NPR

Bill Harley: A Storyteller for All Ages

Bill Harley's lyrics are smart, funny and, at times, poignant. He writes for children, but he avoids dumbing-down his work; his music is never patronizing, insipid or boring. Harley's stories and songs help parents remember what it was like to be a kid.

Harley is now one of the country's most recognized performers for families, a Grammy nominee, and he has appeared as a regular commentator on NPR's All Things Considered.

His most recent recordings are One More Time and Blah Blah Blah: Stories About Clams, Swamp Monsters, Pirates and Dog, which will be released next month. He's also the author of a new Christmas book, Dear Santa: The Letters of James B. Dobbins.

In an interview with Neal Conan and Liane Hansen, Harley shares his songs and stories, and talks about the art of live performance.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

And I'm Liane Hansen.

I know it must be coming as a surprise to many of you that Neal Conan and I have been married for some 23 years. Well, we also have two children and they're both in their 20s now. But when they were younger and we would take long road trips, we had rules about music in the car. First, we parents were never, ever allowed to sing along with songs on the oldies station out loud. And the second rule was that the family would alternate between the parents' music and the kids'.

But there was one performer that we all loved to listen to and that was Bill Harley. His lyrics were smart, funny and sometimes very poignant. They weren't patronizing, they weren't insipid, they weren't boring. They made us remember what it was like for us to be kids, and it confirmed to our own kids that they weren't alone when dealing with all that life had to throw at them. Bill Harley is now one of the country's most recognized performers for families, a Grammy nominee and has had appeared as a regular commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered."

CONAN: This hour, Bill Harley shares with us some songs and stories. If you have questions for him about his work, about the art of live performance, give us a call. Parents, what stories about your childhood do you share with your kids and why? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us totn@npr.org.

HANSEN: Bill Harley's most recent recordings are "One More Time" and "Blah, Blah, Blah," which will be released next month. He's also the author of a new Christmas book called "Dear Santa: The Letters of James B. Dobbins." And Bill Harley joins us from our bureau in New York City. He has his guitar.

Bill, welcome to the program.

BILL HARLEY: It's nice to be here. How are you guys?

CONAN: Good.

HANSEN: Very well, thanks.

HARLEY: Good. You're doing fine together. I just want you to know that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: We appreciate that, Bill. Coming from you, that means a lot.

CONAN: Yeah, nobody's filed for divorce yet.

HANSEN: Yeah.

HARLEY: I am wondering who's holding up the sign saying `It's my turn,' you know.

HANSEN: Oh. No, that's when you hear the punch in my side when it's my turn to speak.

I think the best way to start everybody off and give people a sense who maybe haven't heard you before--but I can't understand who that might be--you have a song you're going to start us off with. Right?

HARLEY: Yeah, I thought I should do this. We'll just, you know, establish the ground rules here. So, here goes. This is a song--this is shameless pandering to the younger part of my audience. It's called "Grownups Are Strange."

(Soundbite of "Grownups Are Strange")

HARLEY: (Singing) Listen to me, gather 'round, all of you kids, don't you make a sound. I got something to tell you, I want to give you the news, I want to talk about something could happen to you. Talking about grown-ups, what they adults, they're very strange, but it's not their fault. Once they were kids, they were good as gold, but then they got weird 'cause then they got old. Grown-ups are strange, that's a fact, but you got to go forward, you can't go back. Grown-ups are weird, yes, that's true. Someday it could happen to you.

Grown-ups get to be in charge, they get to stay up late, they get to drive their car. They make the rules, they say what's what and they can talk until they drive you nuts. Something happened since they were kids, you know, their brains don't work like they once did. Give them a question 'cause you think they're there, and they say, `Huh?' They give you a stare, yeah. Grown-ups are strange, that's a fact, but you got to go forward, you cannot go back. Grown-ups are weird, yes, that's true. Someday it will happen to you.

Sooner or later, you'll start to change, eat disgusting food, you'll act so strange. You'll know what's happened, you'll know it's true when you start saying things that were said to you, like `Clean up your room,' `Make your bed,' `Haven't you heard one word I said?' `I don't want to tell you one more time, pick up your clothes before I lose my mind.' Grown-ups are strange, that's a fact, but you've got to go forward, you cannot go back. Grown-ups are weird, yes, that's true. Someday it could happen to you.

So listen to me. I used to say when I was a kid I would never grow up no matter what I did. I did pretty well for 20 years or so, and then I woke up one morning, I looked in the mirror--Ahh! What do you know? And now I'm strange, that's a fact, but I had to go forward, I could not go back. Now I'm weird, yes, that's true. Ha, ha, ha, it's going to happen to you. Grown-ups are strange, that's a fact, but you got to go forward, you can't go back. Grown-ups are weird, yes, that's true. Well, someday it'll happen to you.

HANSEN: Bill Harley in our New York bureau playing "Grownups Are Strange."

You often begin your shows with that song, and I can really hear why kids would like it. But do parents have a good reaction to it?

