A Selection Of Songs For The Extraordinary
Michael Hearst, a founding member of the group One Ring Zero, and whose previous projects include Songs For Unusual Creaturesand Songs For Ice Cream Trucks, has released another album of the same theme.
Songs For Extraordinary People, a companion to his 2015 book Extraordinary People, features songs for — well, extraordinary people who may not have had a song until now. Some of the subjects are well known: Harry Houdini, Billie Jean King and Jane Goodall. Then there's a song for a man called Larry Walters, or "Lawnchair Larry," who, in 1982, strapped 45 helium balloons to a piece of outdoor furniture and floated into the sky.
In conversation with NPR's Scott Simon, Hearst tells the story of Walters and the other people that made the record including a French female pirate, the first African American woman mail courier, and America's first daredevil. Hear the radio story at the audio link and read on for an edited excerpt.
Please remind us of what happened to Larry Walters after he drifted into space. He was packing a BB gun right?
Well, Larry brought a BB gun along with him on the flight for a good reason and that was to shoot the balloons so that he could eventually descend. He did land safely. One of my favorite things that I learned though...
He landed safely ? He got tied up in electric cables.
I should say he survived[laughs]. Maybe landed safely is an overstatement. They were following him and saw where he was going to get tied up in electric cables and cut off the power, thankfully. But one of my favorite things that I learned about Larry Walters was, apparently a United Airlines pilot radioed to the tower to say he had just passed a man in a lawn chair with a BB gun at 16,000 feet. So yes, the gun was used to shoot the balloons so that he could eventually descend.
Looking at the cast of characters you have chosen to sing about; Jane Goodall, Harry Houdini, Billie Jean King, Marie Curie, Evel Knievel, you don't often hear these names mentioned in the same breath. Why do these people have places on this album?
Well, the idea for writing songs for extraordinary people opened it up to a lot of different categories, so I had to think about who I wanted to include and curate this project. So there's humanitarians, artists, activists, daredevils, survivors, criminals. One thing I wanted to make sure people understood was that extraordinary does not necessarily mean role model. Especially since this works so nicely as a children's record, I don't want kids to be on motorcycles jumping 14 greyhound buses. But really, it was just who I thought were interesting people to write music about.
There's Roy Sullivan, who was struck by lightning seven times, right?
Roy Sullivan was not extraordinary for what he did as much as what happened to him. He had the misfortune of being struck by lightning seven times. Granted, he was a park ranger in Virginia and he was outside. His wife even got struck one time.
And there's Jeanne de Clisson, a French pirate.
I thought it'd be fun to include a female pirate and I knew there must be a female pirate out there. So I did some research and, sure enough, there was a Jeanne de Clisson, a French female pirate from the 1400's, who, to avenge her late husband, bought three ships, painted them black and red and sailed the English channel hunting down every French boat she could find.
And there's Stagecoach Mary or Mary Fields. Who was she?
She's fascinating. She was the first African American woman to be employed as a mail courier in the United States. But she was also six feet tall, weighed 200 pounds, and was one tough cookie. She carried a gun around with her, smoked cigars. She started off in an orphanage and eventually opened a restaurant, which failed because she pretty much gave everything away for free. And then [she] became this mail delivery person. Throughout the course of this, she became so beloved that even though women were not allowed in pub and saloons, Stagecoach Mary was granted access.
And, finally, Sam Patch, what did he do?
Sam Patch was really America's first daredevil. He became famous by jumping into the water around waterfalls and off bridges and Niagara Falls and ultimately met his match at Genesee Falls. So I thought it would be fun to write a short little song about this daredevil and have some fiddle and banjo and Sam Patch!
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