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A Conversation With Frank Mcgee Author Of A Song For The World: The Amazing Story Of The Colwell Brothers And Herb Allen: Musical Diplomats
Today, Norm Goldman, Publisher & Editor of http://www.Bookpleasures.com, is excited have as his guest Frank McGee, author of A Song for the World: The Amazing Story of the Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen: Musical Diplomats. Frank has built a distinguished career as a writer and journalist over half a century. In the tumultuous 1960s he covered stories as far a field as Brazil, Indonesia, and Viet Nam. As managing editor of Pace magazine, a contemporary of Life, Look, and Holiday, he worked with thought leaders from around the world. Norm: Will you share a little bit about A Song for the World: The Amazing Story of the Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen: Musical Diplomats with us? Frank: Glad to Norm. This is a book about the power of music. It tells the story of four musicians, The Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen. The Colwells were already country and western instrumental and singing stars in their teens, on TV and national radio in the Tex Williams shows that originated at Knott?s Berry Farm, the first theme park in America. They were the youngest group under contract with a major label, Columbia Records. Herb Allen of Seattle, a true music prodigy, conducted the Seattle Baby Orchestra at age four. He was a xylophone maestro performing weekly on radio from age five to sixteen, a student of classical piano scheduled to enter Oberlin School of Music, and in high school, conductor of his own dance band, ?Herbie Allen and his Orchestra.? In their teens these four musicians made a choice that startled everyone who knew them: they committed their lives to public service. The remarkable story of how this happened, and what their decisions led to, is told in the book. Here?s a quick rundown: The Colwells went on to perform in 37 languages and dialects, including songs written with locals in the scores of countries they visited. They sang in African villages, the Diet of Japan, and Carnegie Hall. They worked for a full year in the Congo as the country gained independence, lived through revolution and invasion, and made 400 broadcasts on Radio Congo (there?s a quite dramatic chapter, if I may be permitted to say so, about that tumultuous year). They walked through Indian villages with Gandhi?s disciple Vinoba Bhave seeking land for landless peasants. The Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen began collaborating from their first meeting in Switzerland in 1953. In 1965 they were the musical founders of Up with People, and a decade later literally invented the modern Super Bowl Halftime Show format during America?s Bicentennial Year, 1976. They performed in three more Super Bowl shows, more times than anyone else on record. That?s how many people came to know of them: through television audiences of 90 million at those games. In 1978, at the end of Mao?s Cultural Revolution, their Up with People cast was the first performing company to visit China. And in 1988, before the Berlin Wall came down, the first in the Soviet Union, where they returned three more times. There?s lots to tell. Norm: What motivated you to write your book and whom do you think will benefit from reading it? What are your hopes for this book? Frank: The seed was planted in 2003. At a gathering of longtime friends a prosecuting attorney from California told us about terrible things youth in her city were facing. ?There ought to be a book about what the Colwells and Herb have done,? she declared. That resonated instantly with all of us. We knew the adventures of these amazing musicians were not only history making but topical. Of course I only realized after the research just how profound the story was, an intensely relevant story of courage, and doing something of value with your life. Who will benefit from reading the book? I think what a great English headmaster said in 1862 would answer that: ?Music is the only thing which all nations, all ages, all ranks, and both sexes do equally well. It is sooner or later the great world bond.? Music has the power to connect people whether they?re musicians or not. Some read the book as an adventure story, not a Harry Potter sort of one of course, but a story from real life that also intrigues the imagination. Here are my hopes for the book. The Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen have been called musical diplomats. Doors have opened to them wherever they?ve gone, because they?ve gone to listen and to learn, to appreciate instead of compare. That sort of diplomacy is needed in the polarized environment of our times. Many NGOs operate on that basis. But if official diplomacy also did, think what a giant step that would be toward building a better world. That?s why I hope to see this book utilized by schools and universities that train public servants and candidates for Foreign Service. Norm: Can you explain some of your research techniques, and how you found sources for your book? Frank: With this book I was really lucky. The families of these guys kept the letters and photos they?d received from their globetrotting sons. Among hundreds of letters were the personal stories of the struggles they?d faced operating for years in crisis areas around the world, of the sheer grit and sacrifice involved. Then when it got out that a book was in the works, people from other countries began sending photos and documents they?d squirreled away about some historic event. I received emails, letters, photos, publications, and record albums from across the world, Zurich to Anchorage, London to Cape Town, Hollywood to Helsinki. And of course the color of the story and much of the dialogue developed through hours of interviews with the artists, and with music industry people with whom they?ve worked. Norm: What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your book? How did you overcome these challenges? Frank: I?ll mention just a couple. The first challenge shouldn?t have existed: biographers should portray their subjects with complete objectivity; I was a journalist long before I put on the hat of ?author? and well aware of that. As the story unfolded though, with its unparalled global connections, and I became increasingly impacted by the lives and work of these four musicians, I needed to be certain that I let the story speak for itself. They?ve never made claims, and neither should I. The other challenge turned into a very great plus. Initially I wanted the book to include story-telling pictures throughout, as we had unearthed great photography from around the world. But an important New York publishing company we were in contract negotiations with made it a condition that they would control the design and format, much to my unhappiness. That contract was not finalized, fortunately, and Many Roads Publishing in Santa Barbara, California produced a picture-rich design and format that greatly enhances the effectiveness of the book. Norm: What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer and journalist? Frank: Well, you?ve probably heard the old saying: ?There comes a time in the life of every decision when it?s got to be made.? I translate that to mean that if you?re a writer and journalist you need deadlines. I?ve never relished them, something to do with my temperament I suppose, but it?s obvious that until there?s a deadline, nothing happens. But deadlines are insignificant compared to the satisfaction, intense at times, of creating something that you know has significance and value. I?m very lucky to be in this profession. I became a photographer in Brazil, moved on to creating magazine photo essays, and then to editing, writing, and publishing. Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be? Frank: I definitely feel writers owe something to readers. Some books have been hinges on which doors of enlightenment have opened. Whatever we read remains forever in the mental landscape of our lives. Whether the contribution grows or withers is up to each individual, but putting it there in the first place is a considerable responsibility, I would say. Norm: As a follow up, what does it mean to tell the truth? And what does it mean to tell stories in a work of non-fiction? Frank: What a great question, Norm! A wise family friend once told us of an exchange she?d had with her professor at Vassar College. Apparently she had submitted a paper in which she?d stated some opinion as fact. So her professor asked her, ?And what else is also true?? The topic of truth has filled countless volumes and will fill countless more. What is truth to one might seem lies to another. But if writers portray what they sincerely believe, we should regard their writing as ethical, even if we are diametrically opposed to what they?re saying. Sounds like we?re describing the religious and political divides of the world here, doesn?t it? About stories, I think they can make non-fiction immensely readable. My wife Helen, who was an English major, has insisted for years that history should be taught through literature; it would be better absorbed and understood. Currently we?ve been reading historical novels, and I?ve become intrigued with things I never thought I?d care about, as I tended to fall asleep in history class. In A Song for the World, I?ve been fortunate, as there was a wealth of first person information in the letters retained and in the interviews. Norm: In the past few years or so have you seen any changes in the way publishers publish and/or distribute books? Are there any emerging trends developing? Frank: Many changes, Norm, and all of them contributing to the accessibility of information. Conventional publishing channels still run the Olympic games for writers, but the initial selection process can overlook significant manuscripts. A friend recently sent me an article that appeared in The Guardian. It seems that a writer, puzzled by continuing rejections of his masterpiece, submitted to eight major publishers the first chapters, with surnames and locations only slightly modified, of several Jane Austin novels. He received seven rejections, with standard not the type of book for us explanation and keep writing and good luck best wishes. Only one responder mentioned the plagiarism, which he seemed to find amusing. I think writers, now as always, need to catch the attention and spark the enthusiasm of someone who will carry the writer?s banner, and will wave it where it can be seen. You?ve heard the axiom: ?You can promote anyone but yourself.? But the writer may have to work to find that third person, whether enthusiast, agent, or publisher. Publishers have long probed distribution channels and are expert at exploiting book clubs, bestseller lists, teacher assignments, library recommendations and more. Of course now the apparently limitless possibilities of the digital world are changing everything from bottom to top. Norm: What do you think of the new Internet market for writers? Frank: Well just look at us, Norm. Here we are having this conversation online! Our kids think it?s perfectly natural, and it is today, but I grew up before you could say something like that, and I still find it pretty amazing. Someone might read your interview tomorrow in Berlin, or Bangkok, or Budapest. Of course A Song for the World is all about that, isn?t it? Connecting? Norm: Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered and what is next for Frank McGee? Frank: Most of all I hope a lot of people will read the book, because what these musicians have done offers real hope for the future. There?s an engaging glimpse of the story at http://www.asongfortheworld.com, and the book can be purchased there. We?re in the midst of a book tour now and there is information about that on the website. Special appearances by the Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen in connection with the tour have caused a buzz in cities across the country. Next for me is a novel I was working on and set aside to write A Song for the World. I?ll be expecting a bidding war for the publishing rights for that, of course. Many thanks for inviting me today, Norm.