HARLEY: Oh, yeah, they do. I mean, I think that's the whole--I often start a show with a song like that 'cause I kind of want to set the terms of, you know, what the discussion's going to be about during the show. And I know I'm doing my job in the middle of the song or story when the kid turns over and pokes the adults in the rib or vice versa, you know. That's kind of my job. And so that happens right away. And, you know, I got to let the kids know I'm on their side for at least part of the show.

CONAN: It's a pretty fine line, though. Do you find yourself taking sides?

HARLEY: Well, I go back and forth. I find that, you know, being polemical is OK as long as you're respectful of the other side. It's OK to overstate the case as long as you let the other people know you're going to take care of them, too. And, you know, I think in a way, that kind of polemicism, overstating the case, that's kind of part of art, you know, if I'm calling myself an artiste, a dangerous proposition. But I'm going to try. All right? That's what I'm going to try to do.

HANSEN: Do the kids relate to you as, like, another big kid?

HARLEY: I think they go back and forth. I think they do in a way. I remember I was at a National Storytelling Festival once and I was waiting to go up on stage, and this kid came up and he said, `Hey, Bill Harley, hey! Hey, can you hold this drink until my mom gets back, OK? She'll be back--I got to go.' And I was standing there, going on stage, holding, you know, his mother's coffee, saying, `How did that happen?' So there is a little bit of that. But I also think that they know--I mean, they know I'm an adult, you know, and that I have that perspective, too. It's just this kind of weird netherworld that I really do try to occupy.

HANSEN: How do you keep it from getting schmaltzy? I mean, there's so much out there for kids that truly is--you know, it's moralizing, it's insipid and it's very difficult to listen to more than once. Do you often find yourselves doing first drafts of songs or stories, for example, and then throwing it out?

HARLEY: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. There's a lot of songs and stories I work on. And you--I mean, I think the mark of someone who's really emotionally intuitive is to be able to walk that line between, you know, being insipid and being--you know, romanticizing something. I try to keep a couple things in my mind when I look at a kid's world view, you know, the notion that a kid really is powerless in most situations and that terror kind of occupies a child's life. And I'm trying--so, first, I'm really trying to honor a kid's emotional life. And I feel if I do that, then the other thing kind of falls into place about what's right or wrong and all that stuff.

HANSEN: We're going to involve some of our listeners in the conversation, if I can--know how to do that now that Mrs. Clever has joined the studio here. Let's see if we have Mark. Mark, are you there in Charlotte, North Carolina?

MARK (Caller): Yeah, I am.

HANSEN: Hey.

MARK: Thanks for taking my call.

HANSEN: Quite welcome. Say hi to Bill Harley. And what's your question?

MARK: Hey, Bill Harley, how you doing?

HARLEY: Hey, Mark.

MARK: I'm just calling to make a comment quickly. I'm a musician myself and I've got two children, a four- and a six-year-old. And you talk about children loving music and being in the car with the couple there, talking about the music in the car. Well, kids in general, with music of any type, they just love it. I don't care if--especially for me, 'cause I make silly songs up for them and make a story out of anything I can. And playing the guitar along with it is just great fun for them, and they really enjoy that.

HARLEY: You know, this kid came up to me once after I did a show and he said, `You know, you're a really good storyteller, but you're not as good as my dad.'

MARK: Yeah.

HARLEY: And, you know, he's right, because the dad knows who he is and the dad's got the story for him at that moment. I mean, I try to serve a kid's emotional life, but...

MARK: Well, that's part of it, that your kids want to know so much about you and anything that you tell them about anything in your past is just jewels to them, you know.

HARLEY: Yeah. Yeah, that's right.

MARK: Especially if you can put music to that along with it, so they can join in, you know. It's really great.

CONAN: I wonder, Mark, do your stories that you tell your kids, do they have a moral, like, `And little Billy didn't clean up his room and had to suffer for years afterwards' or are they just to amuse?

MARK: Oh, just to amuse. I'm not as in-depth as you. I mean, they'll take anything and make a song out of it. But...

HARLEY: I'm that desperate.

MARK: You know what I mean. If you've got kids, you've done the same thing, I'm sure, just playing with them. And it's great fun. I love it. I mean--and they can't get enough of it either. But if I got a...

HANSEN: Mark...

MARK: ...guitar and a mandolin, I'll put the two kids on the bed and I'll say, `Play me a song and sing some music,' you know. And that's just great fun. I mean, kids love it so much.

HANSEN: Mark...

MARK: I know you know that.

HANSEN: Mark, how old are your kids?

MARK: Six--my daughter Sarah's six and my son Mark is four.

HANSEN: All right. Well, thanks a lot for your call. Happy Thanksgiving.

MARK: OK. I enjoy you guys program. Thank you so much.

HANSEN: Appreciate it.

CONAN: Thanks for the call.

HANSEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bill, you have kids. How do they respond to what you play?

HARLEY: Well, now they're both in college and their critical faculties have kicked in, although they kicked in at a very early age. You know...

