Seven years ago, I spent my weekdays (and some weekends) trekking through the NYC subway system with one to two kids in tow. That world-renowned New York hustle extends to children, so life as a Brooklyn nanny was busy, with days scheduled out weeks in advance. Hands down, my favorite events involved seeing Lloyd H. Miller perform at Play Kids toy store.
Henry Box Brown put himself in a box / Mailed himself to freedom in the North / Henry Box Brown… this side up! Philadelphia-bound!
The first time I heard the lyrics to “Henry Box Brown” I thought: Who? Just like the the song explains, Brown was a slave who plotted his escape via the budding U.S. Postal Service after his wife and children were sold away from him, eventually becoming a magician and mesmerist. Lloyd H. Miller works his own brand of magic: not only do kids learn history through catchy lyrics and upbeat tunes, but parents (and nannies) learn something too.
Miller makes music on the regular as frontman for the kids’ group The Deedle Deedle Dees, along with his own solo efforts and crafting teaching materials that help educators incorporate music into their lesson plans. We talked about upcoming plans for a new Deedle Deedle Dees album, how he finds the subjects for his songs, and his advice on making history a part of your child’s everyday life.
Listen to AudioMama Vol. 2 below!
AF: Tell us about Lloyd H. Miller. Where did you grow up and when did you first take an interest in music?
Lloyd H. Miller: I grew up in Florida. I started making up songs when I was very young but it wasn’t til I was in high school that I started learning an instrument. I went to a conservative Christian school and music was all about chorus and Christian rock. I usually got sent out of music class to sit on the steps and was always making jokes during chorus so “music” had negative connotations for me until I started making my own – writing raps in junior high, singing in a heavy metal band in high school, eventually starting the electric bass in 11th grade.
AF: Who was your favorite “secular” band during that time period? I’m assuming something heavy metal?
LHM: In junior high I was pretty firmly in between rap and metal aesthetically. Ice T and Run DMC and Public Enemy balanced against Zeppelin and Motley Crue and Metallica. Once I got into high school that continued – Aerosmith, Tesla, GNR, Megadeth, Faster Pussycat, The Cult + NWA, Eazy-E, Black Sheep, 2 Live Crew. When I was a younger kid – middle school – Petra and Amy Grant were big. Stryper was huge during those ridiculous hair metal days – they were in the only Christian band in all the magazines along with Maiden and Poison and Winger and Cinderella.
AF: Were you always a history buff?
LHM: History was always escape reading for me. Around second grade, I started moving on from the Hardy Boys to every history or sports biography in the library. Mostly war stuff when I was little: Revolution, Civil War, WWII. I got very into Seminole Indian history once I discovered it… it all happened in my home state and it was my first exposure to alternative history – stories in which the government was the bad guy. When I found out Chief Osceola was captured under a flag of truce a switch flipped… subconsciously. I didn’t realize it til I was an adult.
AF: How did The Deedle Deedle Dees come about?
LHM: My wife asked me to help her create a musical with her second grade class. I’d been doing the singer-songwriter thing, the band in a bar thing, but this was the first time I’d combined what I’d been doing my whole life – working with kids – with music. My only “real job” since high school was always teaching: summer programs, Sunday School, tutoring. I always did creative projects with my students, but I’d never thought to combine it with my personal creative work.
We did a rock musical of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was much more fun than any of my grown up stuff. Shortly after I put together a kid concert at a local restaurant with some of the best musicians I knew. That was the first incarnation of the Dees.
AF: “Henry Box Brown” was the first song of yours that really stood out to me. I was 24-years-old and had never heard of him! How do you pick the subject matter of the songs you create?
LHM: Originally it was just stories that meant something to me personally. I first heard about HBB from my good friend Paul Reyes (now the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review) and remained obsessed with the story years later. Later Dees songs grew out of a variety of sources: fan suggestions, classroom workshops, my current reading interests.
Overlooked stories, under-told stories, stories of women and minority groups I’d never learned in school… as the band went on it became more and more important to me that these stories be told in a fun rock n’ roll way, in a style hopefully as appealing as mainstream pop, Hollywood movies, and video games.
AF: Is there a lesser known historical figure that you’re currently dying to make a song about?
LHM: These days my main interest is the stories of regular people. I’ve been working with a wide variety of people, developing songs based on their experiences. I wrote a song after a long lunch with a guy who worked for the MTA for many years. He was one of the leaders in the transit strike of the ’70s.
I did some workshops with folks with cerebral palsy, a group I sing with regularly. I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate their ideas; it’s gonna be a challenge to present their stories in a way that won’t be seen as humorous or mocking. One guy – this is so awesome – made up a rap in the style of 50 Cent (his idol) where he talks about the Access-a-Ride (the van for the disabled) as if it’s an Escalade or a Lambo. It’s Incredible! And not a joke. But how to explain to people who don’t know him? I could go on. This is my long-term passion: oral history into song project.
AF: We can’t wait to hear this new material! You have quite a few new projects in the works. You recently launched the The LLoyDeeLLoyd Show on Vimeo. What inspired you to experiment with a kids’ show video format?
