Q&A with Jim Gill
Oak Park early childhood educator disguised as a banjo-toting singer-songwriter
Across the western suburbs, Jim Gill is a rock star with the under-five set. Toting a banjo and armed with a lively repertoire of silly songs, dance-alongs, tongue twisters, and finger plays, he performs almost daily for toddlers and their families. In small library gatherings and at large outdoor festivals, Gill mesmerizes tots, who sing, clap, stomp, dance and jump along to a medley of rhyming banjo tunes. Look below the surface, though, and it’s soon apparent that Gil is no ordinary kids’ entertainer. Along with each spoonful of silliness, he secretly slips in a large dose early education. Gil first moved to Chicago to attend University of Illinois and The Erikson Institute, where his graduate program was in child development. Twenty years ago, he settled in Oak Park. Gil travels the country with his National Campaign for Play!, encouraging a love of fun--and early steps to literacy — among the very youngest of song-and-dance fans. A schedule of appearances, plus information on his award-winning recordings and books is available at www.jimgill.com.
Which came first — the educator or the musician?
It’s kind of funny. None of this was planned. Even as a teenager, I liked working with little kids. And when I was in college – I was 20 years old –I was asked to lead play groups for families of children with special needs. I worked with an agency located up in Evanston and ran a weekly play group in a library. It really wasn’t meant to be about music at all, but I started doing some sing-along kinds of activities. I found was it was the best way of reaching kids. And not just the kids with special needs, but their brothers and sisters, as well. Every time that I did something music, everyone would play together, parents too.
Eventually, I was asked to work with more and more agencies, including a wonderful place in Elmhurst, the Center for Speech and Language Disorders. It’s renowned throughout the country for its work with kids on the autism spectrum. The speech pathologists there would say things like, “This guy does kind of a great thing. It’s not therapy, but, boy, it sure is good for the kids.”
I worked there for years, as well as at Little Friends out in Naperville, another agency that serves kids with autism and runs early intervention programs. People would see how much fun the play group was and say, hey, why don’t you come sing at our library, or why don’t you come to my kid’s school and do a show? At first, I didn’t think I could do that. I mean, it’s not really a show, just a play group. That’s my style. I’m not an entertainer – it’s just a way to get everyone singing and playing together.
Do you have musical training or are you self-taught?
Oh, I’m self-taught. I took lessons for a brief time. The teacher wanted me to learn a blue-grass method of picking on the banjo. One day I just took off the finger picks and showed him how I worked with kids. I had figured out that I had to strum with one hand – I used other hand to get the attention of the kids and show them finger plays and things like that. The banjo is great for me because it’s what they call “open tune;” you just strum downwards and you get a chord, a G chord. In a lot of my songs, I’m just strumming and I don’t need my left hand to play at all. You know the song, “The Wheels on the Bus”? Well, I can show all the motions with one hand and strum with the other. I thought it was pretty amazing – I could lead the playgroup and play the banjo at the same time. But when I showed the teacher, he just threw up his hands and said, “That’s not how you play the banjo!” So I just quit.
When did you start writing your own songs?
Strumming on the banjo is what led me to making up my own songs. It was back when I was running those play groups in my early 20s. I needed songs. I used some that everyone knows, like “Alabama, Mississippi,” which I’ve been singing forever and still do. But I didn’t need a banjo for that and it didn’t really work with finger plays, either. Sometimes I’d use recorded music, but I found it didn’t really match with what the kids wanted to hear. They needed better game songs. So I came up with “The Sneezing Song” – it’s not really a song, it’s a game. It doesn’t have a great melody, but it really gets the kids playing. They like to join in with “Ahhhh, ahhh, ahhh-choo!” That’s the game of it, you know? It was perfect for those early play groups because children with real language difficulties could get it and join in. And the brothers and sisters would like it, too – they could laugh about the silly rhymes or think up new rhymes. So it worked for everyone, at every level. Plus, it was also kind of a waiting game or an anticipation game – all the “Ahhh, ahhh, ahhhhhh would make the special needs kids listen so intently, waiting and watching closely for that final “choo!” It wasn’t because I was a great entertainer — it was just a really good game.
Would you say, then, that the music is secondary to the game-playing?
