Happy Music Business Monday! The Magic Penny Award, named after the song by Malvina Reynolds, is a Children’s Music Network tribute to people in our community who have dedicated their lives to empowering children through music. This year’s Magic Penny awardee is the award-winning Folk singer, songwriter, and educator Sally Rogers. Sally has made a tremendous contribution to the children’s music industry by creating singable songs with rich and teachable backstories. Sally toured extensively on the folk music scene as well as released 13 albums before she began her career in the children’s music business. In 1988, Sally reached a new audience with her first children’s recording, Peace by Peace. As one of the first albums to introduce children to the concept of peace on a day to day basis, Peace by Peace received wide critical and popular acclaim. Sally’s second children’s album, Piggyback Planet: Songs for a Whole Earth (Round River Records), featuring environmental songs for children, received the 1990 Parents’ Choice Gold Award for Audio Recording. Sally’s recording, What Can One Little Person Do? (Round River Records), offers empowerment to young people, teaching them that each and every one of them is important as an individual. That recording won the 1993 NAIRD Award for Best Children’s Recording and yet another Parents’ Choice Gold Award. It is featured in the MacMillan music textbook series Spotlight on Musicas well as in TeachingTolerance.org’s book/CD compilation, I Will Be Your Friend. Check out what Sally had to say about the journey that led her to create empowering children’s music!
Culture Queen: If you were on a deserted island and you could only take three albums with you, which would you choose and why?
Sally Rogers: The Collected Works of Bach! Other than that, I actually don’t listen to music very much as I love the quiet that surrounds me where we live in the woods. I have music going in my head most of the time. I think the deserted island would offer a similar sound solace, with soft breezes in the palm trees and birds singing in the trees.
Culture Queen: I’m really glad that you said something about enjoying the quiet. Even though we are all music lovers, I do think that it’s equally important to listen to silence sometimes as a way to get really clear. Silence can be very musical! Growing up, which musicians, shows or other artists inspired you to be a children’s music artist?
Sally Rogers: I wasn’t inspired to be a children’s musician, just a singer in general, folk or otherwise: Harry Belafonte, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, and Brasil 66. I also listened to the Columbia Record Library Children’s albums which were the best folk songs that everyone should know: Old Tan Tucker, The Erie Canal, Streets of Laredo, etc.
Culture Queen: I too love Brasil 66, Harry Belafonte and Joni Mitchell! Hooray! Can you recall a defining moment in your career?
Sally Rogers: In the Spring of 1979, Canadian songwriter and friend, Stan Rogers, came to town to perform and stayed at our house. That evening he told me there was going to be an audition in Toronto in a week or so for female performers. The Canadian festivals realized that there was a dearth of women on their rosters and had set up a special audition just for women! Stan had been encouraging me to go out on the road and was quite insistent that I attend this try-out. So I bought a 1962 Buick Invicta and headed for Toronto. That audition got me into several of the Canadian festivals that summer, including Winnipeg. These experiences truly changed the course of my life. This audition opened up lots of other performing opportunities for me, eventually even appearances on A Prairie Home Companion.
Culture Queen: If you had to do it all over again, what would you keep the same?
Sally Rogers: I was extremely fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to have a career as a female folk singer. I sang on A Prairie Home Companion, just as it was going national, so I was heard across the country at the same time that I was first looking for gigs across the country. I had booked the Ten Pound Fiddle Coffeehouse in East Lansing for several years, thereby meeting many fellow performers who were willing to share contact information with me so I could get started. I studied to be a music teacher which served me well when my own children were in school, and I needed some extra steady income.
Culture Queen: What would you do differently?
Sally Rogers: These days, when I perform it’s because I have something to say that I think will inspire others to go out in the world and do good works. I prefer to sing with the audience than to sing for the audience, and to work to have a repertoire that people can sing along with.
Culture Queen: What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened during a show while you were performing?
Sally Rogers: My husband and I were performing at a “First Night” in Kalamazoo, MI many years ago. We had two sets, each one preceded by a Dog Show. The women in their tutus who ran the pups through their paces were at least 10-20 years older than we were; and had clearly been performing since we were babies, as was the Master of Ceremonies. We arrived at the venue about 30 minutes before our set, while the dog act was still on stage. We were pleased to see that the house was quite full, and assumed that they were there to see us, of course, after the dog act. When it was our turn to go on stage, we looked at the audience from backstage and to our horror watched 95% of the crowd leave the auditorium as soon as the last pooch left the stage with its middle-aged trainer. As we performed, the numbers improved, and by the end of our set, the house was once again full. Only, they were there not to see us but, to see the second show of the dog act! The lesson is, the show must go on, no matter what happens, no matter who is in the audience. Also, never perform after dogs or children!
Culture Queen: Wow! What a story! I will take heed to your advice! Have you ever had any other challenging experiences while performing? How did you recover from it? What lessons did you learn from it?
Sally Rogers: In the early 80’s I performed an assembly program at a tiny school in the Iron country in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The school was K-8 and had only 4 mixed-grade classrooms. When I arrived at the school, it was clear from the vibe in the air that something unusual and bad had taken place just before I got there. Teachers were whispering among themselves and the principal was nowhere to be seen. One of the teachers approached me as I was setting up my sound system and asked if I could keep the kids entertained for an indefinite amount of time because something serious had taken place just before school started. I finally got them to tell me what it was:
A fifth-grade student had been suspended for foul language, bullying and otherwise bad behavior the day before. The problem had been brewing for awhile and the principal had finally taken this action, which significantly upset the bully’s parents. That morning, prior to my arrival, the father had come to the school with a shotgun, threatening to blow the principal away if he didn’t allow his kid back in school, and if new leadership for the school wasn’t found. The parent left and when I arrived, the local board of education was meeting in the broom closet (literally) to try to resolve this potentially deadly situation.