CONAN: Well, yeah, ours used to respond--when one of us was on the radio, our kids would say, `Do we have to listen to that?'

HARLEY: Oh, I know, they're the worst critics. It's horrible. It's horrible. But as far as that goes, because they've lived around performers and writers and artists, they really have kind of developed a sense of what works and what doesn't. So actually, their input does count for a great deal to me.

CONAN: Our guest today is Bill Harley, storyteller, singer-songwriter and "All Things Considered" commentator. When we come back from a short break, we'll take more of your calls. What stories from your childhood do you tell your children? (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Or send us an e-mail, totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan.

HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen.

CONAN: Liane normally hosts "Weekend Edition Sunday." This week, she joins us here on TALK OF THE NATION.

HANSEN: This hour, we're talking with songwriter and performer Bill Harley about the art of storytelling and the state of family entertainment. What kinds of activities does your family enjoy together? You're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

CONAN: And let's get another caller on the line. This is Nick, Nick calling from Goshen, Indiana.

NICK (Caller): Yes. Really appreciate your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

NICK: Bill, I was curious. Were you influenced at all by Shel Silverstein When I was a kid--and I'm in my 50s now, but I grew up listening to Shel Silverstein and some of his poetry. He sang a lot of just quirky, off-the-wall, like, "I'm Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor" and...

HARLEY: Yeah. Yeah.

NICK: ...stuff like that. I just wondered if he was an influence on your...

HARLEY: You know, I can say, I think he's been an influence later in my life. I wasn't really aware of him so much as a kid, but there are people, looking back on--you know, when I--we listened to--I grew up listening to Bill Cosby and remembering all those...

CONAN: Sure...

HARLEY: ...memorizing all those monologues, you know, "Why Is There Air?" and "Noah," you know. And...

NICK: Yeah.

HARLEY: And another person who has been a huge influence on me and my work over the years is Gene Shepherd, who worked at WOR in New York and told these long narratives about growing up in Indiana, like you are, and like I...

NICK: Oh, yeah, Gary, sure.

HARLEY: ...grew up in Indiana, too. Yeah, he grew up outside of Gary, and I grew up in Indianapolis.

NICK: Yeah. Oh, absolutely.

CONAN: You know, you could put your eye out with that.

HARLEY: You could. You could.

NICK: Yeah, the Red Ryder....

HARLEY: Yeah, Wanda Hickey and everybody. He just was...

NICK: Oh, yeah.

HARLEY: And he captured that kind of terror that went on, I think, that I referred to earlier. You know, just--and kind of a not--you know, unvarnished childhood, just which--I have talked to so many adults, adult men, who said, `When I was a boy growing up in New York, my parents would turn off the lights and I'd put the radio under the pillow with me and I would listen to Gene Shepherd tell stories,' and I know exactly what that's about. I hear kids saying, `I got your story memorized.' You know, that's what it makes me feel like.

NICK: Great. Great. I like your work. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Nick.

HARLEY: Thank you.

NICK: All right.

HANSEN: Nick.

You have a story that you're going to do for us now, because you often address how kids--their perceptions of the adult world. And you've got a story--it's a long story, but we're going to hear an excerpt of it, and it's called "Teacher's Lounge." You have your own childhood--your own childhood gets into this story.

HARLEY: Well, I do. I mean, I go--that's where I hang out. That's the geography I hang out in. And in the the "Teacher's Lounge," what happens--let's kind of cut to the chase here. I've got--somebody's got to go to the teachers' lounge 'cause there's a kid in my class who has cut his hand. And in order for him to go to the nurse's office, we have to get the teacher so he could go down to nurse's office, 'cause you can't go to the nurse's office without permission. So the question who is going to go--and we knew that Cynthia Hornacker(ph) should go 'cause Cynthia was Cynthia Hornacker and we weren't. But the question is: Who would go with her? And that was when everybody looked at me, because if someone was going to be in the hallway, why not Bill? He spent half the day in the hallway anyway.

And now when I say this, I don't mean to say that I was a bad student. I was a good student, I did well in school, I always did everything I was supposed to do. It's just that after that, I did more. And this started from the day I started school. I would get into school and 10 minutes before school started, we'd sit down and we'd do morning work. I never understood that, either. You know, it's like, I would say, `Mrs. Elliot'(ph)--she was my second-grade teacher--`has school started yet?' And she'd say, `No.' I said, `Then why are we working?' She'd say, `Just do your work.' And so I'd be working and after about 10 minutes, my body would say, `Get up!' and so I'd get up. And my body'd say, `Walk around!' and I would walk around. And Mrs. Elliot would say, `Bill?' I'd say, `Yeah?' She'd say, `What are you doing?' I'd say, `I don't know.' She'd say, `Would you please sit down?' I'd say, `Sure.' I was happy to sit down. I always did what Mrs. Elliot told me to do, so I sat down. And then, 10 minutes later, my body would say, `Get up!'

