Recently, I asked various musicians to discuss books that they remembered fondly. I also encouraged them to mention books that have influenced, intrigued or inspired them. While we talked, I listened closely for a glimmer of the passion that guided my subjects' professional and creative lives, and for a thread that tied individual pasts to present work. Here is a selection of what I heard.
Tony Award-winning singer/actress
I've always been an avid reader. As a child, I was totally into biographies. I read about Helen Keller and felt I could understand that little person, the person inside her. Maybe I loved biographies because I always wanted to be someone else, before I learned in show business I could play someone else. I read mysteries, and thought of becoming a lawyer. I would make the world all right and put anyone who ever hurt me in jail. I would be Perry Mason in a dress, with the back cut low, and show up in court in the hat from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and I was gorgeous. The only book about a musician I remember reading in school was about Marian Anderson. I would say now, for all children of all races, colors and ages, find a book about Duke Ellington. He struggled. He came into the world with strikes against him. But he was a gentleman, well-educated, and a composer. A wonderful man, he was called "The Duke."
About 10 years ago, I wrote a book for children called Nadja: On My Way. I wrote about the teacher who taught me to hear myself, and what to listen for; about pursuing excellence by having high goals from the start; and about my approach to performing, which is: The time to be careful is when you prepare. But, in performing, I say, take a chance, go for it! As a child, reading Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth made me feel anything is possible and that I could accomplish anything! . . . I'd love to see a book about the enormous power of music to change someone's life.
Joke books; that's what I read as a kid, because I started singing so early, and all of my book learning took a back seat. Have you ever heard of the Catskills' Jennie Grossinger? She gave me a dictionary when I was first up in the mountains. I still have that dictionary, the greatest present anyone could give. And after that, I read Six Who Changed the World, and that's the book that made the biggest impression on me. Territorial Imperative was another important one. I became a tremendous reader, although in the last five years I haven't read as much. I've been tied up working on my book, Been There, Done That. . . . A children's book? Oh, no. I've never thought about writing a children's book, not in a million years. . . . I don't know . . . maybe that's an interesting idea.
Banjo-player, folksinger, writer
I come from a book-reading family. At age 7 I was completely captured by Rolf in the Woods, by Ernest T. Seton, and that was when my interest in politics began. I went on to read all Seton's books. He held up the American Indian as a role model of brave, honest, sharing people. Six, seven years later, I read Pages of a Worker's Life, W.C. Forster's book about how he rode freight trains as a kid and worked at one industry then another. Then Thoreau's Walden, which suited me to a tee; and left-wing books, historical books and novels, and every new Howard Fast book, as soon as they came out -- Freedom Road, and so on.
I read Jenny Lind: Swedish Opera Singer in third grade -- my first introduction to opera -- and though I didn't realize it at the time, that book would turn out to be very influential. Now, as an opera singer myself, I am singing much of Jenny Lind's repertoire. I could relate to her because I, too, was terribly shy as a child, except when I sang. I think Dorothy Maynor, founder of the Harlem School for the Arts, would make a wonderful subject for a biography for young people; and I would highly recommend the Leontyne Price retelling of Aida, including her "storyteller's note." . . . I'd like to write a book for young children, our future audience, on how to behave in a theater, about basic decorum; a book that would be funny, delightful, but get the point across.
Singer for Sweet Honey in the Rock
I was intimidated by books as a child. My parents and their friends were older, and the books I received as gifts were often for adults, sometimes in French. So the books I read were not the typical children's books. I remember the works of black historians, and Langston Hughes's Sweet Flypaper of Life, a small thin book with photographs by Roy DeCarava. I've always preferred having books of my own to read slowly and thoroughly, and so that I can write notes on the pages. Several illustrated books helped me see the possibility that my book, No Mirrors in My Nana's House, might work as a children's book: Ntozake Shange's I Live in Music with illustrations by Romare Bearden, and Maya Angelou's book with Jean-Michel Basquiat. I would recommend Go Down Moses, and a new book for children, A Band of Angels, by Deborah Hopkinson.
A book I thought was really cool was Watership Down. It was amazing the way the author created the story of the rabbits and their society and how it mirrored human societies. I just finished a great biography of Art Tatum, Too Marvelous for Words. I loved Body and Soul, a collection of short biographies of Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Stevie Wonder and others. I'd like to see a book for kids that gives a general overview of American music, and then specifically discusses the styles and genres of historic black music and its influence on music today. For instance, if a kid likes Will Smith, chances are that kid doesn't know much about the heritage behind Will Smith's music, the origins of rap, hip hop and so on. I think it would be fun to do a children's book about different instruments in a band and how musicians collaborate. Something that would give a child an idea of instruments and their roles in different groups. That would be my music book for children.
The "Little House" books sparked my lifelong love of historical biographies, and probably contributed to the somewhat measured and protective style of parenting I developed with my own children. I enjoyed reading this series to my youngest daughter, who is now crazy about Harry Potter, of course. I don't particularly like reading about music, but I do like reading about the lives of musicians. I wish there were a series of biographies written specifically for young people on all kinds of musicians. Could be titled From Mozart to Beck! For instance, I'd love to see a biography of Miles Davis for 13-year-olds; but I wonder how an author would reconcile genius coupled with a drug addiction and then explain this to a child? Penelope Jane is a children's book I've written. . . . I found writing for children in verse form very different from writing songs, specifically in the way I needed to think about meter and rhyme.
Karen Greenfield is a Washington writer.