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Thursday, April 26 Opinion

Woog's World / A troubador who calls the tunes that get kids to slow down -- and listen

In the early 1970s, Staples High School was filled with ferment. Students protested nearly everything, from the Kent State shootings (which did not accomplish anything) to the demands for power on the Staples Governing Board (which did).

Four decades later, Bill Harley looks back in amazement at his own non-involvement during those years. Having moved from Indiana as sophomore, he says, "I wasn't ready for blatant disrespect of authority." Now, though, he realizes that the spasms of the '70s "really made me think about where authority came from."

His activism came later. But the seeds were sown at Staples.

Harley enjoyed his time in Westport. On his first day in town, shooting baskets in the driveway of his new home on Gorham Avenue, he met the neighborhood gang: Eric and Jeff Bosch, Dave Kidney, George Steel. They became quick and lifelong friends.

At the end of high school, Harley followed his musical muse. His buddy Jimmy Land suggested they take guitar lessons. The teacher happened to be John Mehegan -- a legendary jazz musician. When Harley dropped out of college for a year, he answered a newspaper ad placed by a guitar instructor. That was Barry Tashian, former front man of the great rock group the Remains, transitioning then into country music. "I got a total musical education in Westport," Harley says.

Those teachers served Harley well. He graduated from Hamilton College in 1977 with honors and a religious studies degree. He found his calling in community service, leading a program in conflict resolution for families and educators. With his wife, Debbie Block, he helped start Stone Soup Coffee House in Providence. After 28 years, that music performance venue is still going strong.

Gradually, Harley became a performer, too. He was inspired by Pete Seeger's use of music to express community spirit. Following in the great Woody Guthrie tradition, Harley lent his voice to social justice, environmental and political causes.

Like Guthrie's son, Arlo, Harley also liked putting his songs in storytelling contexts. Over the years, he honed that skill. So, for the past three decades, he's been a singer-songwriter, monologist and author. He spent two decades as an NPR "All Things Considered" commentator. He's roamed and rambled across the country, playing and talking and entertaining and educating and enlightening audiences old and young.

Mostly young.

Harley is best known for his children's songs and books (10, including two novels). Entertainment Weekly called him "the Mark Twain of contemporary children's music."

Still, Harley knows that being a "children's musician" does not exactly make him Beyonce. "When people hear I won two Grammys, they're agog," he says. "Then they hear it's for kids' music, and they walk away."

That's their loss.

Throughout his career, Harley has delivered a consistent -- and important -- message to young audiences. He sings and tells stories about tolerance and community. He gets them thinking about the entire planet -- in the sense of their lives today, not some big, amorphous future. "We adults have botched things up," he says. "My job with kids is to affirm their emotional lives, and get them thinking about who they are now."

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Harley does not think the stereotype of today's youngsters -- that they're constantly wired, always looking for the next cool thing, with the attention span of a nanosecond -- is true. Or, at least, it's not their stereotype alone.

"All of us are overwhelmed today by this digital onslaught," he says. "Our ability to distract ourselves is stunning. We twitch all the time. We tell kids to pay attention, at the same time we ourselves are texting."

It's impossible, he notes, to "live a good life without time for reflection. And it's very hard for kids to do that today."

Yet, he adds, "I tell 30- or 40-minute stories to third- and fourth-graders. People say that's impossible. But I do it. Something significant happens when kids are all in one place, sharing one experience.

"I know that sounds like a very Luddite thing to do. But it's amazing. And it's not because of me. It's because of the stories. It's all about the relationships we form."

Like another noted children's musician from Staples -- 1966 grad Jon Gailmor, who has been named an official Vermont "state treasure" for his work -- Harley has figured out how to make a living doing what he loves.

Like Gailmor, Harley has his own state honor. The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award. (He lives right over the border, in Seekonk, Mass.)

But honors are not why Bill Harley sings and tells stories. "I have a hard time figuring out where I fit," he says. "But I got into this because I'm trying to make the world a better place."

And he has.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.