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A Not-So-Brief History and Reflections

I have lived in the Monterey Bay area for the past 27 years. I was actively involved in the folk music world in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Monterey Bay Area. I initiated a popular Folk Music Festival and a coffee house at Monterey Peninsula College. I began working in schools for the Monterey Peninsula Museum of Arts mobile art exhibit called �Museum on Wheels.�

            I found I enjoyed working with children and that they found something in me that they were powerfully drawn to. I believe it was partially that I was a rare male in the elementary school world of females, but beyond that, it was clear that something good was happening. I continue to strive to understand what that is.

            I moved to Santa Cruz around 1977 and began performing in restaurants/bars/pizza joints in the area, such as Portola House, JJ�s, Hindquarter, and Watsonville Mansion House. I hooked up with fellow folkie Mark Bradlyn and we performed together as Bradlyn & Reid for a while, performing at the Woodshed in Felton, and Doc Ricketts on Cannery Row. About this time, Bradlyn & Reid began one of its long extended vacations and I stopped performing.

I worked with Kenny Hill at Wooden Music in Capitola, a time I look back on fondly:  Kenny, Gil Carnal, Larry, Maryanne, and Joe Hassen. It was a time rich in all but money. Kenny and Gil were building guitars, Larry was making and repairing violins, Joe was buying, selling and renting pianos, and I was doing instrument repairs.  It was a time of magic. Brief, and electric. Not easy magic! Times were lean. But magic nonetheless. I remember the sound of clogs on the cement floor. Walking down to Polar Bear for ice cream while I waited for a glue job to dry. Listening to Kenny and Gil speaking in Spanish because Swiss-born Gil resisted English. Gil�s tales of sailing.

            One of Kenny�s guitar students, Beverly Grova, informed us about the �Artist in the Schools� program that was beginning in Santa Cruz (SPECTRA). It was still a year off, but it rekindled my energy for working with kids. I had led some field trips to our shop and gone out to a couple of schools to do demonstrations of how a guitar is. I always included singing a few songs. To get a jump on the application process, I began volunteering in local schools. I requested only a letter of recommendation from the teachers in exchange. 

            My reception in the school offices was pretty erratic. One principal told me that the only thing wrong with my coming was that I had to ask him. He said that if he were doing his job he would know about resources like me in his community. Other times principals would hide in the teacher�s room to avoid talking to me. They never prevented me from working with their students though. By the time SPECTRA was taking applications, I had a pile of letters of recommendation and had been in many of the schools in the area.

            I took my stack of letters and went to my interview, which was disastrous. The panel wasn�t too certain about how to do what they were doing, and I certainly had difficulty explaining just what it was I did with those songs. Finally, Beverly, who was part of the panel, asked if I had brought my guitar. I went to the car to get it, and after playing a couple of songs, everyone relaxed and felt they understood my value in classrooms.  It�s still something that�s difficult for me to confine to words. By the end of the first year I was one of the program�s most requested artists. The SPECTRA program was successful in large part to the work of about a dozen of the 70-some artists who actually did most of the work the first few years.  I am proud to have been among them.

            Since assemblies didn�t allow me to get to know many children, I only wanted to do classroom workshops. In order to survive, I would often do 6-7 classes in a day. It was grueling, but the kid�s energy would refresh me. I had California Arts Council Residencies at Aromas, Bradley, Rio Del Mar, and Valencia Schools, long-term residencies at Green Acres, Santa Cruz Gardens, Soquel, Capitola, and Mar Vista. I had the opportunity to work with many people � adults and children � and to become skilled at working in the school environment. Later I was artist in residence in the Los Gatos and Saratoga school districts.

            I was performing weekly on KUSP�s Saturday�s Child radio program with Jo Ann King, Safiya Williams, Dale, and Billee Harris. We became one of the most popular shows on the station due largely to my presence in the schools. I would invite kids to the radio station and, if they couldn�t come down, they could listen and call in requests. It was a way to empower them and make media accessible to them. It has always been important to me to help people feel more capable, more empowered, and to have an effect on their world. 

            One of the results of my experiences with performers who present themselves as special is that those in the audience may well see themselves diminished as they exalt the talent of the �special� person they watch perform. I want people, whether child or adult, to see what I�m doing and feel that they could do it too. When I was 12 years old and my school took us to the Berkeley Folk Festival and I saw Pete Seeger perform. He was a real, accessible person doing what he loved to do. He helped me identify a choice I wasn�t aware of until then.

            Growing up, my mother played guitar, sang, and wrote songs. She performed with Joe McDonald and Malvina Reynolds and was at one point being groomed for a singing career. She bailed out after an upsetting experience in New York and informed me, �That�s not a real job.� It took me a long time to get past that for myself.

            My Dad retired from playing football and opened a record store with his uncle. They sold gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues records to a pretty exclusively black clientele. The only white person I ever saw in the place was the mailman. My Dad also promoted concerts � mostly gospel music.  Mighty Clouds of Joy Soul Singers, Staple Singers, James Cleveland, Cleophus Robinson, C.L. Franklin � pretty impressive stuff.

            I realize now that I have a deep experience of the difference between people singing for a job and singing out of belief and conviction. (Not that I didn�t believe in Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, and Rick Nelson, �cause I did.)

            It was clear to me in my work with children that what was the accepted norm for �children�s music� was a rehash of the same old songs. Everywhere you heard the same tunes, badly sung. If you want the kid�s attention, be funny, gross, sing about magic, ponies, rainbows.

When I made my recordings (Bob Reid with Abracadab, Marz Barz, and We Are The Children), I wanted to expand the idea of what music for children could be. I knew that one of the things children were hungriest for was respect. They wanted to be acknowledged as having a legitimate experience of the world. They walk down the same streets, see the same things. They, however, have not yet learned what not to look at. What to avoid. They are in the process of becoming less connected with their personal experience of the world. I would like to think that it is my job to combat that.  I would like them to feel that their individual experience of the world is valid and important. There are many forces surrounding them that make this difficult.

School as an institution is not meant to foster individual strength and identity. School is a deterrent to individual thought. School helps you to be part of the group, even if that group is a band of renegades.

School trains you to be dependent upon authority. You will be told what to think and when to think. This is the real function of school. There is also some �academic training,� but, when you look at how the education of those who have real power is undertaken, it is quite different.

I suppose it may have been confusing to those I have encountered along the way who have been challenged by me for not taking up the hammer. I take my work with children very seriously.

As I tell my audiences these days, I used to think that I worked with children. Now that I�ve been doing this for over 25 years, I realize that I work with adults before they grow up.

My performances are as much for the grownups as the not-yet-grown. Pieces of my school assembly are there to assist those who work with children in resisting the temptation to compress children�s spirits to make them easier to work with.

I have been lucky to have had the support of wonderful parents, teachers, principals, superintendents and many, many friends who I first met as children.

My work has enabled me to work with children in various parts of the United States, the American School in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, host a television program, and make friendships with other performers whose work I respect and who respect mine.

I believe that I have an opportunity to make this faint conversation more audible. I am hoping that by gathering together and talking about what value people have seen in my work, it will help me to communicate what I have been reluctant to limit to words. I am hopeful that through the conversation others will be inspired and energized.

 �Bob Reid
February 2001


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