Yes! For me, the music is just a great way to get everyone to play together. Any time you can get brothers and sisters and parents playing together, having language interactions – that’s really one of the keys to teaching literacy.
Here’s the strange thing about my career. I don’t think of myself as “famous” – I don’t have a commercial following and you won’t hear my music on kids’ radio stations or see my videos on TV. But I do have very, very loyal groups of people who keep spreading my music around. There are pre-school teachers, obviously, and therapists who use my music with kids who have special needs. Another big group is the parents who learn about me from friends or neighbors or from occasional press. Another group I never really expected is children’s librarians. They network with each other all across the country. Library play groups all over the place use my music during story time. They read a book and then have the kids stand up and sing and dance along to a song like Silly Dance Contest. Often, libraries invite me to be a part of that. Sometimes I’ll be invited to training events for pre-schools or for local childcare providers. More often, it’s children’s book festivals or family literacy festivals. And it’s all through “word of mouth.”
How young are the kids you play for?
It can depend on where I’m playing, but anywhere from one year old up to kindergartners or in that sphere. I was just out in a small town in Utah for a family concert, and whole families showed up, with kids up through fourth and fifth grade who were completely enjoying it. They knew—and this is the thing to be clear about – that the music wasn’t aimed at them; they knew it was for their little brothers and sisters. But it was really fun for them to play and get goofy with the little ones. I thought was completely sweet that they were hanging out with younger siblings and getting really into it.
Now, it’s different here in the western suburbs. Here, the older ones know right “this is little kid music.” And, ok, they’re right – it is! Maybe they’ll roll their eyes, and I don’t blame them for that. But still, when it’s time to pick up their little brother and whip him up in the air or jump around with him, they’ll join in.
You’ve been doing this for 25 years or so. Does it get old?
Well I’ve actually been doing it even longer than that. My first recording was a vinyl record, so that’s how long I’ve been around. But, you know, it never gets old, and here’s why. Yes, I’ve been singing the same songs every day for years now, but the thing is, it’s not a show. It’s about people coming together and playing games – and the game turns out differently every time. I sing “Alabama, Mississippi” every time I perform, sometimes two or three times a day. It doesn’t get tiresome because the purpose is to play with kids, not perform for an audience. I’m not really a singer. Except on the recordings, where I have some of the best jazz musicians in Chicago, the music doesn’t even sound that great. But the thing is, kids — and parents — are not really listening to me. They’re singing along. They’re playing with each other. And that’s the difference.
For larger concerts or festivals, my little banjo isn’t enough and I bring musicians along too. It makes everything sound a lot better and I can put all my attention into the games.
What do you do with kids who are just too wiggly to sit still?
It’s pretty rare I come across someone wigglier than I am. I mean I’m a pretty high energy person. A typical concert is 45 minutes, and there’s a lot of jumping up and down, moving and dancing. I usually start right off the bat with songs that get everyone moving. And it’s over when they start getting worn out and can’t jump anymore. I’ll have parents tell my they can’t believe how long their kids paid attention for a whole 45 minutes
Did your graduate school studies in child development change how you performed?
Going to the Erikson Institute was the best thing I ever did for myself. I had been performing at festivals for a while and even though I knew I was good with kids, I thought people wanted me to be more of an “entertainer.” The kids would run around and the parents would stay at the back, maybe drinking, and it just didn’t feel right. I went to graduate school thinking I might switch direction and be a therapist or something of that sort. But one of my professors, who had taken her grandkids to see me, straight out said, “Jim, you can’t change.” She suggested I give up the festival scene and only go to places where there is a purpose to the play, because that is where I belonged. “Think about it, Jim,” she said, “You’re not an entertainer – and that’s how it should be.”
There is still one type of festival where I’ll perform. There’s a wonderful one in Akron, Ohio. It’s a family literacy festival and I’ve been going to for the past 16 years now. It’s so sweet – there are thousands of people who come with their littles ones. They sit together on the grass and clap along. It’s a perfect day for me.
When you are creating a new song for kids are you consciously thinking of teaching them?
