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‘It’s about trying to honor who they are’: The philosophy of singer and storyteller Bill Harley

Known for his work with kids and families, the Rhode Island Music Hall of Famer talks about finding his voice, and recent work for his grown-up audience

Singer/songwriter/storyteller Bill Harley.Debbie Block

In another life, Bill Harley might’ve been a conflict resolution guide, maybe a philosophical journeyman devoted to Ram Dass and Gandhi.

But landing in a “post-hippie” Providence arts scene in 1980, the singer/songwriter/storyteller found his voice when he started telling stories about growing up.

“I worked with a guy early on, a director. He said to me: You’re not a virtuoso. Your job is not to be the best — it’s to be the only. You have to find a voice particular to you. When you do, you’re going to find an audience,” Harley, 68, said during a recent phone interview.

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Songs that resonated with kids — “I’m Not Small,” “Dad Threw the TV out the Window” — became his bread and butter, a way to commune with fellow human beings, no matter their age.

I’m among the legion of Rhode Islanders who grew up on Harley’s music. A generation of southern New Englanders will feel me when I say “50 Ways to Fool Your Mother” and “You’re In Trouble” were my family’s car-ride staples.

A former Providence resident and member of the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, Harley started out singing for kids and families in Providence some 40 years ago. Along the way, he helped start Stone Soup Coffeehouse, won two Grammys, had two books adapted at the Gamm Theatre.

Although he’s lived in Seekonk, Mass., with his wife and business partner, Debbie Block, since the mid-1980s — “Seekonk, we don’t quite know where we fit. I lived in the capital, moved five miles, and that got me out of the state” — the Ocean State still claims him as our own.

He even wrote a song about us: “The Size of the State of Rhode Island.”

The author of 15 books and some 46 recordings, his most recent album for adults, “Walking Each Other Home” is named after the famed Ram Dass quote.

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Ahead of his concert for grownups this weekend, and his storytelling workshop later this month, Harley and I talked peace songs, broken Barbie dolls and finding his voice.

I love that you’re doing a daytime concert for grown-ups. What will that show be like?

Harley: It’s funny, it’s my work with kids and families that’s paid the bills. It’s how I’m known. But I’ve been playing with some people [in the band, the Comments] for years. When COVID hit, we started to get together more.

We’re playing a bunch of songs off “Walking Each Other Home.” I’ll do some storytelling, narration. I do a monologue about going home to my parents’ in middle age and cutting through the backyard to my friend’s house — like, you still think you’re 17. Then lights come on in somebody’s yard, and they look out and see a middle-aged man: “What is he doing in my yard?”

And you realize you can’t explain yourself.

So it’s a combination of stuff — a Bill Harley show for adults.

You were born in Ohio. How did you get to Providence?

We lived in Indianapolis when I was a kid, then Connecticut. I went to Hamilton College in central New York, where I started to write songs, do some coffeehouses. I played keyboards in a really bad rock band. Then my friends and I started a day camp around 1975; that’s when I really started to sing for kids. And it was just organic growth from there. We moved to Providence in 1980 when Debbie got a job with Brown.

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How did you start out performing here?

There were a lot of community artists around at that time — there was volunteer money, library [gigs]. None of those paid a lot, but it paid enough. There was this group — Len Cabral and other performers — we all found each other and fed off each other. With some friends, I started Stone Soup Coffeehouse. There was all that post-hippie stuff going on. We were very much part of that.

We didn’t have any money. I went to the state arts council and I told them I was a storyteller. Three weeks later, I was working in schools.

Same with the Providence Public Library. I talked to the head of children’s services and ended up doing after-school programs in Fox Point, South Providence, Smith Hill, Mount Pleasant. For $15, you’d spend an hour with these kids. It was combat pay.

I did a lot of work in Central Falls. I’d do five classrooms a day telling stories — it was maybe $50 or $60 a day. That’s where I learned to perform, where I developed material.

What shaped your writing?

I studied comparative religion in college. I did non-violence training, very much influenced by King and Gandhi. I did conflict resolution in New York.

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That affected the way I looked at the world and still does. Especially my work with kids, it’s about trying to honor who they are. Same with adults. I do some humorous songs but most of it, there’s a subtext about how we are in the world.

How did you find your voice as a kids’ performer?

You know, I was just reading George Saunders, and he says this great thing: Your voice is your voice. You send your dog out in the field hoping it’ll bring back a pheasant, and instead it brings back half a broken Barbie doll. That’s your voice. I was like: That’s it.

I love that.

You don’t have to be Tolstoy or Dylan.

What do you like most about performing for kids?

The immediacy. The suspension of disbelief. Adults mostly just sit there. With kids, you know it’s working. There’s just nothing like it. When there’s an audience you’re connecting with, and you feel there’s some kind of communion, it’s pretty great.

I love that. Your first album in 1984, “Monsters in the Bathroom” — you launched that yourself?

I barely knew what I was doing. But right away, people started paying attention to it. [Boston radio personality and folk guru] Dick Pleasants played it. It happened at a time when there was a lot of interest in kids music, independent music. Distributors started to pick it up. I’d get phone calls from all over.

It’s different now. Half my income was from recordings. That’s all gone away. [Streaming has] killed musicians. I don’t know that I could do today what I did then.

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So you must’ve performed in every Rhode Island School by now?

Probably. I’ve been in over 3,000 schools in 49 states.

Meaning you missed Alaska or Hawaii?

North Dakota. [Laughs]

So, do you see a time when you’d retire?

I don’t know why you’d retire unless people don’t want to hear you. Singing songs and telling stories — it’s a pretty good way to spend time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.