And after about two and a half weeks of this, you know, halfway through September, Mrs. Elliot realized that without a major brain operation, this was just going to stay like that. And that's when I became her little messenger. Every time she had messages to deliver, and sometimes even when she didn't, she sent me out in the hallway. And she'd say, `Bill, why don't you just go say hi to all the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers and come at 2:45.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARLEY: Or she'd say--once, actually, she gave me a note, just folded over, with the teacher's name on it, Ms. Blackard(ph), a fourth-grade teacher. She said, `Bill, take this down to Ms. Blackard.' I said, `OK.' So I took it down the hallway, you know, and I stopped at Ms. Blackard's door. And the note wasn't sealed, so I flipped it open, and it said, `Just send him somewhere else.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARLEY: So, you know, if someone was going to be in the hallway, why not me? And I was--you know, I was kind of like the mayor. Everybody knew me. `Hey, Bill, how you doing?' I'd been in every room. I'd been in all the classrooms, I'd been in, you know, the janitor's room, I'd been to the teachers--well, I had not been to the teachers' lounge, and that's really what the whole story is about. But because of my unusual role in the school--and we can self-diagnose ourselves, those children in the classroom who can't sit down. That was me. So that's just a little bit. That's a little hint of where I went and why I'm doing what I do, as a matter of fact.

HANSEN: Well, that's just a little taste of it. But we want to tell our listeners that you an actually hear all of the "Teachers Lounge" story at our Web site, npr.org.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Scott. Scott's calling from Morganton, North Carolina?

SCOTT (Caller): Yes, that's right.

CONAN: OK. Go ahead, please.

SCOTT: Well, I appreciate your taking the call. The show's great. Storytelling as always been a big part of my life. And this coming holiday season, both Thanksgiving and Christmas, I have been for the last couple of weeks now thinking about the stories that my family tells that we hear every year. Usually, they're stories that are kind of meant to embarrass the children...

CONAN: Yeah.

SCOTT: ...that, you know, like--nonetheless, we love to hear them. And just as I tuned in a few minutes ago, I guess I was struck with the comparison of popping in a favorite CD or sitting down to a favorite program or listening to things. And I just wanted to comment on the comfort that storytelling gives us, and I just wanted to thank your guest for giving us that comfort. There's something really great about hearing the same stories again and again. And I don't know, I guess it makes us feel OK about being human, you know.

CONAN: Hmm. Bill, I wonder, kids may like to hear stories again and again. Grown-ups sometimes demand new material.

HARLEY: Well, they do in the sense that for, you know, a performer, they do need to hear the material. But the fact is, when you get together with, like--I have a bunch of friends from high school I get together with once a year and we tell the same stories over and over again. The time that we burnt all our paintbrushes when we were in the paint crew, you know, and the time the car broke down when were going to Mt. Washington and all those stories. And so what I've really learned as a storyteller is that those stories that we tell over and over again, whether in the family or among friends or in a school, are really kind of a definition of what we are. It's a culture. It's the web that holds us together and reminds us who we are. So as a performer, you got to come up with new material, but when you get together over Thanksgiving, it's, like, whose rolls those are and that the recipe isn't right 'cause Aunt Lydia isn't there, you know. That's an important story.

CONAN: And, Scott, don't they all have punch lines? In my family, it was, `And Duffy spit in the cake.'

SCOTT: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, definitely, yeah. Yeah. And, you know, there's always that nice, awkward pause when you've realized, `Oh, no, this is the story about me,' you know.

HARLEY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that's the truth.

SCOTT: And there's nothing I can do about it. They've started, the end, you know.

HANSEN: Yeah.

HARLEY: Well, you know, the other thing about that is my experience is children are desperate for stories about when their parents were children. And I think part of that is they want to know that they are really going to grow up, you know, `My parent--my father did something that stupid and he made it, and I might be able to do it, too.'

CONAN: Thanks, Scott, for the call.

SCOTT: All right. Thanks for taking it. I appreciate the show.

CONAN: And have a happy holiday.

SCOTT: Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

HANSEN: Bill, you have another song for us. And now this is one that doesn't--it's--not all songs and stories have happy endings, and you do a song called "Love of the Game." Would you mind playing that for us?

HARLEY: Yeah. I actually wrote this song for my son Noah when he was in--I think he was nine years old, and he had a soccer team that did not score one goal all season long.

CONAN: Ooh.

HARLEY: Yeah. But we know those teams, we've all been on them. There are more of us than there of them, I might add, but--so here we go.

(Soundbite of "Love of the Game")

HARLEY: (Singing) First day of practice it was easy to see, our soccer team wasn't all it could be. The coach kicked the ball out, said, `Let's have some fun.' Some kid yelled out, `Watch me hit a home run!' Our first game that week, it was quite a surprise. We were losing 6-nothing before we opened our eyes. The score was 12-zip at the end of the day. Our coach called us over and I heard him say, `Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win. If they knock you down, just get up again. Don't be afraid, don't be ashamed. You just play it for the love of the game.'

