For more than 40 years, Barry Louis Polisar has entertained youngsters by singing and playing his guitar. Still, the Montgomery County native emphatically considers himself a storyteller rather than a musician, citing as proof the 16 albums of songs and 18 books he has penned.
The winner of five Parents’ Choice Awards and two Grammy Awards, who has performed at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian and the White House and starred in “Field Trip,” an Emmy Award-winning children’s television show, continues to sing his songs—including Polisar classics like “Never Cook Your Sister in a Frying Pan” and “My Brother Thinks He’s a Banana” and present writing programs in schools, libraries and arts centers through the country.
Polisar performs for young audiences “in all kinds of neighborhoods. Some kids cannot afford to buy my CDs and books, so by putting them on my website and in the International Children’s Digital Library, they become available to everyone–throughout the world.”
“The kids in schools I visit often ask me if I am rich and I always answer ‘yes–because I make my living doing something I truly love doing. If I can share my work in this small way, I am happy to be able to do so.’”
CultureSpotMC.com invited the storyteller to share his own story.
Who influenced you to become a singer-songwriter for children?
I never expected to be a writer or a singer and songwriter. Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was influenced by many of the singer-songwriters of the time–Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Leonard Cohen, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright, etc. Just as I was about to begin college, I bought a guitar and taught myself how to play. I asked friends who played guitar to show me different chords, but almost immediately began writing my own songs.
While at the University of Maryland, a teacher saw me with my guitar, asked if I’d come to her school to present an assembly program. At that very first concert—the first time I was ever on stage—I overheard a teacher yelling at her students and ended up writing a song about a mean teacher. Because I planned on being a teacher—and many of my friends were already teachers—people found out about my song and began inviting me to their schools to sing that song and others I had written since then…I ended up putting myself through college singing in the schools and never looked back. I planned on going to grad school, but my season filled with school visits every year and I kept putting it off.
I knew this was my career the year my 90-year-old great aunt stopped saying, “That’s nice Barry, but what are you going to do to support yourself?”
When did your musical talents begin to emerge? Was your family supportive?
My mother played piano and my grandmother, and all her siblings did, too…but I was the only one in my immediate family that never had music lessons. To this day, I consider myself more of a writer than a musician. In fact, most schools bring me in not as a singer, but as an author, poet, songwriter and storyteller. That is appropriate since most of my songs really tell stories. An older cousin of my father’s read my early stories and poems and gave me a lot of encouragement and my mom has always been receptive to anything in the arts.
What was your career goal as a University of Maryland student?
I had planned on being a teacher. I was interested in literature and film and all the different ways of telling stories…and of course, that is what I share with the students in the schools I visit now; there are many different ways a person can be a writer.
What is about children that motivates you to write songs and books?
My wife calls it basic immaturity. I am seven years older than my closest sibling and when I began writing for kids, I could see firsthand what being around kids was like—without having to worry about disciplining my brothers and sister. I became an observer of the way they interacted with adults and I often found the humor in the things they did and said…and also the ironic things adults did, too.
Did having your own children change your perspective?
Most of my songs were written before my wife and I had kids. We had twins 30 years ago and I joke that having twins was poetic justice for writing about rebellious children for a dozen years before that! I did get a lot of ideas from my kids when they were toddlers because I had never written songs about babies and toddlers before. After our kids were born, I wrote a lot of songs about them…songs like “Don’t Wake up the Baby or the Baby Will Get You” and a monster song about diaper rash. They are funny songs that older kids enjoy. Most of my songs are geared to the elementary age, perhaps because older kids get the humor in my songs.
How has your career changed from decade to decade?
Every decade seems to add a new element to the mix. The first decade, I was content with just writing songs, performing in the schools and putting out recordings of my songs. The next decade, I branched out into writing books—first with a songbook, an obvious bridge.
Once I began writing stories and poems and having my books published, I became an “author” and requests for my school visits really soared all over the country. I still get brought in as a visiting author to talk to students about my work as a writer.
The next decade, I began hosting a TV show on WJLA TV, which eventually was broadcast nation-wide—internationally, too…and I interviewed a number of other musicians (Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, Ella Jenkins) for a radio show. The interviews were fun because they involved a whole other skillset.
This last decade began with my songs being used in TV and films— ‘Juno’ was the biggest film and my song (‘All I Want is You’) was used in the beginning of that film, playing over the opening credits, but there have been a number of other movies that have used my songs; that led to licensing my songs all over the world for television ads and commercials.
I still work in the schools and the success in the film and TV world has enabled me to continue my work in the schools and adjust my fees for schools that can’t afford to bring me in. Plus, as a Maryland artist, I get Maryland State Arts Council funding that I can allocate to any school in Maryland that needs financial help.
What are your proudest of in your career?
I’ve had a lot of great experiences over the years and just sustaining a career for 42 years is gratifying. Having my songs in hit movies and on TV is a hoot, but I think what I love the most is hearing from kids who grew up on my songs and are now sharing my work with their own kids. Many of the teachers and parents who ask me to visit the schools in Montgomery County had my albums growing up—and having me come to their children’s school is a full-circle moment for them as well as for me. Some of the kids who had my albums have grown up and become musicians and a few years ago, a bunch of them recorded 60 of my songs on a tribute album (‘We’re Not Kidding’), where they did their own versions of my music and songs. Another group turned some of my songs into a musical play (‘Barry’) and one of my books is being used as the libretto for a composition for string quartet.
What are your professional plans?
I used to present about 300 school shows a year, often three to four a day. I am happy to do fewer shows now, but can’t imagine ever stopping; I am having too much fun. I’ve given concerts in Europe and in the U.S. from the East Coast to Alaska; from Maine to Florida, and all over the Midwest, but I live here in Mongtomery County and I love visiting the schools in my own community. I’ve got a couple of new book ideas percolating…so, we’ll see!
For more information, visit http://barrylou.com.