His beard is, indeed, red, and sometimes actually made of yarn. His trade is in yarns too, but not the wool kind—the story kind. He’s a champion of folk music, especially for children. You might find him playing a guitar, bringing life to puppets, singing songs or making a video. Often he’ll be doing more than one at once. Andy Furgeson, whose performance name is Red Yarn, will entertain the heck out of your kids, and you as well. And he’ll reinvigorate folk music while he’s at it.
Nerdy With Children caught up with Furgeson for an interview on what it’s like being a modern bard. Here in Part One, Furgeson talks about what he does, how it all started, and death as a major theme in children’s folk music.
Nerdy With Children: Can you talk about what Red Yarn Productions is?
Andy Furgeson: Currently Red Yarn is my full time job and my small business, and the focus is on folk music and puppetry … It’s about reinvigorating, specifically right now, American folklore and American folk music, via puppetry, interactive performance, educational programs and accessible media for kids. … At the heart of the work I’m doing is a love for American folk music and specifically what has traditionally been called, throughout the ages, folk music for kids.
When I was in college, I studied literature and creative writing and did my thesis project on … the American bard, sort of the poet/singer figure. I specifically looked at the models of Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan as two prominent but important American bards, and traced the connections between them, and traced their lineage up to today — all the different permutations. You know, different bardic voices besides just the white, male, American bardic voice.
NWC: When did you start performing for kids?
AF: When I moved to Portland I knew I wanted to work with kids and I knew I wanted to play music, so I was doing those things side by side. The about five years ago I started experimenting with doing those things at the same time. I was working at a community center, in an after school program. I started organizing some events, which I was calling “stories and songs for kids.” I would look up old folk songs that were kid appropriate, and make up stories, and find old folk tales and try telling those.
NWC: Where do you find the music?
AF: In January 2010 I did a project where I went through this old anthology by Alan Lomax, called Folk Songs of North America. I grew up with folk songs, and learning them, and consider myself kind of a folk musician. So this was like a self-education in some of the roots. For the month of January that year, I learned a song a day, wrote an analysis of it and did a quick recording of it. I don’t read sheet music perfectly, so I was using my imagination to fill in the blanks, where I didn’t quite know. I came out of it with some interesting adaptations of songs that I hadn’t necessarily heard before.
In that exploration I got really fixated on what would be called folk music for kids. Which I think the most fascinating part for me, through that exploration, was that — okay, people talk about how video games and violent TV and all this stuff are filling kids’ heads with violent images and stuff. But if you go back to the old folk songs, the old nursery rhymes, like the stuff that’s supposed to be kid appropriate from way back when, it is all incredibly violent and weird and dark and twisted and perverse.
Oh my god, so much of the music for kids these days is so saccharine and so watered down you know, and this core stuff, what’s traditionally been considered children’s music, is really, at the heart of it, songs and stories that are helping kids learn about death.
NWC: Wow, really? Talk about that.
AF: That is like the central theme in all of what I will call children’s folk music — death. As weird as that is, part of my mission with Red Yarn is to re-expose kids and families to this and be like, ‘Look, death is a part of life, it is a necessary part of life.’ People in older times, people who lived on farms, people who lived more rural existences, for whom the life and death of the animals around them was a part of their daily life, death was right there in front of them. That was part of life that you stared in the face. As a kid maybe these folk songs helped you learn to cope with that, you know?
I think there’s very little work being done these days to help kids cope with that. The food process — we are so removed from where our food comes from. We are so removed from the older people in our lives who might be suffering or closer to death or dying. They’re kind of scooted off, they’re not dying in our living rooms, they’re dying in facilities, hundreds of thousands of miles away sometimes from where kids live. Death isn’t something that they look at or think about. So in kind of a gentle way, a compassionate way, part of what I am doing … is helping kids face and cope with that. That’s, I think, a really fascinating element of folk music for kids which people might not think about a lot.
For more info on Red Yarn, check out his blog site: http://redyarnprojects.blogspot.com/.