82. Bill Crofut And Alistair Reid

82. Bill Crofut and Alistair Reid

What I have so far avoided doing in these Reminiscences and papers is to recommend readings, except for writings on Chinese art, my main field of study. I am making an exception now to recommend several books and records—not so much for mature readers as for children, or for reading to children. I have myself been a parent engaged in the raising of four children, two by each marriage (Nicholas and Sarah, Julian and Benedict), and am more than happy with the way they have turned out. I firmly believe that a key to preparing children for rewarding lives and careers—one of several keys, but an important one—is to instill in them a respect and feeling for language, words, writing, a sensitivity for nuances of word usage, an ear for good, clear sentence constructions. (Unlike that one!) And I believe that reading to them in writings that are out at the furthest edge of their understanding, or slightly beyond it, stretches their minds and trains their ears. So what follows are strong recommendations to parents, as well as grandparents, aunts and uncles, all who are concerned with helping to raise children.

In children’s literature, I will assume you don’t need recommendations for the well-known: Lewis Carroll, The Wind in the Willows, the A. A. Milne books, the Little Bear books; for very young children, the loveable Mother Goose books of Iona Opie and Rosemary Wells. Favorite author-illlustrators of ours included Beatrix Potter, Peter Spier, Arnold Lobel, James Stevenson, Dr. Seuss, James Marshall, Sandra Boynton, William Steig, and, of course, Maurice Sendak, his Nutshell Library and others. (Sarah actually got an illustrated thank-you note back from him when she wrote him about how much Kenny’s Window had meant in her young life.) Book comics were Krazy Kat and Tintin. A favorite book of poems-- besides, of course, A Child’s Garden of Verses--was (and is) Peacock Pie by Walter de la Mare—I can still recite quite a few of these from memory. (Look for the edition with pictures by W. Heath Robinson—hard to find, but well worth the trouble and expense.) Both pairs of my children grew up with the sounds and songs of Pete Seegar and other folk singers in their ears. But I am writing now about, more specifically, a singer and a writer who I believe can go far in helping to develop children’s appreciation of words and language: Bill Crofut and Alistair Reid.

Crofut I discovered only later, during the growing-up time of my younger children;  when the older ones were growing up, we knew already the Irish poet Alistair Reid from the wonderful book he wrote, with pictures by Ben Shahn, titled Ounce Dice Trice (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1958; reprints, including The New York Review Children’s Collection.) If you are engaged in raising children and don’t yet know this one, buy it! Now! The title, the beginning of an alternative counting system, gives a clue to its nature: as Reid writes, it is “an odd collection of words and names, to amuse and amaze you.” His discoveries and inventions are endlessly delightful, and provocative, making children think about words in new and mind-stretching ways. Ben Shahn’s pictures are as enchanting. (Has anyone but myself noticed that when called on to draw a sheep, on page 39, he copies it from Zhao Mengfu’s “Goat and Sheep” scroll in the Freer Gallery?)

Bill Crofut I came to in a more roundabout way. While a curator at the Freer, where at that time we looked at and commented on objects brought in by people on Monday mornings, I came to know a young musicologist and singer who had begun to collect Japanese paintings and was bringing them to show us: Steve Addiss. He was to go on to become a major specialist in Japanese art history;  but he was then half of the folk-singing team Addiss and Crofut—he gave me one of their records, which contains the best version I know of the great Quaker hymn “It’s a Gift To Be Simple.” He and Crofut had split up, and Crofut was for years only a name to me. Then I found by chance, in a Berkeley music-and-video store (Amoeba, still at Telegraph and Haste), a children’s record he had made with Alistair Reid, “Child’s Song: Songs and Poems” (Albany Records TROY059) on which Crofut, as composer-singer, teams up with Reid as poet and reader for a truly wonderful series of songs and readings. Alistair Reid’s reciting of Yeats’s “Song of Wandering Aengis” brings tears to the eyes; also Crofut’s song from James Stephens’s poem: “And the mothers always know/By  their footsteps in the snow,/ Where it is the children go.”

Then I found a second record, “Dance on a Moonbeam: A Collection of Songs and Poems” (Telarc records CD 80554).This is the one that Crofut  and others (Dawn Upshaw, Frederica von Stade, Meryl Streep) made during his last months when he was dying of cancer. It is a deeply moving and uplifting record. The song-settings of two poems by Randall Jarrell are the songs that the bat composes in Jarrell’s book The Bat Poet, another enthusiastic recommendation of mine for anyone with a child who wants him/her to grow up literate and loving poetry. (Pictures by Maurice Sendak.)

There is a third record, “Lullabies and Dances,” also produced by Albany Records (TROY048) that is intended for children; good, but not such a success with my children as the two above, still worth having. Bill Crofut and Julianne Baird (singer).

Children may find these hard to understand at first. But if you can persuade them to listen to them over and over (we used to play them while driving in the car, for instance) they will become more intelligible, enough so to be enjoyed, the children will come to love them (mine at least do), and I’m convinced that they will have a big effect on the child’s later life--love for poetry, songs, music. Crofut and the others never play down to the children at all. Many of the songs are Crofut’s own compositions.

I should add, not as an endorsement but for your convenience, that all three can be bought through Amazon.com—and, no doubt, from many other sources. Do it! You will never be sorry, and your children, I am convinced, will be affected for the better.

(This Reminiscence is dedicated to Mazal Madar,  who will soon celebrate her twelfth birthday, and will receive these two disks as a birthday present. She has the distinction of having a Japanese art-historian mother and an Israeli diamond-specialist father—can more distinguished parentage be imagined? I had the honor of helping her learn to read when her school was somehow failing to do it. Recently she won an award for reading at her new school. Congratulations on that, and Happy Two Birthdays and Bat Mitzvah, Mazal Madar, from Uncle Jim!)

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