The Do-Re-Me of A-B-C
By John Stifler
A few years ago Kevin Hodgson figured out a secret of happiness known to some men of my acquaintance: Quit your job as a journalist and become an elementary school teacher.
Off the top of my head I can think of at least three former Gazette colleagues, all male, who are now elementary school teachers. Hodgson himself wrote for the Springfield Union-News (now the Republican) for 10 years or so, but for the past four he has been teaching writing to sixth graders at Norris Elementary School in Southampton.
Maybe it was because he spent five of his newspaper years writing about Northampton schools, or because his wife, Leslie, teaches at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton. In any case, Hodgson said recently, 'When my second son born, I decided not to be a reporter any more. I went to Westfield State, got certified, worked in after-school programs, and made my way (to Norris).'
He also made his way back into playing in a band. Having been raised on the saxophone and on a fairly eclectic assortment of music, Hodgson discovered that former fellow reporter John Graiff was a guitarist and in fact was getting ready to start a band. Together they created what eventually became the Sofa Kings, a tight, smart, rock'n'roll group playing excellent original songs and an idiosyncratic assortment of cover tunes.
John Fernands plays keyboards and percussion, Bob Scalzo is the drummer, Don Williams shares the guitar work with Graiff, and Carolyn Bailey plays bass. Williams and Fernands do most of the lead singing, with support from Hodgson and Graiff.
The Sofa Kings' original material ranges from classic sock-hop to funky soul inspired by anyone from Wilson Pickett to Keb' Mo. Hodgson writes most of it, often in collaboration with Graiff and Scalzo, and Fernands contributes some of his own songs. The form is utterly familiar - blues-based rock, verse-verse-bridge-verse, 8 or 12 or 16 bars - and when you listen/dance to it, you remember that this is what you came for. It's popular, it's durable, it gives all sorts of musicians ample room to flex their muscles.
For Hodgson - and if you're a teacher you will understand this point particularly - it also complements his classroom work with children's writing.
'I think it is really important that students see their teachers as writers and performers, as someone other than just the lecturer on grammar and proper English,' Hodgson observed last week, 'and that the things we teach them and consider important are the same things we do in real life.'
Hodgson devotes part of his classroom time every year to a songwriting unit. 'I do it after the poetry unit,' he explained. 'We talk about how songwriters use these techniques in their songs. (The children) help me write a song.'
Sometimes he'll write a song with one verse missing, and the students have to write it. Other times he'll bring in his electric guitar and a P.A. system and get his pupils to sing with him.
When he tells them at the beginning of the school year about their own eventual performance, Hodgson added, 'They say 'There's no way you're going to get me up there,' but by the time we get to it they're experienced with me, and they know they're going to have fun.'
Reciprocally, Hodgson has discovered how teaching something can expand one's own ability to explore it more deeply. Asked whether his classroom life sharpens and deepens his imagination as a songwriter, he said, 'Absolutely. There are many times when I'm listening to children's creative stories, to my students thinking about things, and it leads into my own favorite hobbies, which are playing guitar and writing songs.'
The songs, by the way, ride not just on verbal invention but on big, confident chord combinations and melodies. Like the best pop groups, the Sofa Kings know how to make a lot of music out of simple phrases, such as the catchy chorus to their tune 'Stubborn Fool':
I want to be somewhere
But I can't be here
I want to be somewhere
Or I'll disappear
Another song is more erudite:
You're like some stardust that falls from the sky
I'm like Copernicus, I've got my eyes on you.
The Sofa Kings' wit is unmistakable. Doing a delightful cover of Jimmy Buffet's old hit 'Volcano,' they throw in a new verse about where they'd like to come down when the volcano blows everyone into the air: not in New York, not in Mexico, not at Three Mile Island ('Don't wanna see my skin aglow') but in Northampton ('I wanna hang out on the street/I wanna eat some enchiladas...').
Speaking of covers, the Sofa Kings like to dig up stuff no one else has been doing recently. They do the only cover I've ever heard of Neil Diamond's old 'Solitary Man,' and they even perform the almost uncoverable Beatles tune 'Dear Prudence.'
'That's one of those songs you never hear anybody play,' said Hodgson, 'and there's a reason for that. It is challenging. It appears simple, but _.'
The Sofa Kings have played local gigs at venues ranging from the Brass Cat in Easthampton to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, plus a highly praised appearance on Greenfield's public access TV 'Homegrown' show. They play tomorrow at Paisano's restaurant and lounge on Route 10 in Southampton, starting at 9 p.m.