Speaking Clearly and Mr. Tolson


“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.”Oliver Wendell Holmes

As an educator, I’ve always found it very important to enunciate each and every sound for my students as I spoke and also to be a model for how they should speak. My students came from all over the world and I would put them in situations where, even though they didn’t know English, they were supplied the words in order to make them feel comfortable, have the new words roll around their tongues, feel good about themselves and shine. The classroom was our stage and we also used the auditorium stage as well as marching into other classrooms and performing. They loved performing, even if they just entered my classroom that day!  It was always an accepting learning environment. A few years ago, the movie, “The Great Debaters” came out starring Denzel Washington as the debate team’s coach, Melvin B. Tolson. Well, today is Mr. Tolson’s birthday and he was born in 1898 in Missouri.

In 1924, Melvin Tolson accepted a position as instructor of English and speech at Wiley College. While at Wiley, he taught, wrote poetry and novels, coached football and directed plays. In 1929, Tolson coached the Wiley debate teams, which established a ten-year winning streak. The Debate Team beat the larger black schools of its day like Tuskegee, Fisk and Howard.

 After a visit to Texas, Langston Hughes  wrote that “Melvin Tolson is the most famous Negro professor in the Southwest. Students all over that part of the world speak of him, revere him, remember him and love him.”

 According to James Farmer, Tolson’s drive to win, to eliminate risk, meant that his debaters were actors more than spontaneous thinkers. Tolson wrote all the speeches and the debate team memorized them. He drilled them on every gesture and every pause. Tolson was so skilled at the art of debating that he also figured out the arguments that opponents would make and wrote rebuttals for them-before the actual debate.

 In 1930, he pursued a master’s degree in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University; met V.F. Calverton, editor of Modern Quarterly; wrote “Cabbages and Caviar” column for The Washington Tribune and organized sharecroppers in South Texas.

 In 1935, he led the Wiley Debate Team to the national championship to defeat the University of Southern California before an audience of eleven hundred people. In 1947 he was appointed poet laureate of Liberia by President V. S. Tubman. He left Wiley to become professor of English and Drama at Langston University in Oklahoma.”Wiley College

Melvin B. Tolson was also a writer and a poet. I love his ode to Louis Armstrong:

                                      Old Satchmo’s

                   gravelly voice and tapping foot and crazy notes

                                      set my soul on fire.

                                            If I climbed

                         the seventy-seven steps of the Seventh

                 Heaven, Satchmo’s high C would carry me higher!

                      Are you hip to this, Harlem?  Are you hip?

                           On Judgment Day, Gabriel will say

                                  after he blows his horn:

                    “I’d be the greatest trumpeter in the Universe,

                         if old Satchmo had never been born!”






– Inscription on the grave of James Earl Chaney

This is a sad day in history; Anne Frank and her family were arrested in Amsterdam in 1944 and the bodies of slain Civil Rights workers Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were discovered in Mississippi in 1964. All 4 represent “those who are dead yet will live forever.” Growing up I read everything I could get my hands on when it came to Anne Frank and Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney and all things, everything that had to do with Civil Rights.

“I looked out of the open window, over a large area of Amsterdam, over all the roofs and on to the horizon, which was such a pale blue that it was hard to see the dividing line. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, thissunshine, these cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.’ These words were written by Anne Frank in February of 1944 – a young girl’s description of life from an attic overlooking Amsterdam.”Linda M. Woolf

One book that really stands out in my memory is We Are Not Afraid by Seth Cagin published in 1988 about the Mississippi murders of these fine young Freedom Summer volunteers. I remember seeing and listening to Andrew Goodman’s mom, Carolyn at rallies, on ‘BAI (NYC Pacifica Station). Carolyn Goodman never gave up, she pursued justice for all 3 young men. “At the trial of Preacher Edgar Ray Killen Jr., the ringleader of the murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, Carolyn read the postcard her son wrote on June 21, 1964, the last day of his life.

Dear Mom and Dad,” it read, “I have arrived safely in Meridian, Miss. This is a wonderful town, and the weather is fine. I wish you were here. The people in this city are wonderful, and our reception was very good. All my love, Andy.”Andrew Goodman Foundation Site 

Today, August 4th, has a bright side to it as well, Louis Armstrong was born today in 1901 in New Orleans. I know I recently posted Louis singing “What a Wonderful World,” but I make no apologies for posting it again this morning while we all think about what we can do to better this world.









GO GOOGLE!!!!! Ella Fitzgerald and Jerry Leiber

Kudos to Google for celebrating the birthday of Ella Fitzgerald!!! I used to love seeing her on Ed Sullivan and other TV shows. What a silky smooth voice, what an interpreter and oh did I love her scat singing!!!!  I can still visualize her singing, “A Tisket, A Tasket,” which, as a kid, I just adored!

Listen to her silky smoothness with her beautiful duet with Louis Armstrong on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”

It’s Thankful Thursday…again…so Thankful for Music, For Ella, For Louis, For Richie and so many others!

Can’t  let today go by without a great and loving shout-out to a great song, Stand By Me, written by Jerry Leiber (music by Mike Stoller) who was also born today in 1933. He also wrote, “Hound DogandCharlie Brown,” “Come a Little Bit Closer (Remember Jay & the Americans singing that?  Who can forget?), “Spanish Harlem” and many other songs that were part of the soundtrack of the Baby Boomer Generation, MY generation…Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation! (Thank you, WHO!)


Leiber & Stoller

3 Real Life Reasons to Listen to Folk Music

            All music is folk music, I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song”-Louis Armstrong


Folk music has always been the music of the people.

Folk music has always been a transforming vehicle to bring people together; to highlight issues of the day; to inspire people to commit to and bring about change.

Folk music teaches…

Today is the birthday of a folk singer that I saw many, many years ago, several times, in Greenwich Village, NY: Jerry Jeff Walker, who turns 71 years old today!!!   Jerry Jeff is an upstate NY boy, born in Oneonta, NY.  If you aren’t familiar with Jerry Jeff Walker himself, you’re probably familiar with a song that he wrote and became a great hit for Sammy Davis, Jr., Mr. Bojangles. Mr. Bojangles was also a commercial hit for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Here’s Jerry Jeff performing his original version of Mr. Bojangles.