No, it is really the opposite. I think there’s a difference between child development and education. They certainly go together in early childhood, but teaching numbers or the days of the week or geography is just not my style. I’m more interested in all the things children learn through play, and how, frankly, we as adults help them develop if we get involved in the play.
Here’s a good example – finger plays, like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” I make up a lot of my own – there’s a really wonderful one called “One from the Left and One from the Right,” that gets kids playing with numbers. I’ve been surprised to have teachers tell me little kids are learning so much math from my songs! I was even asked to speak at a conference on STEM for early childhood educators.
When I write a new song, I think about finger movements rhymes. I’m not thinking about giving an early math lesson, but that’s what it ends up being. Think about climbing stairs with a toddler, counting one, two, three as you go. That’s early math, just as in my games. I love it when kids yell out the math as part of a song. I get excited, like, “Hey, look, they’re really listening.” That’s great -- but not every child is ready to do that. They’re all playing the same game, but they’re playing it differently. It includes everyone. I look at it as helping them learn, not teaching them.
What do you learn from the kids?
Well, I really am a watcher. In grad school, we called it observation. I like to see what holds the attention of kids and what gets them active. I try not to be abstract - I don’t write songs about friendship or recycling or whatever. There are people that do that and are better at it than I am. For me, the more active the songs, the more engaging they are. Librarians tell me the like the “active” words in my songs, like “spin”, “clap”, or “jump”, since the kids listen out for them – and after that, they’re ready to listen at story time.
Which songs are crowd favorites, or does that change over time?
At every concert, someone will ask for “Alabama Mississippi.” I learned that one at summer camp as a teenager. I've been singing that for almost 40 years, so that's a favorite. Another popular one is “Spin Again,” where the kids get to spin themselves until they’re dizzy.
I like it because the dads really get into that one, spinning their kid around until mom says, “Oh, not so fast!” Dads sometimes play a little differently. Not always, but sometimes they tend to be physical and sensory in their play, so the song is a good opportunity for that. Then there’s “Toy Boat” – it’s a tongue-twister game, made up of just those two words (try saying “toy boat” ten times fast). One little boy came up to me and said, “Hey, Jim Gill! I’ve got a new one — “toy soaps.” Kids just love playing with the rhymes; they’re so excited about and that’s what happens when they’re actively playing.
Tell me about “May There Always Be Sunshine”
Oh yes! I still sing that one. I had a little book out about that song, which has been so sweet. It’s a song kids love, because I let them add their own words to it, about the things that they love and want there always to be – like pizza, chocolate, and mama. We did a little book out of that song years ago. Libraries like it because they can show the book. I love that song.
Where will our readers see you around the western suburbs?
I have a huge 100 pound dog, Lux. So people might bump into me around the Oak Park historic district. I walk my dog twice a day near the Frank Lloyd Wright houses.
A word that describes your lifestyle?
I guess I’d say I’m active. And inquisitive. I like to look into things.
What do you do to relax?
I’m gardener – I’m in my garden right now. We grew up raising our own food. It was kind of nutty but it sticks with you. I always want a place where I can grow things.
The accordion. I have a partner who plays for me at concerts. That’s always been my favorite.
Favorite things to do in suburbs?
I’m a walker. I like to take long walks with my wife especially. I like the bike paths in the western suburbs. I love that I can get from Oak Park to St. Charles a bicycle.
A book or movie that inspires you?
Right now I’m reading Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne. It’s a historical account of the Comanche Indians.
What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
I was originally like a history student. I’ve always been a big fan of Ralph Nader, so I might have gone into public advocacy law or something like that
I am really into all of the greens that I grow in my garden, so it’s homegrown salads.
Anything you'd like to say to readers?
For those who are familiar with my songs, I am completely honored. Someone emailed me to say their family’s favorite thing to do is to scootch the furniture back for a half hour of dancing to my music. That is really sweet.
Best thing about living in Oak Park
It’s been a great place to raise our kids. I have two daughters, age 24 and 21. I love how quiet it is here. Also, I have a nice garden and my next door neighbors have a really good one. We don't have a fence between us, so I get to enjoy theirs, too.
What’s worth going downtown for?
I like that I can hop on a train in Oak Park and get to Millennium Park, which is kind of my favorite thing to do, in 25 minutes.