Friday, September 14, 2007

Book Review: A Song for the World

Author: Frank McGee
Publisher: Many Roads Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-9787948-0-4

Date: January 18, 1974
Place: Miami, Florida – Orange Bowl
Event: Super Bowl X

Notwithstanding the belief of many residents of Pittsburgh, the Steelers 21-17 win over the Cowboys may not be the most memorable aspect of Super Bowl X. Those same residents undoubtedly know that Super Bowl X is significant in the history of mass entertainment because it marks the first time that a half-time show featured a musical extravaganza rather than a marching band show. This historical performance featured 400 performers (from nine casts, forty US states and 17 countries) that were involved in a youth service program called Up with People.

Up with People had begun nearly a decade earlier when the United States was enduring political and social upheaval. American youth were struggling to reconcile their idealism with the realities of living in a country engaged in a Cold War with the USSR and a hot war in Vietnam. Some youth expressed their angst with drugs and sex. Some burned cities. Others, like members of Up with People, used their energies and talents to encourage people and build communities.

A Song for the World tells the story of Up with People’s beginnings and some of its diplomatic achievements. As fascinating as this story is, however, it is only one segment of the stories of the Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen. Those stories open in the 1940s.

The Colwell Brothers, Steve, Paul and Ralph, formed a musical group when they were aged 14, 12 and 10, respectively. They played on Saturday morning radio shows and at a variety of fairs and civic events. As they matured, their musical style evolved from western to bluegrass to country to folk. Within a few years, they had cut several records and signed some lucrative contracts. Just as they were poised to rise to the next level as professional entertainers, however, they became involved with a group called Moral Re-Armament (MRA). MRA’s aim was to promote world peace and progressive social change. The Colwells adopted MRA’s mission as their own, and began touring the world as musical ambassadors. Ralph completed his high school education via a correspondence course with the University of Nebraska.

Meanwhile, as the Colwells continued honing their skills, Herb Allen, a world-class xylophonist, had already begun touring post-war Europe under the auspices of MRA. He and the Colwells eventually joined forces in 1953 and spent the next eleven years touring Europe, Asia and Africa. They performed for princes, presidents, prime ministers and peasants. They composed and performed folk songs in dozens of languages. They took shelter during African wars of independence and befriended Cypriot guerrillas. And they did not return to the United States until 1964.

Within a few months of their return to the United States, the Colwells and Allen began touring college campuses. In conjunction with dozens of other performers from several countries, the foursome put together a variety show called Sing Out ’65. One of the highlights of the show was a new song, “Up with People,” which became a favorite across the USA. Within twelve months of the 1965 debut performance, three casts were performing Sing Outs in venues from Washington, DC to New York City to Los Angeles to Tokyo to Seoul and beyond. At times, five separate casts were required to respond to all of the invitations. The group was renamed and incorporated as Up with People in 1968. In 1978 an Up with People cast spread messages of hope and goodwill to China. In 1988, the group broke down another international and political barrier in a tour of Russia.

In the midst of all of this activity, Allen and the Colwells had married and begun raising families. They are now senior citizens, and Up with People, which was restructured in 2005 continues to keep their mission alive.

The author of this book, Frank McGee, has compiled a wealth of information from interviews, letters and other documents. He opens each chapter with lyrics from songs written by the Colwells and Allen, and includes dozens of photos documenting their travels. Even though the story moves at a brisk pace and is riveting at points, McGee relies too heavily on quoted material. At times, the reader forgets who is narrating a particular part of the story. It would have been nice to hear more of McGee’s voice and less of, for example, Paul Colwell’s. Another shortcoming of the book is that McGee writes pages at a time without mentioning Allen. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that he is also involved in the action; the reader can’t help wondering why he is featured at all.

Perhaps the most confounding characteristic of the book is that the reader gets little sense of the personalities of the subjects. We read snippets of correspondence and hear excerpts from interviews, but we get little insight into the growth of men who left home and country in their teens and returned a decade later as young men. How often did they see their families? Did they date? Did they go to movies? What were their political convictions? The book focuses primarily on the Colwells and Allen’s public personas and barely touches on their personal lives. This imbalance becomes strikingly clear when the reader finally encounters the stories of their courtships and marriages in one brief chapter at the end of the book. The story would have been more engrossing if these details, and others like them, had been integrated into the heart of the narrative rather than tacked onto the end of it. Overall, A Song for the World tells an interesting story, but it is not compelling biography. The book will appeal primarily to readers interested in American folk music and mid-twentieth century youth movements.