Larry Long's Elders' Wisdom, Children's Song project brings generations together in communities across Minnesota.
The auditorium at St. Anthony High School was rocking this month with great music and some of the more powerful messages you're likely to hear anywhere.
And when they took their bows, the show's stars -- third-graders at Wilshire Park Elementary School in St. Anthony -- received a whistling, cheering, standing ovation from a crowd of nearly 600.
"I am shocked, amazed -- I didn't expect it," said Lilian Abdul of St. Anthony, a native of Nigeria and one of five "elders" honored by the third-graders. "It was a Broadway performance."
In scores of schools across the Twin Cities and in hundreds of other communities nationwide, school officials are raving about an educational project developed by Minneapolis troubadour Larry Long. Long works with schoolchildren to interview elders selected from their communities by school officials, then helps them write songs based on the elders' life stories and wisdom. Then the children perform the songs during a community event.
"This is the greatest thing going on in our community right now," said Joseph Sturdevant, a Columbia Heights School Board member, after another crowd-pleasing concert this month at Valley View Elementary School -- one of several children's concerts Long has produced in Columbia Heights in the past several years. "This should be shouted from the rooftops," Sturdevant said.
The concert had concluded with a chorus honoring Chong Kou Vang, the school's custodian, who came to this country after fleeing Laos and living in a refugee camp in Thailand. It summed up Chong's advice on life to the children who had interviewed him:
"Listen to your parents," the children sang. "Listen to your teachers. Learning is the key for success. And always do your best. And dream, dream, dream."
A special calling
Long's music project is called Elders' Wisdom, Children's Song, and the evening concerts, or "celebrations," cap a string of visits that Long makes to each participating school. For Long, 57, who once spent 200 days a year on the road performing concerts and playing coffeehouses nationwide, the idea of devoting his life to this project is "a spiritual calling."
The richness of the classroom elder interviews and the almost magical quality to the children's performances explain why Long finds the work so compelling.
"Why waste your time going onstage when you can do this?" Long said. In fact, he does still go onstage, but as the accompanist to his elementary school stars, who seem to be having the time of their young lives. Demand for the project has grown as word has spread.
"We saw one celebration and jumped all over it," said Patrick Exner, director of teaching and learning for the West Metro Education Program, a collaboration of 11 west-metro school districts including Minneapolis. "What intrigues me is watching the class come together," he said.
A third-grade class at Wilshire Park Elementary participated in the project a few weeks ago as Lilian Abdul told students about her heart-wrenching life: how women and children were second-class citizens in Nigeria and how, as a widow, she left Nigeria to make a home for herself and six children in St. Anthony. She eventually became an accountant.
Long recorded Abdul's words and created a transcript of the interview, which was later used by the kids to develop their song. Getting elders to tell their stories to young people teaches the children how to ask questions and understand older people's lives. That, in turn, gives them a greater appreciation for their communities, said Long. It also creates a genuine bond of appreciation.
"It's a cool, multicultural opportunity," said Wayne Terry, dean of students at Wilshire Park, who is to become principal at St. Anthony High School next year. He saw the students "connect" with Abdul as she told her story. "I love it," he said. "I'm sold on the process."
So are the kids. Fourth-graders at Wilshire Park, asked what they recall about third grade, invariably mention the Elders' Wisdom Project first, said Gail Beall, one of their teachers.
Origins of the project
Long had played the folk-music circuit for a couple of decades, supporting causes and recording albums, when in 1989 he was invited to an elementary school in Okemah, Okla., hometown of the late Woody Guthrie. His goal was to develop music and songs to celebrate Guthrie's life.
Guthrie had a reputation as a radical, and some of the town's businesspeople were hostile to a celebration. But the eventual children's concert was a huge success endorsed by the community, and it helped kick off an annual music festival honoring Guthrie. Long plans to participate at a reunion in Okemah this summer.
That first project sparked Long's interest in organizing similar celebrations in other schools. Mary Jo Edgmon, Guthrie's 86-year-old sister, likens Long in some ways to her famous brother.
"They think alike in being for the underdog, and they make up songs that make children feel better about the way they live," said Edgmon, of Seminole, Okla. "Woody and Larry have everyday thinking."
After the Okemah concert, Long honed the process, visiting schools nationwide, and with the help of supporters such as former Minneapolis deputy mayor Jan Hively, set up a nonprofit group to support the work. "Teachers say it's a joy to have him," said Hively.
Funding comes from a variety of sources, including the McKnight Foundation.
Mary Buhrt, Title 1 coordinator for St. Louis Park schools, said that by honoring elders from all cultures, the program helps builds self-esteem among minority children in the district. "When they can see someone from their cultural or ethnic group being accepted by other students, it makes the children more accepted," she said.
And she has seen some children who were struggling with classwork blossom as they prepared for the community celebration where the songs honoring their elders were performed.
"Oftentimes they shine in this setting and show a talent we haven't seen before, through dance and music," she said. "We see a new level of confidence."
Along the way, Long also has won the admiration of America's foremost living folk singer, Pete Seeger, who lives in Beacon, N.Y.
"The guy has never been recognized for a long life of wonderful work," said Seeger, 89, in a phone interview. "He has done decades of wonderful things and rarely got any publicity about it."
When it was suggested that in some ways, Long might be the Pete Seeger of Minneapolis, Seeger chuckled. "I'd be proud to be known as 'the Larry Long of New York.'"
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382