Betsy In Informational Overload
After looking at picture book biographies that are comparable to what I’d like to do with Pete Seeger, I dive into research. First goal: an overview of Seeger’s life. I read How Can I Keep From Singing, a biography by David King Dunaway. It came out in 1991, so it’s missing the last couple of decades, but it’s useful anyway. Then I devour everything I can written by Seeger. I’m looking for little stories, gems, things that make my socks roll up and down. Seeger often has great info in the liner notes of his CDs, very quotable stuff.
I jump to reading bios and autobiographies on related people: musicians Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, Pete’s father Charles Seeger (big influence), and playwright Arthur Miller (indicted by HUAC along with Seeger). I’m trying to triangulate, understand Pete Seeger’s life and times not just from his pov, but from others’ as well.
I’m sniffing around all this time for good primary source materials. I’ll go to great lengths to find primary sources. Working on my Lennon book, I tracked down an article Yoko Ono wrote about herself in the Japanese magazine, Bungei Shunju, and had it translated into English. Totally worth the time and money. I’d read in secondary sources that Yoko was suicidal, but I didn’t want to repeat something that incendiary if it wasn’t true. When I read Yoko’s account of her depression and nighttime trips to her 11th floor window and being pulled back by her then-husband, I was free to weave it into my text.
Usually it’s not that intense, but it’s often a wonderful quotation, or a really great factoid that would otherwise be overlooked. Like the inspiring banjo player Seeger saw in 1936, Samantha Baumgartner, whose first banjo was a gourd with a cat skin stretched over it. What kid wouldn’t love being freaked out by that?
I’m also listening to the songs Seeger’s recorded… and there are hundreds and hundreds of them. Partly it gets me into his life in the emotional way songs slip under your skin, and partly I’m looking for the songs I can use on different spreads. I’ve only got the room and permissions money for a few songs. Which ones will pack a punch?
I’m having a blast. I love to research. I love all these ideas running around in my head, without the responsibility yet of writing them down, word by word.
I’m also getting a massive information-overload headache. I know for a picture book I don’t have room for all the delicious details I could put in a long book. So every night I go to bed and ask myself, what is the emotional core I’m looking for here? What thin slices of Seeger’s rich life would make this a fascinating, resonant book?