Well, we showed up the next week all ready to play, but wouldn't you know, it went the same way. Their team scored first, then again and again and again and again and again. Week after week, it was always the same. We never scored, we lost every game. Other teams won, other teams cheered. The voice of my coach just rang in my ear. `Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win. If they knock you down, just get up gain. If you've done your best, then don't be ashamed. Just play for the love of the game.'

Eight games we've lost, how many more? Some kid asked our coach, `What's it feel like to score?' Still, I show up on each Saturday 'cause I like to run and I love to play.

Last game of the season. What could be worse? Our team in last, their team in first. They're big and fast, we're small and slow. Who picked these teams? That's what I want to know. Their team scored first, but then we held fast. We stayed in position, sometimes we passed. Time running out, looked like they'd win. I centered the ball, Todd kicked it in. The ref blew the whistle, the game was all done. The score was all tied, but it felt like we'd won. Our coach screamed and shouted. He yelled, `Way to go!' I staid, `Hey, coach, calm down. Don't you know sometimes you lose, sometimes you win. If they knock you down, just get up again. If you've done your best, then don't be ashamed, 'cause you played for the love of the game.'

CONAN: Bill Harley, joining us from our bureau in New York. He's normally based in Seekonk, Massachusetts.

Bill, is that a song for Red Sox fans?

HARLEY: It is. It is--well, not anymore. You know, we don't know what to do with ourselves anymore. You know, our raison d'etre is gone, you know?

CONAN: Yeah.

HARLEY: What to do?

HANSEN: Oh, it was a good yearlong party. Can't complain.

HARLEY: I know, I know, I know. It was. It was beautiful. It was beautiful. I got a great e-mail from a White Sox friend and fan, a man who--he said it was just as glorious there in Chicago, you know?

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Lonnie, who's a member of member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio: `I have no children, but I once heard Mr. Harley's "Zanzibar" on NPR more than 10 years ago'--that was one of our favorites--`and decided I had to have a copy, even though I have no children with whom to share it. Found one, have played it frequently over the years and giggle every time. I'd like Mr. Harley to know that it sparked such a curiosity in Zanzibar and its history that I finally planned a trip to visit that island. Thank you for many hours of enjoyment and for the trip of a lifetime.'

You're listening...

HARLEY: That is great.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

HANSEN: Let's go to another caller. We're going to talk to Kirsten, and she's in Granger, Indiana. Welcome to the program, Kirsten.

KIRSTEN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

HANSEN: Sure.

KIRSTEN: I--Bill, I have to tell you, we're big fans of "Family." We heard "Zanzibar," as well, first, and that was one of our favorites. I think the thing that we enjoy as an entire family, listening to your music and stories, is how you seem to capture the essence of how a child views situations. And I'm just curious as to--were you a journal keeper as a child, or did you keep notebooks where you jotted things down? How are you able to just capture exactly how they see the worldview?

HARLEY: No, I was never that organized, and I'm still not. I wish I was!

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARLEY: Wish I were. No, I say that, as a kid, I kind of held the adult world at arm's length, and I--in a way, I still do. But I kind of was smart enough in school, but not, you know, brilliant, so that everybody just left me alone, really. And so I watched a lot, I guess. And the other thing, though, is when you go back there and hang out there, which is what I kind of try to do in my mind and with kids, you remember that stuff. And the first thing is what it felt like. That's what I really try to get to, is what's it feel like? And I--that's--well, I figured that much out, I guess, you know?

CONAN: How much of your childhood do you have left to mine?

HARLEY: Well, it depends on if I have to be completely accurate about it. But there's...

CONAN: Ah!

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARLEY: You know, it doesn't take much to hang a story on, you know? It really doesn't. There's a lot--I got a big list of things that I want to talk about, you know? I'm just actually working on a story now about `Secret Santa' or gift exchange, you know?

CONAN: Hmmm.

HARLEY: 'Cause it--right. See, that's already a good story.

CONAN: Yeah.

HANSEN: Bill, do you think, to a certain extent, it was the birth of your own kids that's kind of opened up these memory windows and got you thinking about writing for kids?

HARLEY: Well, you know, the great thing about--one--the great--the only great thing about having kids--no!

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARLEY: This is it. No. One of the great things about having kids is you get to go back and have those experiences without some of the terror that I mentioned, you know? And so they have certainly been an impetus for me to reconsider. But I was doing this--I was working for kids before I had children, and as much as they've influenced me, it's that kind of determination to go back to my own memory and my own feelings to try to mine that. And it'll be colored with their experiences. And I have my own monologue about what it's like to be a parent, too. It's like Neanderthal boy, about raising teen-age sons who just go `Ughhhh.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARLEY: But a lot of it's me hanging out, trying to get back to that stage.

HANSEN: OK. Kirsten, thanks for your call.

KIRSTEN: Thank you.

HARLEY: Thanks, Kirsten.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get Christine on the line. Christine is with us from Mountain View, California.

