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Ellis Paul

The Hero In You - No Depression Review

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Friday, March 2, 2012

It has been nearly a year since I watched Ellis Paul perform at Wilde Auditorium.   During a brief intermission his eyes scanned the audience, settling on a family of four that included two young sons.  Ellis offered to perform a song from his 2008 award winning family album, Dragonfly Races.  "Oh no,” said the mother, “they like the real stuff.”  There was a gentle indignation in his voice as Paul replied, “My children’s songs are the real stuff.”

And so they are.  Ellis Paul’s newly released family album, The Hero in You , is a collection of real songs about real people and their true stories from United States history. (January 2012, Black Wolf Records)  The lives of thirteen American heroes are set to music and presented with an audible sense of wonder and pride in their individual accomplishments.  The title track celebrates the potential hero in each of us.

The songs describe a diverse and inclusive group of heroes with respect to race, gender and occupation.  Many of those selected led highly creative lives; they were dancers, musicians, artists or inventors.  Some were the first or the best at what they did.  All left a certain mark on American history, but not all are famous.  Augustus Jackson was an African American chef in the 1820′s White House who left Washington, D.C. a free man, headed for his hometown of Philadelphia.  There he became one of the first successful African American businessmen, improving methods for the manufacture of ice cream, and creating new flavors.

Mr. Jackson’s song is as sweet as ice cream on a sultry summer day, written with a Caribbean lilt and delivered as an invitation to “fill up a spoon at Jackson’s ice cream bar”.  Each of the songs on this disc has been carefully researched and constructed; the content is historically relevant and artistically rich.  Rosa Parks is remembered as the woman who would “sit down to stand up” for her rights on the city bus.  The song begins with a nod to the children’s song “the wheels on the bus, they go round and round”, and throughout the subtle, near spiritual emotion of the verse that simple phrase is repeated in the background, sung as a round.  Ben Franklin is remembered for his many inventions and pithy phrases.  Franklin built the armonica, a musical instrument played by touching the edges of spinning glass with dampened fingers.  Mr. Franklin’s song features the pleasing sounds created by blowing into glass bottles.  The song also bows to Ellis’ trademark humor.  A favorite line: “You said ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’, so they put you on the hundred dollar bill!”

There are history lessons in these songs, but there are also life lessons.  Nellie Bly was an investigative journalist who traveled the world and reported on politics and social welfare at a time when female writers were relegated to the fashion page.  Nellie’s song tells children to try, that “The world could be yours if you try, if you try.”  A song about Georgia O’Keeffe encourages us to create because “No one can see the world through your eyes, unless you paint it, unless you write it…”  Thomas Edison’s tune urges action, “..when you get an idea, let’s make a deal, to be like Edison and make it real.”  That’s right; the idea is just the beginning.  You have to make it happen.

Ellis Paul’s creativity is on display throughout The Hero in You.  He wrote or co-wrote all fourteen songs.  With producer Flynn, he is responsible for the unique sounds and touches that color and bring each song to life, from the vocalized train in Woody Guthrie’s song, to the radio announcer in Jackie Robinson’s, and to the children’s voices (including Ellis’ own daughters) that harmonize on several of the songs. Ellis is also responsible for the beautiful artwork found in the album insert where the lyrics and a short biography of each historical figure are illustrated by his original drawings.

Like the parent who erred in Hartford, I had assumed that “family” album was a euphemism for “children’s”.  It is not.  The Hero in You will be enjoyed by the entire family.  While some songs clearly cater to younger school age children, the hip hop styling and extended, more contemporary instrumentals of “Martha Graham”, for example, may appeal to an older student or adult.  There are also tunes like “Chief Joseph” that share the smooth, melodic folk styling and more abstract lyricism of Ellis’ adult albums.  There are songs here for every family member; the tune that the youngest skips will be the one his father has on replay.

The Hero in You is an extraordinary album that celebrates the achievements of notable Americans, and recognizes the hero that lives in every child.  

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