Full name, William Harley; son of Max (a lawyer) and Ruth (a writer of children's literature) Harley; married; wife's name, Deborah Block; children: Noah, Dylan. Education: Degree in religious studies from Hamilton College (Clinton, NY). Addresses: Office-- Round River Productions, 301 Jacob St., Seekonk, MA 02771.
Family entertainer Bill Harley has won acclaim across the United States for his blend of song and story that entertains adults and children alike. Described as the Mark Twain of contemporary children's music, Harley has performed as a soloist or with his band the Troublemakers at schools, coffee houses, festivals, and on the theater stage since 1980, logging over two hundred shows per year. To quote Child Magazine, "There are a lot of performing artists out there singing, stomping, and storytelling their way into kids' audio cassette players. But few do it with as much spirit and success as Bill Harley."
Born William Harley, the entertainer is the middle of three sons of Max Harley, a lawyer, and Ruth Harley, a children's literature writer. During his childhood, Bill took piano lessons and wrote stories. After moving to the East Coast during his high school years, Harley became interested in folk music and began playing the guitar and banjo. He later attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where he majored in religious studies. Following his graduation, Harley worked as a waiter, directed programs in inner city and rural schools to help children, parents, and teachers to deal effectively with conflict and violence in their lives, and played in coffee houses and small clubs.
In 1980 Harley and his wife, Deborah Block, moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where Block had a job at Brown University. Harley and a friend started the Learning Connection, a community-based learning program that grew to include hundreds of courses. About that time, Harley also founded a storytelling group called the Spellbinders. Within a short time Harley--a man of medium height, bushy mustache, thinning hair, and large eyes--found himself performing more and more at elementary schools.
He incorporated a wide variety of musical forms and traditions (reggae, doo-wop, jazz) into his programs, made up of songs and stories embellished with silly voices, tone inflections, body language, sound effects, and gestures. Harley makes up his own stories and draws on folk literature, Indian legend, books, and the works of other storytellers. He engages the youngsters in sing-alongs, fill-in-the-blanks, and question-and-answers, thus making his entertainment into a two-way event. Before adding stories to his repertoire, Harley often tries them out on his sons Noah and Dylan.
In 1984 Harley and Block took out a second mortgage on their house in Seekonk, Massachusetts, to found Round River Records and cut Harley's first album-- Monsters in the Bathroom . The album's success encouraged him to try evening family concerts, which proved popular because Harley's music speaks to both children and adults. Harley told Contemporary Musicians: "I perform to remind everyone, including myself, that regardless of where we come from or how old we are or what we think, we have a great deal in common--and the things we don't have in common, the things that make each one of us unique, are things worth celebrating. I like family audiences, and I've found that material that works, really works, for kids, also works for adults--for the obvious reasons: we're all people and adults remember growing up. And if they don't remember, I remind them."
Many of Harley's nine albums, which are geared to children of grade school age, have been award-winners because he strives to understand children's points of view. Harley borrows Fred Roger's (celebrated host of TV's Mr. Roger's Neighborhood ) term "emotional archaeology" when referring to what he attempts to do in getting in touch with his own childhood experiences. "A lot of my writing is trying to go back and touch the kid within me, always hoping that the kid is still there," Harley told Danny McCue of the Long Island Parenting News.
The title song from Fifty Ways to Fool Your Mother lists in rap fashion fifty excuses to get out of going to school. In You're in Trouble 's "Dad Threw the TV Out the Window" Harley tells kids that they can live without the television; in "No School Today" he sings the praises of a snow day; and in the title song he recounts what happens when a young boy comes home from school to find a plate of cookies with the note "Don't touch! These are for dessert."
Harley described his songwriting approach to Howard Scott in the Providence Sunday Journal Magazine: "Sometimes I come up with an emotion, and hunt for a way to express the feeling. Other times, I have an idea or image in mind. Often, I'll carry the thought in my head for a while. Then I'll sit down and begin writing. I don't always get it the first time. The ending to 'Dad Threw the TV Out the Window,' where the kid joyously throws his father's television out the window took me a year to come up with."
Harley has expressed his creativity in a number of different ways. He recorded a collection of folk songs for adults ( Coyote ), and with songwriter/storyteller Peter Alsop he created a collection of songs about serious illness and hospitals ( Peter and Bill in the Hospital ). In 1991, in conjunction with WGBH-Radio in Boston, he produced I'm Gonna Let It Shine: A Gathering of Voices for Freedom, a collection of freedom songs featuring original voices of the Civil Rights Movement and nationally recognized singer/activists, among others. Harley has also written and narrated a series of filmstrips for Learning Tree Films and has written a theater piece.
by Jeanne M. Lesinski
Bill Harley's Career
Took piano lessons during childhood, played guitar and banjo in high school; following college, worked as a waiter and as a program director leading seminars on dealing with conflict and violence; co-founded the Learning Connection (a community based learning program); founder of the Spellbinders (a storytelling group); performed in coffee houses, schools, festivals, and small clubs as a soloist and as a member of group the Troublemakers, 1980--; co-founded (with Block) Round River Records, 1984; recording artist and producer, 1984--, albums include Monsters in the Bathroom, Fifty Ways to Fool Your Mother, and Grownups are Strange. Composer of numerous songs.
- On Round River Records
- Monsters in the Bathroom 1984.
- Fifty Ways to Fool Your Mother 1986.
- Dinosaurs Never Say Please and Other Stories 1987.
- Cool in School: Tales from 6th Grade 1987.
- Coyote 1988.
- Peter and Bill in the Hospital (with Peter Alsop), 1988.
- You're in Trouble 1988.
- Grownups Are Strange 1990.
- Come on Out and Play 1990.
- American Bookseller, August 1990.
- Booklist, January 15, 1990.
- Child Magazine, April 1991.
- Christian Science Monitor, February 7, 1986.
- Entertainment Weekly, July 6, 1990; October 19, 1990.
- Heartsong Review, Fall 1990/Winter 1991.
- Long Island Parenting News, March 1991.
- Los Angeles Times, January 3, 1991.
- MetroKids (Philadelphia), March 1991.
- The National Storytelling Journal, Summer 1986.
- Providence Journal, April 20, 1989; November 13, 1990; December 27, 1990; April 14, 1991.
- Providence Sunday Journal Magazine, March 11, 1990.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 4, 1989.
- Sun Chronicle (North Attleboro, MA), April 20, 1989.