. That’s why he’s been successful. I feel it comes down to his ability to communicate his genuine love.

I heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak recently, and he said what matters most in life is warmheartedness. What makes children’s music important is that it’s a way of sharing love. What makes the gatherings important is that we sincerely try to get to know each other and care about each other’s struggles. The other thing I can picture is having chances at gatherings for us to talk about how hard it is to live in this culture, how much fear there is, how hard it is for children to be more cut off from nature.

PIO!: I’d like you to expand on your work at Lesley University, and the importance of teaching teachers how to do something that they’re afraid to do already. So many teachers are so afraid of using music.

SP: I want to make a setting where teachers cross through the barrier and regain their confidence with music. It’s like literally taking their hands and saying, “You belong here.” I’ve been teaching at Lesley for ten years. Always I begin with two fundamentals, like stringing the warp and weft of a weaving. One of the first things that I say is that music belongs to everyone. Your students need daily music and you can find ways of providing it as a classroom teacher. Secondly, I also encourage people to “link” with each other instead of “rank.” That means to use music to connect rather than to judge and evaluate. I always bring many issues of Pass It On! and many recordings by people in CMN as well as a wide range of types of music for the library table. CMN has not only songs but teaching methods that teachers are hungry to learn.

Recently in Eugene, Oregon, I brought in a song about divorce because several teachers said it was a key issue for many of their students. They didn’t like the song. As I encouraged them to describe what didn’t work for them in the lyrics, they said it was too positive. Two of the teachers began crying out of sheer frustration at the difficult situations that their children have to deal with. They wanted the song to reflect for their kids an understanding of the pain these children were experiencing.

PIO!: What did you do?

SP: Instead of resisting them, I went with them. I quieted down my fast-jumping mind, and tried to imagine what those kids felt. I grabbed a marker and sensed what we could say to build a bridge to the children through the song. I wrote the chorus to jump start it, and then the teachers wrote the rest. Here is the first of the verses:


You have courage inside of you
and I will help you find it.

You have courage inside of you
and I am by your side.

1.   You need to know that you have strength inside.
      Reach for me, you don’t have to hide.
      Hold my hand I am by your side
      And I will walk with you.

We ended up recording it. The wonder and magic of songwriting is that when there’s a strong moment, there’s a song waiting to happen. All around us are songs seeds, and I like to keep my eye out for them. If you pursue that song seed and create the right social conditions, the song can come forward. Ruth Pelham’s song “We’re All a Family Under One Sky” is the most marvelous zipper song. I like to ask teachers to get into groups and make up a verse to “Under One Sky.” One time a librarian created a new verse about the Dewey Decimal System, and an elementary school teacher teaching the digestive system had a verse about that. Once teachers get confident in their own songwriting abilities, they can address what they need to express to their students through a song. One teacher was standing in line before lunch, and the kids were pushing. She summoned her courage, and she made up a song on the spot—she just let that song pour out what she wanted to say. It was a friendly, delightful song about being the line leader, and she was so proud that she came back and taught it to everybody in the class. We were delighted along with her. I guess I try to make my classes like an extension of CMN. People make discoveries and we celebrate them and learn from each other’s discoveries.

When I named our journal Pass It On!, I tried to concentrate on what was the essence of what we were going to be doing together. I created categories and sections for PIO! based on what we’d want to exchange. A person could say, “I’ll write an article each month in this category,” and we were able to share the responsibility for it coming out each month by several people taking charge of one piece of it. I want to mention Andrea Stone because Andrea along with her husband Ron and with Joanne Hammil took our whole organization to another level. Andrea did that with Pass It On! She used the same categories and gave it a professional look and feel. It went from something simple to a real magazine. Andrea and her husband, Ron, gave invaluably to CMN. They brought important standards and helped us meet them.

PIO!: Through the journal.

SP: Through the journal but also they made the first gatherings—found the locations and organized them. In receiving the Magic Penny I want to hold hands with all people who were part of those first years: Jo Hammil and Ruth and Andrea and Bob and Phil.

I can remember riding with Bob Blue to Andrea’s house for a board meeting along with my son Ryan who was there as part of the board meeting. We watched the journals that Bob corrected everyday with his students and saw the personal attention he paid to each one of them by writing interesting questions in their journals. The board meetings were always for me about getting closer to each other as people and that’s been the glue of the organization. We do two things: we do business and also respect each other and get to know each other better.

PIO!: Would you say more about the future of CMN that you would hope to see?

SP: I picture a braid. I’m picturing that the people who carry on in the future are continuing the old, old folk songs, so they’re passing on those, and they’re continuing the contemporary songs from our generation and they also keep respecting the very new songs that they themselves are creating. So there’s this continual braiding of respecting many forms of music. There’s generativity.

I picture that we figure out how to respect empowering technology; that we always have a wide range of ages, a wide range of ethnicities and other types of diversity like religion and class and diverse musical forms; that we keep reaching out to new people—we keep seeing that as part of our mission.

I love to think of thirty years from now in CMN with the same laughter, with the same kind of wild humor that comes out in the late night song swaps, the same dogged commitment to the lives of children. We still enjoy being in circles together, still enjoy times face to face, and that people will always come away from the gatherings and exchanges in CMN with this sense of being just right in their own place.

This moment of receiving the Magic Penny means more to me than I can say in words. I feel I’m receiving it on behalf of many people—not just the ones who were part of the first decade of the organization, but everyone who has fed CMN and everyone who feeds the values that we feed. I don’t know who wrote it, but this song says it right:

Here is an acorn sitting in my hand.

I can see the tree ’cause I understand

You’re a friend so true.

No matter what you do

I will always see the tree in you.

After a lengthy career as a touring musician, songwriter, and recording artist, Sally Rogers is now a music teacher in Pomfret, Connecticut. She is a longtime CMN member. This interview was transcribed by Sammie Haynes.