CHRISTINE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

CHRISTINE: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHRISTINE: I just wanted to say that my daughter's absolute favorite stories are kind of the same ones that are my adult friends' favorite stories. I was a chef for almost 20 years before I was a mother, and my daughter's experience of me is `Mom who can chop really fast in the kitchen and makes macaroni and cheese,' but the stories she loves the best are the ones where the intern put the french fries in the fire and started a great big fire and the Ansel system, which is the fire extinguishing system, dropped the yellow stuff all over the food and everybody had to go and make new food. And I think that she sees me as somebody a little more exciting because I can tell her these stories about this life that I had before she was around.

CONAN: It's interesting you mention that, Christine. In fact, we're doing a show on cooking disasters tomorrow, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Call back.

CHRISTINE: These are really large-scale disasters.

CONAN: Industrial-strength cooking disasters. Yeah.

HANSEN: Don't you think it is interesting that kids really begin to get a sense of themselves when they see that their parents actually do make mistakes?

CHRISTINE: Oh, yeah. She needs to see that we make bigger mistakes than kids do, actually, that this was, like, a mistake where, like, 50 people were drenched with water and, you know, there was a whole dining room full of people being drenched with water and--yeah. I...

HARLEY: Oh, God, I wish that had happened to me.

CHRISTINE: Oh, no, you'd--yeah. They'd installed the--and I can also explain to her how things happen when we go into restaurants, like...

CONAN: Well...

CHRISTINE: ...`See that little thing up there with the dot? That's--you know, if that gets really hot, we all get drenched with water.' So it adds a little excitement to going to a restaurant.

CONAN: Better luck this year, Christine.

HANSEN: Thanks for your call.

CONAN: We're going to take a short break. When we come back, Bill Harley will tell us "The Ballad of Dirty Joe." I'm Neal Conan.

HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Announcements)

HANSEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Liane Hansen in Washington.

CONAN: And I'm Neal Conan.

Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Jose Padilla has been indicted by the federal government after being held for more than three years as an enemy combatant. He's charged with plotting with terrorists to kill people overseas and with providing material support to terrorists. And in another terrorism-related case, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, an Arab-American college student, has been found guilty of plotting to assassinate President Bush. Details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

HANSEN: Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, we'll be talking about cooking disasters, like the time Neal forgot to put the turkey in the oven while I was working on Thanksgiving, or perhaps the soggy dressing and the burnt pie and more. Your cooking disasters on the next TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: So demanding. On Thursday, it's Thanksgiving Day, and our show will be about homecomings. If you have a story about coming home after a long absence, we'd like to hear from you. What was different about home? What was different about you? Send us an e-mail: totn@npr.org, and please put `Homecoming' in the subject line.

HANSEN: Bill Harley is our guest today, and he's in our New York bureau. And if you have a question for Bill Harley about music or the art of storytelling, give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Now, Bill, you're going to do a nice big ballad for us, aren't you?

HARLEY: That's right. It's spoken. And I really--when I was a kid in our library, our family library, there was a collection of Robert W. Service poems, and I look at--and my mom used to say, you know, `There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold,' and somehow that has kind of transmogrified into this piece that I'm going to do for you now, called "The Ballad of Dirty Joe." Are you ready for this?

HANSEN: I think so.

CONAN: I hope so.

HARLEY: Yeah, I hope so, too. Here we go.

(Soundbite of "The Ballad of Dirty Joe")

HARLEY: (Reciting) `Out upon the briny deep, where the wild and wet winds blow, there lived a cruel and evil man, the pirate Dirty Joe. He sailed upon the scummiest craft that ever left the dock. He roamed the world and seven seas in search of dirty socks. He wore a scratchy, scraggly beard and had but one good eye, and with a tattered piece of sail his oily hair he'd tie. Hook for an arm? Yes, that too. He found it very handy for picking in between his teeth to get out sticky candy.

`His one good eye surveyed the sea, searching for some ship, and when he spied a boat out there he'd sneer and lick his lips. "All hands on deck," he'd order. "There's treasure to be had!" Shake his one fist in the air, laugh like he were mad, fire a cannon 'cross the bow, board the other craft, make the crew take off their shoes. And with a horrid laugh, he tied the sailors all up tight and robbed them of their socks, and left the ship a-flounderin' to run up on the rocks.

`The socks he took from other ships, you'll be surprised to learn, he hung upon the rigging lines. They stretched from bow to stern. They flapped and fluttered in the breeze, 500 little flags, and the smell that those old socks gave off was enough to make you gag. From China to the Ivory Coast, Australia up to Spain, the pirate did his dirty work across the bounding main. You could always tell a boat Joe robbed by looking at the crew, for fear was deep within their eyes and all their toes were blue.

`Till one day, as he sailed his ship somewhere near Mandalay, his lookout spied another boat beating 'cross the bay. "Aha!" said Joe. "We'll get that boat! We'll catch 'em now, by thunder. For sure as I am Dirty Joe, their socks there we can plunder." The pirates cheered and set their sails to catch up with their prey. They sharpened up their swords and knives. The boat danced in the spray.

