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Interview – A Song For The World – Herb Allen And The Colwell Brothers

Frank McGee has produced a powerful and captivating book that details the globe trotting antics of what started as just a bunch of youngsters seeking peace and friendship across the world, later this movement became known as “Up With People”. Although it has its roots in the U.S. it is much better known overseas. I enjoyed A Song For The World so much that I had to ask for an interview, but who to ask? This is very much a collaborative effort, and while Frank McGee should be congratulated on his efforts, clearly he was aided and abetted by other people. Throwing caution to the wind I opened it up to everyone that could participate.

Hello everyone, I’d like to start with a couple of questions for Frank. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Frank: Glad to, Simon, and I’ll be sure to stop at a little bit. I grew up in Oregon, and near the end of World War II got involved in crisis resolution work, part of it through music and theater. It took me to other countries. In Brazil in the early 1960s I became a photojournalist. Then writing followed, which became my career.

In the late sixties I edited Pace magazine, a contemporary of the Look and Life of those days. In the seventies I launched and edited New Worlds, Orange County, California’s leading magazine, and wrote a coffee-table book for the University of California at Irvine about the school’s first quarter century. I also published the official program for the Bushmills Grand Prix offshore powerboat race, which ran out of Newport Beach. I was told the program’s circulation of half a million was the largest in sports history. Let’s hear it for Irish Whisky!

Luckily I married up. My wife, Helen, an English major from Carleton College and daughter of a professor of literature, has been my creative partner from the beginning.

Where did you get the idea for the book from?

Frank: In early 2003 we were in a gathering with long-time friends when an attorney from Oakland spoke of terrible things young people in her city were facing. “There ought to be a book about the Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen,” she said. Someone asked, “Who can write it?” I knew right away this was a story for me. But I had little idea then of its implications.

What I did know was that the Colwells and Allen had done what no one else ever had. They’d been as much at home performing in the Japanese Diet as in the courtyards of African Chiefs or Carnegie Hall. But as the book project progressed, through interviews, reading hundreds of letters, and gathering recollections from people these remarkable artists had touched across the world, I realized this was not only an amazing story of something that had been done, but a fascinating glimpse of things still to do. It turned out to be a real life adventure story, maybe even adventurous enough for all-grown-up-now Harry Potter readers.

A Song For The World is very well written, is this your first foray into the literary world?

Frank: I guess if you haven’t heard of me, Simon, the obvious answer should be “Yes.” I’ve edited, written, and ghost-written books and anthologies that were translated into several languages. But A Song for the World is certainly the most important story I’ve ever been given to tell, and the most rewarding for me as a writer. Interestingly, it’s a story nobody knew, not even those who’d followed these musicians for years.

I have a question that I would like to throw out to any of you. I love the photos, someone is a pack rat to have all of these. Who is it? And how on earth did you manage to keep all of these photos and mementos while constantly touring?

Steve Colwell: Our mother, bless her soul. We sent letters, photos and some artifacts home regularly.

Frank: When we began the book project we heard from folks in Anchorage and Helsinki, Zurich and Oslo, London and Cape Town, who’d squirreled away pictures and offered to share them. And yes, Mom Colwell’s treasure box was the real bonanza. It was there I found the great photo that’s on the cover of the book. We’ve searched in vain ever since to track down the photographer.

You left for a one month tour, and came back 10 years later! I am sure that has to be a record. You had a great future by staying in the US, yet you opted to walk away from it. Any Regrets?

Steve Colwell: The decision to stay on with the program was not without deep thought and some anguish. Who knows where our music career or any other career would have taken us if we’d stayed home. The entertainment business is very competitive, even in those days. We could have made it to the top of our field, or our young career could have ended up a flash in the pan. In any case, as I said in the book, I don’t see how any amount of money or fame could have been more fulfilling and exciting and challenging as pursuing the noble quest to use our music for helping to make a better world. In my mind this was our destiny, what we were born to do, and I think all of us knew that down deep.

Just a wild guess, how many people have you entertained over the years? I’ll bet it is a very large number. I took a straw poll of people that I know, and I hate to say this, but your organization is relatively unknown by North Americans, yet is well known by people from other countries. Does this bother you?

Steve Colwell: No, it doesn’t bother me, as I’m thrilled that other countries have responded as they have. Up with People has performed at four Super Bowl half-times, several network TV specials, in prestigious venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall and thousands of concerts in the U.S., so you ask why more Americans don’t know about it. I think the size of our country and the competition for the entertainment dollar play a part. In smaller, homogeneous countries like Belgium and Japan, the word gets around faster.

