San Francisco Chronicle
She's fighting illiteracy with song
Dave Ford, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, March 8, 2002
San Francisco singer-songwriter Deborah Pardes long ago made the connection between music and literature. Her 1997 song "7th Step" was inspired by "Angela's Ashes," Frank McCourt's story of his hardscrabble Irish childhood.
But it wasn't until Pardes performed the song two years ago on the KALW-FM show "West Coast Live" that she saw how music might help the 44 million literacy-challenged Americans for whom literature is an unattainable luxury, and for whom even basics such as filling out job applications or DMV forms are shame-inducing impossibilities.
After Pardes' performance, the radio station received a number of e-mails requesting information about the book.
"That was a tip-off for me," Pardes says. "The idea for movie trailers came up. I thought: We need trailers for books for this to come alive."
Now, Pardes has released "Songs Inspired by Literature -- Chapter One," a 16-song benefit CD featuring tracks by Bruce Springsteen, Aimee Mann, Suzanne Vega and a host of lesser-known -- but no less talented -- songwriters. All the songs were inspired by plays, poems, short stories or novels.
The lively-humored Pardes is the executive director -- and sole staffer -- of the SIBL Project (Songs Inspired by Literature), a San Francisco nonprofit organization she founded to promote adult literacy. She hopes "Chapter One" will raise both awareness about the issue and funding for local and national literacy programs.
"Of the United Nations countries, we rank 49th in terms of literacy," she says. "We call ourselves a superpower, but what's so super about having one in five Americans who can't engage as fully functioning citizens?"
On Tuesday, Pardes and three others on the CD will perform at a 2002 Literacy Campaign Launch and benefit CD release party at the San Francisco Center for the Book.
Soon after her "West Coast Live" experience, Pardes met with Randall Weaver,
co-chair of BAlit, a coalition of 25 library-based literacy programs from Sonoma to Santa Cruz counties. He also directs Project Read, the literacy program at the San Francisco Public Library. Pardes picked Weaver's brain about the challenges faced by illiterate or partially literate adults.
"She's very committed to understanding the people involved," Weaver says. "She's taken part in lots of events here at Project Read -- she doesn't just want to do it from the periphery."
Pardes spent the next year researching literacy. She says she learned that the roughly 4,000 adult literacy programs nationwide may fail to reach their intended audience because they decline to spend scarce funds on community outreach. Conversely, literacy-challenged adults often feel ashamed, and are therefore unlikely to seek help from those very programs.
One of those folks is Seema Hossain, a San Francisco mother from Bangladesh who has been learning reading, writing and computer skills through Project Read. She says that now she is able to write in her journal, write letters to friends -- even write recipes for her beloved cooking projects.
"It feels like I'm more powerful," she says.
Pardes' growing involvement in literacy efforts led to her meeting California State Librarian Kenneth Starr. In early 2001, Starr was able to fund Pardes' proposal for a literacy awareness campaign involving musicians to the tune of $93,000 in federal funds.
Carole Talan, a literacy specialist at the State Library of Califorinia, says that adult literacy is obviously essential to state libraries, which have offered literacy programs since 1984.
But, she says, campaigns aimed at children often overshadow the problems of adult literacy.
"Children are easier -- they're cute and they photograph well," Talan says. "Adults are harder. People think: They had their chance -- they should have (learned to read) when they were younger."
That's why Pardes devised the idea for a compilation CD aimed at adults. But to simply throw a dozen-and-a-half famous songs on a CD lacked spark. So she held a songwriting contest.
"We said: OK, songwriters, dedicate yourselves to your craft," she says with a laugh.
Announced last June on the group's Web site (www.siblproject.org) -- and closed on Sept. 7, World Literacy Day -- the contest, which was also listed on a huge number of songwriter Web sites, drew 357 submissions from 38 U.S. states and eight countries. Those were winnowed down to 30 by two club bookers and a musician Pardes had selected for the task.
Those final 30 songs went before a five-judge panel: poet and University of California at Berkeley Professor Al Young; novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard; San Francisco author and musician Kathi Goldmark; songwriter and musician Bonnie Hayes, and Chronicle book editor David Kipen.
San Francisco performer Jill Tracy took top honors among the contest's 10 winners. She used the $2,500 prize money to rerecord her 1998 song "Evil Night Together," inspired by Luc Sante's "Low Life," a social history of New York's Lower East Side in the 19th and early 20th centuries. She says that literate lyrics are rare -- and scorned by major record labels -- in today's fast-food pop music market.
"What's wrong with making a person think?" Tracy says. "I was inspired by songs growing up -- by Bowie, the Police -- that made me pull down the dictionary and look up a word. I loved that -- it really intrigued me about music."
There is, of course, the broader question of whether music can really shift lives -- or sway opinion. No less an expert than Bono, the U2 lead singer who has been dedicating himself to erasing developing nations' debt, told Time magazine recently that he's more interested in political negotiation than in changing minds through song. It's a sentiment that resonates with Pardes.
"I think a lot of the mistakes people make is that you just think people want to be moved and to cry," she says. "That's not really true. They want to be moved to action in the hard, cruel world that we live in."
And when that hard, cruel world gets to be too much, folks can curl up with a good book to explore humankind's truths -- provided, of course, that they can read, something Pardes clearly sees as an essential skill.
"Storytelling is so crucial to the survivial of our humanity," she says, "we have to continue to keep it above the radar and keep pushing it out to the masses."
-- For more information about the SIBL Project, and to purchase "Songs Inspired by Literature -- Chapter One" online, visit www.siblproject.org, or call (415) 553-3330.
-- Tax-deductible donations can be made online, or send a check to: The SIBL Project, 2601 Mariposa St., Second Floor, San Francisco, CA 94110.
-- The SIBL Project works in partnership with the following organizations dedicated to promoting literacy:
-- The California State Library (www.library.ca.gov)
-- BAlit -- Bay Area Literacy (literacynet.org/balit/)
-- Center for the Book in the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/cfbook)
-- KQED Education Network -- Adult Learning Project (www.kqed.org/ednet/)
-- Literacyworks (www.literacyworks.org)
-- California Council for the Humanities (www.calhum.org)
-- Book Sense (www.booksense.com) . -- Dave Ford