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Musicians Link Literature and Literacy in New Compact Disc

The problem of illiteracy has attracted the attention of a range of Americans from federal officials and First Ladies to educators and librarians. Now the cause has been taken up by a group of musicians. They call themselves "Artists for Literacy," and they've just released a compact disc titled Songs Inspired By Literature. VOA's Nancy Beardsley reports.

"Seventh Step" is a musical tribute to the best selling memoir Angela's Ashes. Deborah Pardes wrote the song after reading Frank McCourt's story of his impoverished Irish childhood. The song gave birth to an idea.

"Every time I sang the song," Ms. Pardes recalls, "people would come up to me and ask me about the book, so I started thinking what a great way to promote books. So I put together a non-profit organization to help connect people to books through music, focusing on the issue of adult literacy, which is very different from other literacy projects."

Deborah Pardes says both community efforts and federal legislation are often aimed at making young people more literate. "When I learned there are 44 million adult Americans who read at or below a fifth grade level, I learned that basically that represents one in five of us who aren't able to function fully as citizens in this country," she said.

"Those people can't move forward in their jobs. They can't read to their kids at night. They can't help their kids with their homework. So I really connected adult literacy to family literacy which connects to children's literacy," said Deborah Pardes.

And that was how the SIBL (Songs Inspired By Literature) project came into being. The group's first compact disc includes songs by professional recording artists, like Bruce Springsteen and Grace Slick, together with the winners of an international songwriting competition. The grand prize winner is a San Francisco musician named Jill Tracy. Her song, "Evil Night Together," was inspired by Luc Sante's book "Low Life."

Ms. Tracy says she was haunted by the book's images of New York City in the late nineteenth century. "It's a book about the dark underworld, the seedy side of New York City," she said. "And it just brought me back into that time period, and the images just stayed with me and brought me to the piano and brought this feeling to life of creating not only the visuals, but the sound we would probably hear that would bring us back to that time as well."

Jill Tracy's song combines her love of what she calls spooky sounds with her passion for turn of the century ragtime music. Other songs on the CD range from acoustic pop to alternative rock to traditional folk songs. Justin Wells, a University of California graduate student, wrote a waltz called The Last Temptation of Odysseus. It's one of two tributes on the CD to Homer's famous epic.

"The Odyssey was originally an oral poem, passed down by these great storytelling bards," explained Mr. Wells. "And as a musician I've always loved that idea that the original literature was poems put to music. The techniques those epic poems used, they did a lot of repetition, these phrases that are very descriptive and beautiful, so I tried to take some of the same language and use some of those in my poem."

Justin Wells says he also wanted to convey the feeling of a rising swell of water to reflect Ulysses's ocean voyage.

Deborah Pardes says she too wanted to capture the spirit of a book she loved, in her case Angela's Ashes. She was most struck by the hope and innocence of the young Frank McCourt, who sees wonder even in a cruel and indifferent world.

Ms. Pardes believes there's a natural link between songs and stories, making music an ideal way to promote literacy. "Musicians historically have been very good at taking issues and giving them a face and giving them a place in their hearts, because music is so powerful that way," she said. And I think music lifts stories to a place that hits us in so many of our senses. The rhythm makes our bodies move. Our ears sink in the sounds and our imagination is engaged. So I think it's very connected to the old idea of storytelling, and capturing peoples' minds and hearts."

A correspondence grew up between Deborah Pardes and author Frank McCourt after she sent him her song. She hopes to contact more authors in the future, and get them involved in the project as well. "We're trying to galvanize an entire community of artists, not just the songwriters. Traditionally, the publishing community, the authors, don't look at people who can't read as their constituency. And ironically those adults who learn to read, who find out there are free programs out there, who go and change their lives, they become avid readers and they help encourage their family and friends to read. So the authors need to take some interest in this movement, because they're part of the fabric that connects all kinds of readers to all kinds of literature."

Deborah Pardes says the SIBL project will produce more compact discs, and she's also set up a web site. She welcomes e-mails about other songs inspired by literature. She says one of the great surprises of the project has been learning how many songwriters have been so haunted by a story or poem that they turned it into music.