Migrant Kids Singing Folk Songs from Outer Space

Posted on September 30th, 2015   Comments

Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the Littlest Rebel

Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the Littlest Rebel

If the Littlest Rebel, the 1935 Shirley Temple film were made today, it might be called The Littlest Rebel Alliance and set not during the Civil War, but in a Galaxy Far Far Away. Princess Shur-Lee’s rendition of “Polly Wolly Doodle” might not be about moo cows and watermelons but quasars and super massive black holes instead.

In reality, it was me singing the astronomy version of the song, not Princess Shur-Li in a Galaxy Far Far Away and Long Ago, but with migrant kids in Kern County last June. Gita and I spend most of every June there in Bakersfield constructing art and music programs for the Department of Migrant Education. Our job is always to supplement an overall science-based summer school curriculum with the arts. This summer’s theme was the Solar System.

I was able to nab Fred Perez, my assistant from the summer of 2014, from the stable of program assistants. With my hastily assembled repertoire of Folk Songs from Outer Space, we soon hit the road in a van stuffed with other assistants and teachers. Bigger than the nation of Belgium, Kern is a Southern California county of vast desert, rugged mountains and the agricultural valleys which attract a great many migrant workers and their families.

“Polly Wolly Doodle” (trad/DNL) from Ballads and Blues [in production]


with Fred Perez and students

with Fred Perez and students

Once in the classroom, Fred, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Hip Hop and Rap, would exuberantly sing “Hey, Mr. Spaceman,” “My Family Went a Hunting” and “Polly Wolly Doodle” with me; play info-taining games with the kids and tell them about the North Star and about the crazy lady who keeps the world, the sun and the moon in different little boxes in her room. It was one of the most enjoyable Migrant Summer programs I can recall — a program from which one of the songs, “Polly Wolly Doodle,” seems to be carrying on on it’s own. Perhaps it will redeem its dubious origins in the Minstrel Show.

We were happy to announce that the next United States Poet Laureate will be Juan Felipe Herrera. I explained how Herrera and his parents, as campañeros, worked the fields of Fresno and Kern counties. It didn’t take long for them to realize he had been a “migrant kid” just like them. The significance of the position he will hold this October struck more than a few of them.He will be the first Latino to hold a post which has been held by Robert Frost, Stephen Spender and Rita Dove. Herrera’s most recent book of poetry is Half the World in Light. He is 66.

Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera.

Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera.