Teddy Abrams steps behind a keyboard and Jim James cues the bongo rhythm section — and the show is underway.
But this isn’t James’ band My Morning Jacket or Abrams’ Louisville Orchestra. It’s a class of young, would-be writers — all girls at the all-girl Olmsted Academy South — striking up a song they’ve penned with the help of the musical stars.
“We’re just trying to show them what a song is, and how it can be about anything,” says James. “You can write a song when you’re happy, when you’re sad, when you’re angry. It’s a good way to deal with your emotions.”
And the ideas and emotions are all over the place for the middle-school girls, as evidenced by the poems they read before their group snagged their song last week at the magnet school on Southern Parkway.
The poetry has a theme of “I am from …”
As in …
“I am from birds chirping,” reads one girl. “Every time I hear a bird, it sounds like a clock … tick, tock.”
They write about being in the kitchen, where, “it sounds like butter sliding in a pan.” Where a small girl sits at a big table, “eating Red-Hot Cheetos.”
Another says, “I am from cabbage, my auntie’s favorite, but never mine.”
Of course, there are bad hair days.
“I am from humidity,” says one. “The air and my hair don’t mix.”
Some dream of far-away places they’ve read about in the library.
“I am from Hawaii, diving through a deep blue wave.”
But the beach isn’t for everyone.
“The sand in my hair makes me feel gross, like eating sardines.”
Sometimes fun, sometimes poignant.
“I am from my golden necklace handed to me by my grandmother when I was really small,” says one young girl who stands on tiptoes to reach the microphone.
Here’s a video on the experience courtesy of JCPS:
How poetry and singing work together
James digs the creativity.
“They’re pretty excited, but they’re also brilliant,” says James. “A lot of the things they say, they have this fresh, truthful way that only kids have.”
The girls are enrolled in a special class taught by Jeannette Bahouth and Hannah Rose Neuhauser of the Young Authors Greenhouse. The nonprofit organization works with Jefferson County Schools, “to inspire students from under-resourced communities to grow their imaginations through writing — to see minds open and pencils move.”
Abrams and James met with the class over a three-day period, making it up as it came up — in typical improvisational musical style.
“I saw the fundraiser for this organization a few weeks ago and thought, of course, we should do something,” says Abrams. “The kids are already writing poems, and Jim’s involved. Let’s do something about songwriting.”
Get the pencils moving.
“The first session was just talking about how music works, how poetry and singing work together,” says Abrams. “It was actually quite technical. We were talking about syllables, the structure of a song. Things they’ve probably never considered before.”
The song needed a tune, and the pros picked “I’m Amazed,” one of James best-known My Morning Jacket songs. That would be the melody for which the kids would write lyrics.
Then came the magic that made the moment.
“When Jim picked up his guitar and sang the song in its original form, you could see the kids amazed, entranced,” recalls Abrams.
“How many real rock stars like Jim are devoted to this kind of thing? He’s an example for everyone,” says Abrams. “He cares about people. He cares about music education.”
The lyrics reference powerful themes for young women.
Here’s the second verse and chorus:
Like a caterpillar to a butterfly, I start slow and go high.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but not our bravery.
Will the world ever be as good as I wish?
Trouble in the world is missing love.
We can make a world without wrath.
That’s why I am proud.
We can heal each other, no need for a survival kit.
We can keep loving. Our hearts won’t explode.
Nothing can get us … not even a rocket.
The last words are sung as a kind of exclamation mark, and students and parents in attendance picked the phrase for a title for the song.
It could be noted that “Not Even a Rocket” was not among the teachers’ list of suggested titles. But it fits the we-can-do-it spirit of the number. “Nothing can get us — not even a rocket.”
The message resonates with James.
“The Young Authors Greenhouse is doing this to encourage kids that they can do anything they put their minds to. That’s why I’m here,” says James. “I feel like arts funding, music funding is being cut — so it is our job as a community to say arts, music, it’s important. Just as important as anything else. Kids deserve that.”
James and Abrams on the big stage
Abrams evokes the outreach spirit, too, as he and other orchestra musicians do “pop-up” events for those who can’t get to concerts.
This month, Abrams and/or orchestra players will take music to such venues as the West End School, Uspiritus, Norton Hospital and the Center for Women and Families. A swing combo appears at St. Vincent DePaul’s Open Hand kitchen and a brass trio plays at the Cabbage Patch Settlement and the Table Café. There’s even a trio performing at the Youth Metro Detention Center.
No tickets for those, of course. (Though donations are certainly encouraged to those nonprofit organizations.)
Back in the galaxy of stars, James and Abrams team again April 7 in the Louisville Orchestra’s Festival of American Music, in Whitney Hall. Better hurry on tickets for that one.