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Singing the Praises of Heroes

Half ‘rocker,’ half teacher, all educator, Jonathan Sprout brings history to life through the power of music   

By Alison Barretta

For My Community Trend

 

Jonathan Sprout is following in his parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps as an educator.

However, Sprout is not a teacher. At least, not in the traditional sense. He is a children’s singer/songwriter who specializes in original songs about historical heroes.

The Philadelphia native tells the stories through creative, yet informative lyrics, and catchy tunes from his 12-string electric Fender guitar. He has profiled such figures as Jonas Salk, who is famous for developing the polio vaccine, and Wilma Rudolph, who overcame great adversity to become an Olympic gold medalist, For Sprout, who attended Bucknell University as a psychology major, children’s music has been his niche for nearly 30 years.

His first performance for students was in the early 1980s as a favor to his mother, a third grade teacher.

Sprout, who was in his late 20s at the time, was reticent at first, as he was used to performing at venues for older people.

But after performing for the enthusiastic students at his mother’s school on a couple occasions, the young musician had a change of heart, and a new career goal.

“I just felt comfortable [performing for students],” said Sprout, “I remember stepping off stage and saying, ‘I think this is what I want to do.’”

Sprout was inspired to pursue his current path in 1994, upon reading a poll in a local newspaper regarding America's youth and their heroes.

Many familiar names graced the list of children’s heroes, such as Bart Simpson and Beavis and Butthead.

But among the list of fictitious characters, celebrities and athletes, Sprout noticed the absence of several notable men and women.

Sprout wondered to himself, “Who are our real heroes?” One glaring omission, in Sprout’s mind, was Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers.

Franklin, who was an active figure in 18th-century America, may not be considered a relevant figure for most boys and girls in the 21st century, according to Sprout.

Thus Sprout was motivated to close the generational gap and bring historical figures — and their contributions — to prominence for today’s youth through song.

It would not only be an educational experience for kids, but also for Sprout, as he learned about the lives of those he considered true heroes.

“I thought it could be interesting, a chance for me to learn about great people,” Sprout said.

It was a departure from children’s songs of the day that were about brushing teeth or riding a bicycle.

Sprout’s first step in writing hero songs was to conduct extensive research about the figures he wished to portray.

Dr. Dennis Denenberg, a former professor at Millersville University who specializes in American heroes, served as Sprout’s consultant.

“Dr. Denenberg made certain that everything I sing about is accurate,” said Sprout, who also credited Denenberg for assisting him in capturing the essence of the heroes. Sprout then had to determine the “voices” of the individuals in his songs. For example, a song about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, called “Take a Ride” is sung from Tubman's point of view, while lyrics for “Washington’s Hat,” a song about the first U.S. president, is a third-person narrative.

Sprout also had to compose tunes that accurately captured the spirits of his subjects. The song “Ben Franklin” has a frenetic pace, detailing Franklin’s numerous accomplishments and extensive expertise in several fields.

“Each hero inspired a different kind of process,” said Sprout, noting that he wanted each song to reflect the personalities and accomplishments of his heroes, lyrically and melodically.

“I wanted a balance of different kinds of people with different gifts, and who came from different walks of life,” Sprout said.

Fifteen years later, Sprout has compiled three CDs of hero songs; his latest compilation, “American Heroes No. 3,” was released in January and named “Best Product of 2009” by iParenting Media.

Sprout has performed live for students at schools throughout the region.

Many boys and girls have been deeply moved by Sprout’s musical storytelling, asking plenty of questions and even developing an admiration for the heroes in Sprout’s songs.

Parents and teachers laud Sprout’s efforts to educate children through his music. Testimonials on his Web site (www.jonsprout.com) call his songs “fun-filled” and “engaging,” with the ability to make “heroes come to life.”

Sprout, who credits his grandfather as someone he looked up to as a child, says he has come full circle.

“I never thought [as a young man] I would be a teacher. I thought, ‘I’m gonna be a rock star,’” Sprout said.

But Sprout has become both: an educator who tells stories of great men and women with a rock-inspired sound.

And for Sprout, there could be no greater reward than performing for such attentive and exuberant audiences.

“It’s really powerful for me, to come in and be able to teach what I think are inspiring things about inspiring people,” said Sprout.
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