Fuse 8 n’ Kate: Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger, ill. Michael Hays
I am so excited to talk about this book today. I thought I knew how this story was going to end, and it definitely took a hard right turn that I was NOT expecting. We’re talking about Pete Seeger’s Abiyoyo, a title I first encountered as a child on Reading Rainbow. But what looks at first to be a simple case of cultural appropriation turns into something a bit more complicated. There are all kinds of twists and turns in our discussion today, and many of my assumptions walking in were upended. We talk scofflaws, why Abiyoyo is the opposite of Steven Universe, how this book is like that episode of The Twilight Zone called “It’s a Good Life”, whether monsters like to waltz, and the Red Scare. You know. Abiyoyo stuff!
Listen to the whole show here on Soundcloud or download it through iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, PlayerFM, or your preferred method of podcast selection.
The Michael Hays website is a pretty darn good source of information so check it out for the background story I mention in the podcast.
This wand is clearly just a COEXIST bumper sticker in the making.
So let’s talk a little bit about why pages like this simply don’t work. It is clear that the concept of this book was to have the story take place in a village where it’s filled with people from different cultures, races, religions, etc. And that’s a noble idea. The trouble comes when it crosses that delicate line from homage into caricature. And unfortunately, there are a couple images in this book that don’t just cross that line but fall flat out onto it.
I make mention of At the Zoo, the picture book by Paul Simon that is one of the sillier adaptations of a famous song out there. The most egregious moment? Well, if you remember the line about the zookeeper being very fond of rum, in this book you see that the “Rum” in question is Rum the Raccoon. heh.
A bit o’ Sasquatch to this silhouette, don’t you think?
I don’t care who you are, but this shot is terrifying. The angles just make it scarier for me.
Got a bit of a Biblical look going on with this guy.
OshKosh b’ Oh My Gosh! That’s what Kate thinks when she sees this guy’s overalls.
Okay is this actually a waltz? Help us out here, people.
We suspect Abiyoyo is attempting to do a box step here. This would explain why precisely he falls down as he goes faster. That thing’ll kill ya.
Not much about this book feels 1986, but this image does to me. There’s something about it that feels like an album cover.
We’re always fascinated by why an illustrator would put their name and the year on the page. It’s not really done today. Why was it done originally?
Here’s the article with the couple that named their toy store Abiyoyo. When I read it I noticed that it was first place where Pete Seeger said something about crediting where he got the Abiyoyo story. This, in turn, made me curious enough that I started digging.
Okay, so here is the book that gave me the MOST information about Pete Seeger and his relationship, as it changed, to Abiyoyo.
I need to give you some context here. In Pete Seeger’s regular column “Appleseeds” in Sing Out! magazine, he did a piece on “The Committee for Public Domain Reform,” 2001-2002. In this Fall 2001/Summer 2002 piece, Pete begins by explaining that in 1991 a man who wrote ten words in Seeger’s “Wimoweh” song (George Weiss) won a court case against the Weavers’ publisher. And here is what Pete wrote:
“At first I was bad-mouthing George, and then I looked through my own songbook and found I’d done the same thing on a lot of songs. What to do? Well, you have to start somewhere. One of my publishers is rewriting the contract on the story-song “Abiyoyo.” Some of the royalties will go to me for writing the story, but some will now go to a nonprofit fund of the Xhosa people in South Africa, because it was a traditional Xhosa lullaby.”
And my favorite quote a little later:
“Joseph Shabalala (of Ladysmith Black Mambazo) told me with a rueful smile several years ago, “I’ve found that when the word ‘traditional’ is used about a song, it means that the money stays in New York.”
So this is a situation where a songwriter realized late in the game that he owned something to the people he’d taken Abiyoyo from, and tried to do better. Did he work with the Xhosa people to determine if this is what they actually wanted? The book doesn’t say, so one hopes so. At least it’s something he was thinking about in the early 1990s. As he says later, “All I know is that there are thousands of truly beautiful melodies still uncollected in small poverty-stricken communities around the world. Sometime later this century they will be collected and new words put to them in some wealthy city somewhere. The poverty-stricken villages will stay poverty stricken.”
Also, apologies to Abiyoyo Returns. Because technically it does exist and technically I didn’t mention it during the podcast. Technically.
Now, we’re in luck with this one. There really is a full Reading Rainbow episode with Abiyoyo available on YouTube. But clearly my memory of this one was flawed because I completely forgot that Lionel Ritchie and Run DMC make appearances of one sort or another (to say nothing of Tears For Fears and more). This is an amazing deep dive into late 80s 80snesses. Best thing you’ll see all day:
Betsy Recommends: The Helen Yoon Instagram feed. Also the second season of Marlon and Jake Discuss Dead People.
Kate Recommends: One Simple Wish.
Filed under: Fuse 8 n' Kate
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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