John Ruffin, publisher, Many Roads Publishing: The name recognition for Up with People in North America does vary, maybe geographically, but I must say that I am more impressed than I expected to be by recent gatherings in which people knew or remembered UWP. I would bet that in any group of 20 people in the US between 35-60 yrs old, at least 2 will know of UWP. I have randomly checked this and found people either breaking into song (Up, up with People, you meet ’em wherever you go…) or saying “I wished that I had traveled with them” or “my neighbor (or neighbor’s kid) traveled with them.” During the 60’s-70’s and following we took this show to every state and major city in the U.S. numerous times, played in every major college or university (Harvard, Yale, Berkley, etc.) military bases and academies, made four national TV programs and four Super Bowls, seven World’s Fairs. So while the Brothers and Herb are not household names, Up with People does make a connection frequently.

If you had to pick the ultimate high spot in your career(s) what would it be?

Steve Colwell: There are many, but I’ve always look back on our Italian tour in 1968 as a special and enjoyable one. All the songs and spoken words were in Italian. We all speak Italian to one degree or another. Herb is fluent. We wrote a medley of songs honoring some of the major cities. The crowds would hardly let us go with cries of “bis, bis, bis.” (more, more, more)

And of course, I have to ask what was the low?

Steve Colwell: In between tours in the early 60’s with no foreseen plan for the next challenge or project. Partly being kind of burned out, the feeling of being in limbo, that maybe we’d run our course, being kind of stuck.

Today’s world is just as volatile as yesterday’s, in many ways even more so, what are ‘Up With People’ doing today? Still Touring? Still Ambassadors of peace?

Steve Colwell: Yes, two casts of about 80 each are touring. Because our country and the world is so polarized and gripped with fear and hate, especially in the Middle East, understanding, individual responsibility and new hope for a better world is needed now more than ever.

John Ruffin: I think so, without question. The times, as you say, are even more challenging and all the more reason for the “diplomacy of music” that speaks to a deeper connection, understanding and alliance among all peoples of the planet. We have to use much more heart, care, and intelligence (in the head type) in how we reach out to each other in the world and UWP is again in the forefront of this effort. It has recently been restructured to be more focused and agile in both education of participants and responding to world issues, and the two new casts represent dozens of nations from all continents. The Colwells and Herb began the demonstration 50 years ago of the “power of music” and really set the standard in so many ways. Would that the current purveyors of “diplomacy” from this country take at least one chapter from this book (as well as the new UWP program) as the new perspective/guidelines for truly effective outreach in the world, if it’s not too late.

Frank: Two Up with People companies are touring as we speak. But to me the Up with People idea now belongs to the world. It’s being demonstrated in varying degrees through the lives of its 20,000 alumni who are involved today in education, media, public service, entertainment, government, and business. It’s an idea that’s proving contagious.

I’ve got what I consider are two “big” thoughts about these four men and this book. The first is that their story is a compelling demonstration of the power of music as a power to bring about change. The four might not put it like that, and they’ve never made claims, but I believe it is true. The second “big” thought is that in a time when this country has become less than universally loved, these artists, all of them Americans, have shown an intriguing and repeatable way of connecting with the human family, with countries and cultures across the world.

Just for fun question, which of you is the best musician?

Steve Colwell: Without question it is our “maestro,” Herb Allen. He’s a virtuoso on the xylophone, writes and arranges music, sometimes without the aid of a musical instrument and has conducted a number of symphony orchestra on conjunction with the Up with People shows. He also has perfect pitch.

The three of us have had only very elementary formal training, if any. We are self-taught. Paul is our best musician, flowing easily between the mandolin, banjo and guitar. Ralph is our lead vocalist. If organizing, detail and worrying can be considered a talent, I’m the best. By the way, I’m the yodeler in the group.

Frank, I have never met an author that stops at one book, what are you working on now?

Frank: I thought you’d never ask! When the opportunity to write A Song for the World came along, I had just completed the first draft of a novel. It’s based on things that really happened in a well-known California city: intrigue in high places, scandalous events, and a love story that ties it together.

After the upcoming book signing/concert tours with the Colwell Brothers and Herb around the country, it will be back to fiction for me. In this case it’s fiction not much stranger than the truth. Of course I’m expecting publisher bidding wars.

I want to thank all of you for taking time out to chat with me. You have led such wild lives, there are few people that have met the world leaders that you have, there are few people that have seen the strife that these merry minstrels have. There are also few merry minstrels that have appeared on 4 Super Bowl half time shows.

Interview by Simon Barrett for bloggernewsnet

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