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FIRESIDE POETS

Two Pittsfield elementary schools and a rock troubadour related to John Steinbeck got together to create music. Here's how it happened ...

Student songs penned with Johnny Irion will debut at community concert at Kellogg Park on May 26

Johnny Irion teaches songwriting to seated students

Johnny Irion, in partnership with The Mastheads, spent 10 weeks working with fourth graders at Morningside Community Elementary School in Pittsfield, writing song lyrics. 

Editors note: This story has been updated. The performance has been postponed until Thursday, May 26, due to inclement weather. 

PITTSFIELD — What happens when a famous pencil brand, two Pittsfield elementary schools, a rock troubadour and a public arts and humanities project collaborate? 

Simply put, music. 

The music — three new songs — is the end result of a 10-week songwriting workshop, part of The Masthead's Fireside Poets poetry program at Morningside Community and Conte Community —elementary schools, led by singer/songwriter Johnny Irion during the fall of 2021. 

Irion will debut the songs, "Abandoned Monsters," "Shine Like Butterflies" and "Meet Me at Ramen Park," during a Community Concert at Kellogg Park, 4 to 6 p.m., Thursday, May 26. 

"It's a celebration of the culmination of their work, from both the fall and spring sessions," Sarah Trudgeon, literary director of The Mastheads, said Wednesday. The Mastheads — an urban architectural experiment, a literary research initiative, a writers’ residency, and an educational program based in Pittsfield — has been working with the Pittsfield Public Schools since 2017. 

The Fireside Poets — named after a group of poets that included Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (both poets affiliated with the Berkshires) — also will present anthologies of their poetry at the concert. At the elementary school level, the Fireside Poets is supported by the Blackwing Foundations. 

"We have some really brave students who are willing to share their work. They are very creative writers and thinkers," she said. 

At Morningside, Fireside Poets is a 10-week program for fourth graders, which meets for an hour each week during the school day. At Conte, the program is part of the elementary school's afterschool programming for second and third graders. 

Three pencils

As a special treat, Blackwing produced pencils in honor of the concert and release of the Fireside Poets' songs. Each pencil has a lyric from one of the songs written on one side and then either Fireside@Morningside Poets, 2021 or Fireside@Conte Poets, 2021 on another side. 

MUSICAL COLLABORATIONS

So, how did Irion, a Berkshires-based folk-rock musician and producer who has toured with the Black Crowes, come to collaborate with The Mastheads and the Blackwing Foundation? 

His association with the Blackwing Foundation, begins in California, at the home of his uncle, author Thomas Steinbeck, where a discussion about the Blackwing 602 pencil. 

"You know, John Steinbeck wrote 'The Grapes of Wrath' with a Blackwing pencil. And they were interviewing my uncle, Thomas Steinbeck, because they had basically just brought the pencil back. They had discontinued it and the pencils were going for $20, $30, $40 dollars on Ebay," Irion said during a phone interview from Miami. "It was the artists' pencil of choice back in those days. Stephen Sondheim loved Blackwing. Chuck Jones did all the Looney Tunes cartoons. They have a history with artists, with creators."

During the interview, Blackwing representatives noticed Irion's guitar.

"They noticed my guitar in my aunt's house in California, that's when I was making my last album 'Driving Friend.' They came over to the studio and said they'd like to help you put this album out, so we did a collaboration together where on the back of 'Driving Friend,' it's all written in pencil. When we did the outreach for radio and press, we sent the album, a pencil and a note," he said. "We got NPR weekend edition and a bunch of major stuff. So that started our relationship. It's a cool collaboration. We collaborate on music, on doing things in the community."

Lyric writing workshop

Musician Johnny Irion records songs with students at Morningside Community Elementary School in Pittsfield.

Then COVID hit. 

"After six or seven months, I decided I wanted to do something locally [with the Blackwing Foundation]. So, I went to the Herman Melville home. Something just made me go to the Melville home [Arrowhead], I don't know why, but I met Tessa [Kelly] who co-founded The Mastheads, and Sarah," he said. "The Blackwing Foundation got on board to support their programming, for two years, and part of that was me going into the schools and writing songs with the kids."

Trudgeon said the partnership with Irion and Blackwing just made sense. 

"We were always, slowly, expanding poetry in the schools," she said. "In the fall, he did a 10-week session that walked the kids through the history of folk music, telling them stories about why it's a really important tradition, and a really important tradition in the Berkshires. We emphasize to the children that the Berkshires is a really artistic place; that poetry is part of their culture to own and to add to."

She added, "It was a really good fit. He worked through how to write lyrics, how to write a chorus and verse."

At the end of the session, Irion brought in his recording equipment and with the children, performed the songs they had written together. 

"They are coming out the day of the concert on all studio platforms, for the children's families to share," he said. "Hopefully, it will also raise awareness of what The Mastheads and the Blackwing Foundation do for communities and schools."

Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6229. On Twitter: @BE_DigitalJen

Features Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is The Eagle's features editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2021 Rabkin Award Winner, 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.

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