As soon as my sound system was set up, the entire student body was marched into the gym for my “performance”. I had no idea how long I was going to perform. The original idea was to do two shows, one for the young kids and one for the older kids. Then the afternoon was supposed to be smaller workshops and instrument demos in the classrooms. I ended up performing for the entire school for something like 90-120 minutes, at which time a teacher whispered in my ears that the coast was clear (cops had left the building), the principal had resigned, and could I please go to the classroom of the suspended boy and do my workshop there.
“Sure!” I said, and shaking in my shoes I went to the classroom. Their teacher had also resigned that morning and they had a sub who was found at the very last minute. The classroom was wild, to say the least. I just continued on, showing the kids my guitar, banjo and dulcimer up close and personal and singing them some of the old songs. I was struggling to get through it, never mind being heard, when one of the students said, “Why should we listen to those songs? They aren’t any good and you never hear them on the radio. Why should we listen to you?”
I took a deep breath and said, “How many of you have ever listened to a song on the radio, loved it, purchased the record, and then heard it played so many times that eventually you were sick of the song and never wanted to hear it again?” Every hand went up and a lot of impromptu discussions ensued. I said, “Here’s a song you’ll never hear on the radio, but it’s so good that folks have been singing it for over 200 years!” I then sang, The Devil and the Farmer’s Cursed Wife and even got them to sing the chorus: Hi fi, diddle I Fi, Diddle I diddle I oh!
Then I said, “Here’s another song, not quite as old, but that also tells a story, a sad one.” I snag Tom Paxton’s Sully’s Pail, about a miner who lost his best friend in a cave-in. All he had left was his friend, Sully’s, lunch pail, and he became a very sullen and silent person after the disaster. At the end of the song, you could have heard a pin drop in this classroom that had been like a circus crowd moments earlier. One kid broke the silence, saying, “Why did he have to die?” Another one said, “He didn’t run fast enough. He should have helped his friend.” “No, then he would’ve died, too.” And so it continued.
It turns out, most of these kids had family members who had worked in the U.P. iron mines. This story reminded them of their own family stories about local mining disasters, floods, and cave-ins. Once they started telling their stories, I couldn’t stop them. They had so much to say. Several of them had lost grandparents, uncles, and fathers in such disasters.
At the end of the school day, I packed up my sound system and my instruments and I left my newly found friends behind. These kids had been moved through song to better understand their own lives, to feel compassion for others, and maybe even have a better understanding of what happened in their school that day. They certainly gained a new respect for the old songs, songs they didn’t know existed until that afternoon. I left, impressed with their resilience and still shaking in my shoes. I left with a renewed knowledge that these songs do make a difference in people’s lives. We just have to make room for them to be heard.
Culture Queen: That’s truly a powerful story. I think it would make a great movie. Can you share with us some advice that you wish someone would have shared with you about working in the children’s music business?
Sally Rogers: My work has never been only as a children’s performer. My advice to anyone wanting to enter the music business is to be prepared to work in all areas of the business: teaching (private or in schools or conservatories), performing, recording, advertising, etc. Keep yourself updated on all things technological and know how to do your own PR, your own booking, your own social networking. It’s a huge amount of work but necessary if you are going to actually make a living.
Culture Queen: What are 3 tools that you believe that every professional children’s music artist should have to make life easier?
- A passion for working with children, including the ability to interact with them in an authentic way. Never speak down to children. Watch Bill Harley perform. He channels his inner kid, the boy of his own childhood, which makes his performing brilliant and authentic. Make sure there are children in your daily lives, so you know how to talk/sing to them. Watch children play and try out your material on kids in your neighborhood or local school.
- Make good social media connections and have the ability to keep your website and promo materials up to date. It’s great if you can have someone who will help you in this regard so you can focus on the work of performing.
- To be a performer, children’s or otherwise, you need to be able to eat anything, sleep anywhere and be extremely flexible. It is not a job for someone with a tendency toward depression, or someone who needs constant reassurance. You do not get paid to perform. You get paid to get to the performance!
Culture Queen: Thanks for the advice! Here’s something fun: Design your dream performance! Go!
Venue: The cistern under the Coptic Church in Jerusalem.
Audience Size: Whoever can fit, and only if they want to be there. They could even sing along.
Best Season To Perform: When it’s warm.
Dream Musicians: I want to sing solo, acapella, or in harmony with Howie Bursen and Claudia Schmidt.
Special guests to sit in the audience: My family: Howie, Maya and Malana
Top 3 songs to Perform: “Da Oona Nayeesh”; “Parting Friends” and “Some Have Fathers”.
Post Show Celebration: Nabluz, Palestine, to eat Knafeh (a Palestinian cheese sweet)!
Culture Queen: Thank you, Sally for sharing your journey with us. I was surfing the internet and discovered that many of our CMN members and musicians around the nation have incorporated Sally’s work into their own repertoire. In honor of Sally, let’s watch these great renditions of her songs!
Two of a Kind (Jenny & David Heitler-Klevans) performed Sally Rogers’ song at their 25th Anniversary Concert at The Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA in January 2015. David & Jenny are joined by their twin sons Ari & Jason.
David Perry a.k.a “Mr. David” singing “EARTH SONG”, the children’s book written by Sally Rogers (based on her song “Over in the Endangered Meadow”) and beautifully illustrated by Melissa Bay Mathis.
“What Can One Little Person Do” performed by the 5th-grade students at Victor Fields Elementary