AWARD-WINNING Washington writer Eloise Greenfield, having written 17 books for children, is now reaching them in a novel manner. Selections from her first book of poetry, "Honey, I Love," form the backbone of a new album also titled "Honey, I Love." It's not just Greenfield's voice that brings the words to life, though. Six Washington schoolchildren ranging in age from 6 to 12 help out, while saxophonist Byron Morris and other musicians create a jazz background. The album mixes distinctly African-American experiences and traditions into a thematic whole.
"Back in 1978, when the book was still in production, I began to think about either putting it on stage or producing a record," Greenfield recounted. "Needless to say, I had no money to do either. In 1980, I applied for a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; I sent in copies of some of the poems and said I would like to do a recording with accompaniment, that I wanted to use it as an introduction to jazz for children."
At the same time, Greenfield enlisted the aid of jazz veteran Morris, a director and cofounder of the Unity trio and a programmer for WPFW. "He'd had experience in producing records and knew the budgetary requirements." The commission gave Greenfield a $5,000 grant, which paid half the album's costs.
Greenfield, who won the 1974 Carter G. Woodson Award for her biography of Rosa Parks and the 1978 Coretta Scott King Award for "Africa Dream," then set about finding some young voices. "I knew children who listened to the record would be more attracted to it if they heard the voices of young people." The writer didn't have to look far. Shelley and Ayanaa Black (11 and 7, respectively) are her nieces; T.J. and Randy Jones (8 and 6) are the sons of a friend; Teddy Kimbrough (11) is the nephew of that same friend and Nicole Doye (12) was recommended by a school librarian.
In February of last year, work started in earnest with once-a-week rehearsals. The children took to the fusion of words and music quite readily; initial shyness was soon replaced by the exuberant energy of youth. Because Morris was quite busy, they at first worked with his records and then with tapes made especially for the album. "I don't know that the kids would sit down and listen to jazz," Greenfield says, conceding that she didn't expect jazz to replace the pop sounds of the day. She merely wanted them to be exposed to it. "Their ears are not attuned to it because they never hear it. But they liked the music. They felt it enough to let the rhythms flow, to move during the rehearsals and recordings as they said the poems. We rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed, but it doesn't sound stiff because they were so excited about being in the studio that day."
Greenfield admits she was nervous once the crew finally arrived at the Omega Studios in Kensington. "It was a new experience for me, and I had made contingency plans in case some of the children collapsed under the pressure. They were nervous, too, but not the kind of nervousness that makes you clam up; it was a nervous excitement and you can hear that in their voices. It was a matter of letting it come out and controlling it at the same time."
"I had them line up with their backs to the glass wall that separates the control room from the studio so they wouldn't be able to see their parents and other people." Like troupers in a Hollywood movie, the kids came through with a terrific performance, a wonderful blend of sing-song and declamation and confession and discovery, all of it marked by a sense of the spontaneuous. "It was a lot of fun. Toward the end, we were all sick of the poems, I never wanted to hear them again," Greenfield laughs.
Greenfield said she would like to see "Honey, I Love" absorbed into the scholastic curriculum. "I hope it will be just an introduction so that the students can go on from there and find out more about jazz." The children who did the recording are already finding a level of fame.
"I didn't know the first thing about making a record or anything," says Shelley Black, who'd had training at Howard University's Children's Theatre workshops and who is now a part of their repertory company. "But I was real excited because I'd never done anything like it and I'm only 11 years old."
Shelley said she did get a little tired of rehearsals, but concedes it "was worth it." When she showed the finished record to friends, "they couldn't believe it. They said 'Is this real or did you just make it up?' They usually listen to all that stuff that's on the radio and I didn't know how they were going to react. But they really liked it. They said the poems reached them, because they never really listen to poems a lot."
The album is available at Cheshire Cat Children's Bookstore, Pyramid Bookstore, BookArt Ltd. in Reston, Joe's Record Paradise in Takoma Park and Silver Spring, all Record and Tape Ltds. and Common Concerns. Mail inquiries should be addressed to Honey Production Inc., P.O.Box 29077, Washington, D.C. 20017.