`But suddenly, the cheering stopped. The wind became a moan. For on the other boat there flew a black of skull and bones. And from mast to mast, from bow to stern, flying everywhere, there flapped and snapped 500 pairs of pilfered underwear: boxers big and boxers small, with stripes and polka dots, and tightie whities hung there, too, like the ones your grandpa's got. And lined up on the other deck, armed with swords and knives, was a sight that made the men all shake in fear for their own lives: 100 pirate women waved their daggers and their swords, and a woman pirate captain yelled, "Girls, let's climb aboard!"

`"It's Stinky Annie," someone said, "and her band of smelly varmints. She captures every boat she can and takes their undergarments." "Then all is lost," another said. "We don't have a chance. You can't be a pirate if you don't have underpants." "You lily-livered lumps of lard," lashed out Dirty Joe. "What sort of pirates are you, lads? That's what I want to know. We'll show them. We'll take their boat. We'll tie them up," he roared. "We'll take their socks and their sneakers, too, and throw them overboard."

`The pirates there with Dirty Joe screamed and cheered and yelled. Someone blew a whistle. Someone rang a bell. And as the boats drew closer still, the pirates cursed and muttered, while a thousand pair of underwear and socks all flapped and fluttered. Finally, the two boats met. On the waves they rocked. "Get 'em now, boys!" Joe cried out. "Take off all their socks!" But even as the men attacked the women waiting there, Stinky Ann called to her crew, "Girls, get their underwear!"

`It was an awful battle, a loud and raucous fray. At first it seemed that Dirty Joe might win and have his way, but then Joe's first mate noticed that Stinky Annie's crew all were fighting barefoot. They'd got no socks or shoes! "What's the point?" another said. "Why make all this fuss? We can't get their dirty socks. What's in it for us?" "No," said Joe, "don't give up now!" But he spoke the words too late, and Stinky Annie and her crew quickly sealed their fate.

`Stinky Annie climbed aboard. She cornered Dirty Joe. She said, "I want your boxers now, in case you didn't know." Dirty Joe looked up and said, "Before you have your fun, your face looks quite familiar. You remind me of someone." Stinky Annie lowered her sword. They peered at one another. "Wait," she said, "I see it now. You're Joey, my little brother!" "That's right," said Joe. "You're my sister, Ann! You bounced me on your knee. Put down your sword. Give up this fight. Pray, don't do this to me."

`Stinky Annie gave a smile. A tear came to her eye. All her crew looked down, surprised; they'd never seen her cry. "Little Joey! How're you?" she said. "How've you been?" "I'm just fine, dear sister Ann," Joe said, and gave a grin. "Good," said Annie. "That's just great." Her one eye shone and danced. "Now do just what I say, you squirt. We want your underpants!" "But, Annie, you're my sister," Joe blubbered and he whined. "Can it, Joey!" Annie said. "I haven't got the time. Just 'cause I'm your sister doesn't mean I care. I'm a pirate. That's my job. I want the underwear."

`So Dirty Joe surrendered and did what his sister said, and when he did, it's safe to say, more than his face was red. Stinky Annie sailed away and still she roams the seas with her brother's boxers high above, flapping in the breeze. Dirty Joe, he sailed home, close to the Bay of Fundy. He's not a pirate anymore, because he has no undies.

`That's the finish of this tale. It's stupid. Now it's done. But there's a lesson here I'd impart to everyone. If you've got an older sister, then I feel bad for you, for just as long as she's alive, she'll tell ya what to do!'

CONAN: If you'd like to hear "The Ballad of Dirty Joe" five or 600 more times, it's going to be out on a new CD called "Blah, Blah, Blah," which will be in stores on December 6th. Bill Harley is in our bureau in New York.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Emily. Emily's calling us from Kalamazoo in Michigan.

EMILY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

EMILY: I just wanted to comment that I grew up with stories instead of television and a dad who teaches storytelling at the local high school. I go to the National Storytelling Festival every year. Are you going to be there, Bill, next year?

HARLEY: I don't know next year. They haven't--they come out with a schedule. I've been lucky to be there as much as I have. It's just an incredible place to go, and I'm always happy to be there.

EMILY: Well, I hope you're there, and thank you.

HARLEY: My pleasure.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Emily.

EMILY: Bye. Uh-huh. Bye.

HANSEN: We also have an e-mail from Camille in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who's a parent and a children's bookseller. And apparently, Bill, you've made both of her jobs easier: `Your work is wonderful to listen to, a joy to sell. They anticipate our annual listening of "The Great Sled Race," without which our holiday season could not be complete. And we're all looking forward to a long drive on Thursday because "Blah, Blah, Blah" is waiting for us in the car. Arrrgh!'

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARLEY: That's great. That's great.

CONAN: Jenny's with us, Jenny calling from Portland, Oregon.

JENNY (Caller): Oh, hi. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

JENNY: Just listening to you, I was thinking about my own daughter and how I feel like I can--you can almost see her social, emotional development through the kind of stories she wants us to tell her. And my one example is when she was three, every night before bed she'd want to hear about a special unicorn that she made up, and it was always a very kind of happy, sparkly story. And now we've noticed, at four, she really wants some edgy aspects to it and maybe a really mean mother or a mean teacher; kind of, sort of--you know, she's not--looking into her fears and her sort of edgy things, and it's been pretty funny.

