FOUR AND A HALF YEARS AGO, Hayley Reardon was a shy, quiet girl from Marblehead. She had just finished the fifth grade. Curious, she picked up an Epiphone acoustic guitar her mom had long abandoned and this 11-year-old girl began writing songs. Then she couldn't stop. Songs poured out of her. Good songs. "It was a total shock," says her dad, Pete, an insurance rep. "I knew right away that this was not normal."
She got her own guitar. She played a middle school variety show and she sought out open mike nights. She found inspiration at Club Passim in Harvard Square, the legendary downstairs folk haunt that helped launch the careers of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Suzanne Vega. This, she realized, was her tribe.
That reserved girl has matured into a confident, radiant teenage singer-songwriter who is now helping to pen the next chapter of the Boston folk scene. Reardon, who turned 16 in September, released her first full-length record a month later, Where the Artists Go, a strikingly assured debut. She promptly sold out two successive Passim shows of her own, an unprecedented feat at the club for a teenager. (Her parents had to drive her there in a minivan.)
But if Reardon, who is a sophomore at Marblehead High, is rapidly making a name for herself under the stage lights, it could be said that she's having a bigger impact on her peers across the country, as a leading spokesperson for bullying prevention. By pairing her music with a message of collective responsibility, she has become an effective teen-to-teen ambassador, sought after by schools nationwide. And in giving her songs a mission, Reardon is also honoring the deep activist tradition in folk music. From the populism of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, to the antiwar and civil rights anthems of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, to the modern polemics of Ani DiFranco, folk has long been a vehicle for both personal and political expression. Reardon, in targeting bullying, is just taking it in a new direction. And not by accident.
Hayley Reardon, who is 5-foot-1 and has a warm round face and long brown hair, was moved to act after seeing the emotional wreckage bullying can cause up close. In the seventh grade, she watched a friend, a target of online attacks, struggle badly and leave school for a time. Reardon felt helpless. She wrote a song called "She's Falling," as a way to work through the experience. That's when she hit upon a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization, PACER, and its National Bullying Prevention Center, which seeks to empower children and teens to confront the problem themselves instead of relying on preachy lectures from adults.
Reardon sent PACER "She's Falling," which she dedicated to Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old South Hadley teen who committed suicide in 2010 after bullying from classmates. Julie Hertzog, the director of the bullying prevention center, quickly realized that Reardon had something special to offer. "We really wanted to give Hayley a platform," Hertzog says. "She was insightful well beyond her years."
So Reardon began helping PACER prepare bullying prevention "tool kits" for schools, which include her songs alongside classroom materials. The response has been tremendous, Hertzog says. This year, PACER is going further, incorporating Reardon's music into a 10-week curriculum that the organization plans to roll out to schools next fall.
Reardon says she's received e-mails, messages, and tweets from youth around the world sharing tales of bullying — victims and aggressors both. One lonely Iowa girl wrote from a bathroom stall and became the inspiration for Reardon to finish the song "Tribe," about belonging, which is on the new record.
Her deepest imprint comes when she visits schools, where she delivers a program she calls "Find Your Voice." Drawing on her own story of self-discovery, she encourages fellow teens to embrace and respect individuality and diversity — to find their own voices, and to value them. In October, Reardon journeyed to schools in Anchorage, sparking an awareness about bullying that still endures there, says 13-year-old Tristan Diaz, an eighth-grader at the city's Mears Middle School. "Everybody was talking about it," he says. "One of my friends said it was like her music was patching a hole."
Reardon knows her efficacy is limited. But she's discovered that being a singer-songwriter does not mean giving in to self-absorption. Even deeply personal music, she now knows, can be a powerful catalyst. "I always want to have a way to kind of turn that around and use that to do good," she says. "So I think that's why this stuff is so important to me — especially when people come back and say that it actually changed them in a way."
Reardon will perform at schools in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Michigan in the months ahead, and she will be at the Walnut Street Cafe in Lynn from 7:30 to 11 p.m. on Saturday, hosting a gig she calls "Hayley & Friends."
Before she grows up too much, she's also trying to savor how far she's come — far enough to have headlined a sold-out November show on the Passim stage she once dreamed about. She says, "I have to sit myself down and be like, 'All right, burn this one into your mind. This one is real.' "
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