Monday, November 2, 2009

Sweethearts of Rhythm Marilyn Nelson Jerry Pinkney

Sweethearts of Rhythm by Marilyn Nelson illus by Jerry Pinkney
When I read Nelson's and Pinkney's bios, listing honors and awards received, I was tempted to go SNL old school because I am not worthy. Nelson and Pinkney working together is a beautiful thing.

This is the story of the greatest all-girl swing band in the world. It was the 1940's, men were fighting in the war. Women musicians kept the music going. The Sweethearts of Rhythm was the first integrated all women swing band in the world. When formed in 1937 the band includes a Chinese saxophonist, a Hawaiian trumpeter and a Mexican clarinetist, along with Black musicians. In 1943, White musicians join the band for the first time. ( I knew none of this before I read this biography. All this information comes from the history timeline of Sweethearts of Rhythm and the authors notes, included in the back )

I love Nelson's poetic style. After reading this I've realized it pointless trying to guess how Nelson will decide to tell a story. All you can do is wait for it, appreciate and say thank you. I never would have guessed Nelson would use the instruments to tell the story of the lady musicians who once played them.

It all begins with a tenor saxophone in a pawnshop. The tenor wails about its glory years in an all girl band. Three trombones are the first to respond. Soon all the instruments are sharing stories of the good old days.

The poems build upon each other to tell a complete story. It's 1940 the war is on and Jim Crow was in place, music is a necessary distraction. Nelson includes two guitars that question the all girl swing band importance.

The Hard Luck Blues (guitar)

From a battered, sticker-plastered case
arose a muffled chord
"So the Sweethearts gig was glorious,
but please, don't go overboard.

My hoboing days were glorious, too:
when I rambled, riding the rails,
playing ballads and talking blues
in boxcars and roadside camps, in jails.

"Sure, you must have had fun in the girls' swing band
But what could that dance music say
To the farmers who'd recently seen their land dry to dust, and blow away?

"I was still playing The Hard Luck Blues
while you watched people jitterbug.
That you were swinging is not a sufficient excuse.
Denial is a powerful drug.

The counter views added a wonderful new level,an instrumental verbal chase. I found these give and takes very fitting for a musical biography.

Pinkney's illustrations are wow. I appreciated the art that much more after reading the artist notes. Nelson and Pinkney have come together to tell the story of a group of women who refused to let their gender, racism or anything else stop them from doing what they loved.

I loved Sweethearts of Rhythm. This is definitely a picture book biography that is not just for young readers. Music lovers of all ages will love this. Ages 8up

Mariyln Nelson's School Library Journal interview about Sweethearts of Rhythm. Also a chance to check out some of Jerry Pinknwy's wonderful illustrations.

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