LHM: I’ve made Youtube videos for years, mostly in response to requests from families. Very simple stuff: me in my backyard, me on my couch, etc. Kids always want videos and families who know what I do often want an alternative to the aggressive, rapid-cut, high-volume stuff that’s most easy to find. A guy in the backyard strumming and singing is a relief for many parents I’ve talked to – especially ones with kids on the autism spectrum or with other special needs for whom high-intensity programming can be frightening, anxiety-causing. I’m really creating stuff specifically for kids I know, talking to them as I would in my classes and singalongs; not trying to create a product, just communicate in a very simple way families who like what I do.
AF: Educating children is your passion. You now have a series of video classes for educators. Can you give us an idea of what those classes are and why teachers should be lining up (virtually that is) to take them?
LHM: These classes are a chance for people to have the workshop experience that I offer in my in-school residencies, home classes, and private lessons virtually. I’ve written songs with classes remotely and done many online interactions from YouTube videos to live streaming on Facebook and elsewhere – I think I’ve figured out how to make that somewhat unnatural conversation work, how to make it the next best thing to being in person. Those online classes on CILC are new and I’m excited for the chance to connect with new audiences I can’t reach physically.
AF: Why should music be an integral part of teaching children?
LHM: Music becomes a part of us without us having to work at it. When kids hear songs of any kind – not just so-called “educational” songs like the Deedle Deedle Dees do – the compositions cause physical reactions in our brains and entire bodies. I’m not saying this based on scientific studies I’ve read (although there are many that say it). I’m relating my own experience with music and what I’ve observed in my many students and clients. I’ve found these physical changes especially obvious in folks in facilities who are limited in their movements due to disability or illness because the alteration in their posture, facial expression, breathing, etc are so marked, you can see entire different people emerge as they interact with the music. It’s magic and it’s why learning is so enhanced by music – it changes the patterns of your body and brain without you having to work at it. Memory, comprehension, all the skills that necessary for academic success are… massaged? Is that a good word for it? Massaged by music? Gently loosened up and made more adaptable.
AF: How can parents get kids excited about history from Day 1?
LHM: I’ve always been a big advocate of sharing the history we walk through each day, the stories of places where we live now. As I walk around cities and visit places around the country and the world with my kids, it’s never passive viewing, photo-taking and audio tours and tourism, it’s constant conversations about where we are and who else lived life there. I was recently in Paris with my kids and of course nearly every block is brimming with past lives, things to share. My kids are 10 and 13 so they need stuff they think is cool in order to really engage. The French Revolution has endless gory details kids can get excited about but then once they’re listening you can talk about more essential things – the fact that the people decided to get rid of an absolute monarchy, the system which had controlled Europe for so long. They might not be interested in that initially, but once they’re hooked, you can pour in the info. For younger kids, I think details about nature and animals often help, and physical activity. Actually walking the same walk a historic person took for example (or part of it).
AF: What’s on the horizon for you and The Deedle Deedle Dees?
LHM: We have an album’s worth of material we’re trying to figure out how to release. Maybe as a traditional album this fall. But before that we have a few singles and videos we’re going to put out. The first one, “Voting with my Mom,” will come out the first week of September. It’s a personal memoir of trips to the poll with my mother and my childhood dreams of maybe running for office myself one day. For the video we had a few local Brooklyn families set up their own polling where topics like “Blueberries or Cheese” were voted on. This collection of songs is a protest album of sorts. There’s a song called “We Are All Mothers” that muses on the ways that everyone is the material of all the women – and mother figures of all sorts – who have cared for us throughout our lives. There’s this raucous tune “My Brain is a Fist” that starts by encouraging coexistence of different beliefs then ends with me and a chorus of kids and adults shouting “My brain is a fist! I will resist!” It’s pretty raw and I’m not sure how it fits into the family music world. But it was what I wanted to write.
I’m performing a lot this upcoming year – both leading the Dees and doing solo and other ensemble stuff. One fun thing coming up in October is the Family Party at the American Museum of Natural History. I’ll be leading a wandering trio (me and two musicians with whom I do jazz gigs) throughout the museum for an evening member event, singing tunes themed directly and tangentially to the location, like “John Muir,” “I Remember You, Lucy” (about the pre-human skeleton the museum has a replica of), “Marie Curie,” “Teddy Days” (about Teddy Roosevelt), “Growl Growl” (about the Alaskan flag and the constellation bear who decorates it), and many others.
AF: What is your favorite part of performing for children?
LHM: Children are honest and they come to events and classes and other programs looking for a real connection, an interaction with other kids and with adults where they feel seen and heard. They might be excited to see characters from movies skating around in some spectacle or be wowed by a big expensive show, sure, but the aggressively impressive stuff is more for the parents than the kids in my opinion. Kids like to roll around on the ground and talk about poop and make up outlandish creatures and scenarios. They like to talk and have people respond to what they actually said, not just nod and smile and treat them like they’re cute. I love entering their world and discovering what they’ll respond to – it’s different with each audience so I like to stay loose with my set lists, be ready to adapt to whatever a particular audience is giving me. I guess my favorite part is this improvisation, our performance with each other.