CONAN: Bill, I wonder, do you put bad guys in your stories? Are there bullies in your stories?

HARLEY: Yeah, there are. There are. I mean, I--the point that she raises is actually an interesting one, because story is the way we understand the world. And as a child or an adult goes through their life, they kind of choose the stories according to what they need. And there are some--you know, in stories, there are some people that really are not redeemable. I usually look for transformation in a story, but sometimes there's--you know, there are some people in life that it's just better to avoid, and this--you gotta have some of those in stories, too.

CONAN: OK. `Then little Adolf came along and, well, he'...

HANSEN: Or...

HARLEY: That's a little too broad. We're trying to be a little more subtle than that.

HANSEN: Or older sisters, I think.

CONAN: Yeah. Well, that's true.

HARLEY: Well, there you go. They never change.

CONAN: I hesitate to mention that Liane, of course, is...

HANSEN: The oldest.

CONAN: ...an oldest sister. Anyway, Jenny, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

JENNY: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: We're talking today with singer, story writer and author Bill Harley. He's also a commentator for our sister program "All Things Considered"--yes, a big sister program. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Bill, before we let you go, one more song?

HARLEY: Yeah, sure. Yeah. This is--I say kids may not realize this, but sometimes parents and teachers don't get along.

(Soundbite of guitar)

HARLEY: There's communication problems between the parent and the teacher, and I discovered the source, and so I've borrowed from an American traditional song to write this song to help the teachers and parents get a long a little better.

(Soundbite of unidentified song, to the tune of "Under the Boardwalk")

HARLEY: (Singing) When the teacher calls and says, `Did you get my note,' and she says she didn't get the one you wrote, look in the backpack. Look and see. And down at the bottom, that's where it's bound to be.

(Speaking) You know, if you guys want to be the backup singers on this, this would be your chance. Why don't you come play with...

(Singing) When the teacher calls and says, `Did you get my note'--oh, gee--`and the kid says that'--I got so excited, I forgot the...

CONAN: Yeah.

HARLEY: (Singing) Kid says that she can't go on the trip because she didn't hand in her permission slip, look in the backpack. Look, if you dare. And down at the bottom, you're sure to find it there.

(Speaking) Here's the backup part. It goes like this.

(Singing) Down in the backpack, there's a big surprise.

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) Don't you wonder what lies...

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) Something's starting to grow.

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: I think you better not go...

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack, backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) There's the yogurt that they left there yesterday, last week's tuna fish they meant to throw away. Down in the backpack, there they'll stay, never again to see the light of day. And The Drifters all sing...

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) Treasure to be found.

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) Something crawling around.

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) Lost library books.

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) I think you better not look.

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack, backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) So when things get lost and you don't know where they got, and you ask your kid and he just says, `I dunno,' look in the backpack. It's not too late. Archaeologists moving in soon to excavate. Last chance, here we go!

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) Something smelly and old.

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) Something covered in mold.

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) So many things that reside.

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack.

HARLEY: (Singing) I think there's something that died!

HARLEY, HANSEN and CONAN: (Singing) Down in the backpack, backpack.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARLEY: There you go.

HANSEN: All right. Our careers are now totally ruined.

CONAN: And I think we have calls in on the line from Goffin and King.

HANSEN: Yes.

HARLEY: Yeah. No, no, they...

HANSEN: Saying, `Lay off my song.'

HARLEY: They've got their pound of flesh, I guess.

CONAN: Like that--do you have to send a check to the Brill Building every week?

HARLEY: Yes, I do. Yes, we do.

HANSEN: Ohh.

CONAN: Ohh.

HANSEN: And that's so funny, and it is absolutely so true. I can't tell you the number of times, you know...

HARLEY: Yeah. I'm just a hollow reed.

HANSEN: ...notes never made it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: No, no, no, I'm talking about the backpack stuff, you know?

HARLEY: I know, I know.

HANSEN: Oi. Or one time I went into my son's backpack and I actually found notes that he had forged our signatures on to get out of one class or another, and why he would leave them in the backpack I just don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Bill Harley, we're going to give you a permission slip to get out of the studio. Thanks so much for being with us today.

HARLEY: It's been great to be with you guys. Take care. Have a great Thanksgiving.

HANSEN: Hey, you, too.

CONAN: You, too.

Bill Harley is a singer-songwriter and storyteller. His latest CD is "One More Time." He also has a new book called "Dear Santa: The Letters of James B. Dobbins." A new collection of stories will be out on CD in December called "Blah, Blah, Blah," and Bill Harley joined us today from NPR's bureau in New York.

HANSEN: You can hear more of Bill Harley's songs and a story at our Web site, npr.org.

CONAN: In Washington, I'm Neal Conan.

HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen. This is TALK OF THE NATION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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