Come to Her Voice: Uncle Ruthie Buell's Persisent, Pitch-Perfect, Purposeful and Passionate Provocation

A funny syllogism instructs that the more of a challenge to the status quo you are, the more people have to think or puzzle, which is often a challenge for them. The more people have to think, the more difficult it is for them to put you - the artist, writer, singer, activist - into a little box. Subtlety and complication, nuance are okay, but together with a multiplicity of talents, interests, and sometimes just plain more? It's my sense that the problem is often the "more." It complicates. Uncle Ruthie Buell has all of the above, and she has, yes, more. I struggle (along with her, I'm sure) to understand why absolutely everybody isn't listening on Saturday mornings to her long-running radio show, ostensibly for children but one of the best and most humane and satisfying listening, singing-along half hours you can recommend to anybody, anywhere. By struggle I mean, as Uncle Ruthie, celebrate, which is the default I suppose, at least the reaction I've learned from Ruth herself, Jill of all trades, multi-talented artist, and life lover.

Now that I see it written I realize it's possible that I manufactured that syllogism. And of course I stole the "life lover" deal from another Westside LA folksinger. But the rest is all documented, all over the place, about Uncle Ruthie I mean. Easy internet research will turn up a recent Steve Lopez Los Angeles Timesarticleabout the latest creative group activities of Ruth Buell, age 80 or so, and her Poet Tree. Yes, punnily, exactly what it sounds like: a tree festooned with scraps of verse, a nifty eco-artistic statement not to mention performance art by the whole community.

But just to prove my point, or whosever's, you will also find the amusing if too-short September 1991profileof her, titled amusingly "Still Going Strong" and observing that she teaches, runs long-distance, is a grandmother and, of course, hosts her show. Twenty years ago! Not much has changed, amusingly or not except that it always does. So, yes, still going strong, indeed. Ruth has since then done more before breakfast than most of us do in a lifetime, won all kinds of awards including the Children's Music Network "Magic Penny" Award, named in honor of a pioneer and peer, the great Malvina Reynolds.

Just in case you need one of those cultural shorthand equivalents. Also: Pete Seeger, Tom Lehrer, like that.

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Uncle Ruthie has recorded six albums, her most recent The Jacaranda Tree. She nursed her ailing true love Stanley Schwartz until he died. She performs solo--still, and going strongly--and often with a crew of longtime friends, some of the very best in the progressive kids music world, Dan Crow, JP Nightingale, Fred Sokolow, as she did for so long with her old pal Marcia Berman.

Sorry for the longest introduction ever but there's, well you know, more. Always more! So if I am telling you, a fan, what you already know, then skip ahead, go out and buy her new book of poems (which comes, natch, with a CD of her reading), pledge big-time during her "Halfway Down the Stairs" program during the upcoming KPFK fund drive and look forward, as I do each week to her terrific theme song and being read to, sung to, and especially, the end, when she tells us she loves us all very much.

Otherwise, you might want to know about some of her best songs, from a more grown-up (sort of, it's all relative, and some of my relatives are childish grownups, some grown children) album called The Mystery of Time, which features a song titled "In Loving Mammary" about her breast cancer, which you can watch her perform by clicking just there. And if you want to host a little house concert on your computer, go ahead and click here for her doing her tribute to the Jewish cultural and (socialist) political center The Arbeter Ring/Workmen's Circle by way of "May the Circle Be Unbroken."  

Original songs for the whole family appear on this record and on Take a Little Step and The Jacaranda Tree, including "Your Name," "Thank You, Doctor King," "The Anti-Lydia Club" and "Rosa Parks"

My own favorites include a whimsical tribute to her cousin Annette, who was "a true humanitarian" and "wore a red rose in her hair," and a bittersweet remembrance of the little boys who loved her once. It is a proud song, but also loving. I'll bet those boys wish they were still around to court little Ruthie.

Where are you now Richard Sunnysack? Where are you now Stanley Elkin and Denny Levine?" Do you remember a girl named Ruth Becker? And how you once sent her a Valentine?

There's more, trust me. Satire, gentle provocation, vigorous advocacy for children ("The Bathroom Song"), judiciously-rendered sentimentality, righteous indignation, moral politics and a kind of easy teaching as hootenanny sing-along pedagogy, always. And this Sunday morning at nearly the end of my post I haven't even gotten to the poems, a collection called, appropriately, Come to My Voice. It's a phrase, she tells us, she uses often with her blind and disabled kids, her students. The work represents only a small selection of the original writing, ideas, notions that Ruth seems to collect (I've seen her scrapbook-journal, lucky me), but offer an excellent survey of her themes: disappointment at the lack of imagination out there, love, romantic love, sex, pets, sadness, loss, students of hers at that school where she taught for decades.

She was eight years old and she lived in the corner house with a father who fixed television sets so that they would never work again, and a mother who asked Why did God give me this strange child? and a sister who screamed Get out of my room! even though it was a room they shared.

There are blues and funny one-offs and topical songs and an ode to Leonard Cohen. Much of her recent writing seems to take on the past, and the struggle (celebration!) and challenge of age.

The days I wake and have no song to sing Are days of death. Slowly the earth rolls round, As from my empty bell comes hollow ring; Grim days of silence in a world of sound.

Frustrating for a loud, strong, singing voice as Uncle Ruthie's. But joyful, always, and finally I suspect Uncle Ruthie gets tired or disappointed with feeling sorry, or sorrow. She can't seem to help but make herself and other people happy, angry, careful, helpful. I've been coming to her voice myself for nearly 35 years, imagine that. And now my son, our family. Maybe yours, too. You've seen her playing her organ or guitar, or any number of instruments. Heard her read

Halfway Down the Stairs with friends
Halfway Down the Stairs with friends

classic stories (Shirley Jackson's "Charles" is a favorite of ours) or host musicians or authors or story tellers or counselors or activists on the radio, or devote a show to a theme, as yesterday's, on astronomy and the Perseid meteor showers. And because I have a place to do it, and because it delights me each and every Saturday morning, I will end this incomplete review by reproducing her theme song (to the tune, naughtily, of the tedious old hymn), which of course I sing along to with my unc, the poet. Loud!

I love to tell a story so early in the day To wake you from your dreaming, to start you on your way. And be you three or thirty, or even ninety-two There is a song or story that's special just for you. I love to tell a story, folk tale or allegory.  I'm really in my glory telling stories here to you.

Come to My Voice (with CD), Uncle Ruthie Buell, self-published, 75 pgs., $25.00 The Jacaranda Tree(CD), 2010 The Mystery of Time: The Very Grown-Up Songs of Uncle Ruthie of KPFK(CD) 1994 Take a Little Step: Songs for Singing, Moving, Laughing, Loving and Growing for the Whole Family(CD) 1981

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California

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