Ronnie Brandt has turned his love for storytelling, teaching, and kids into a wonderfully successful new career. Last year, the singer-songwriter created the company Children's Educational Assemblies and began performing a program called "This Land Is Your Land" at schools throughout the area. This year the program is not only back, but is being performed in schools throughout New Jersey, New York, Delaware and parts of Pennsylvania.
"My goal this year is to play to 100,000 children," said Ronnie Brandt.
That's an increase of nearly 60,000 children over last year and it looks like he's on pace to do it. The program has been well received wherever it goes. The company is a 501-C3 non-profit organization with corporate sponsors lining up to help it grow. In fact, Comcast (one of the sponsors) will be filming the program to be shown on Video-On-Demand on their cable systems throughout the tri-state area.
Brandt and a few other musicians do roughly eight performances a week; two shows per day. The program runs about 50 minutes. It's a bit of a departure from the smoky bars he's played as a musician over the last twenty years. Although he grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, Brandt has pure folk and country music flowing through his veins. His influences growing up included artists like Hank Williams, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
"By the time I was 13, I had read Woody Guthrie's =iBound for Glory', Kerouac's =iOn The Road', and had my own copy of Carl Sandberg's =iAmerican Songbag'," recalled Brandt. "I also discovered the Library of Congress recordings by John and Alan Lomax and that stuff really sent me reeling."
Before going to college, Brandt left to go on the road with "Freewheelin'", a country rock band based out of Texas. His travels included stops all over America opening for national touring acts and playing everything from night clubs to honky tonk clubs. It was these appearances that probably brought Brandt to where he is today - a New Jersey cowboy telling stories about everything from the old west to the struggles during the Great Depression. In short, he's following Guthrie.
"Basically, we're a couple of singing cowboys," explains Brandt. "We come to your school with a variety of instruments and a very interactive program. We sing about American history and about the American landscape. I'm careful to let people know it's not a political program, it's very much an American program."
These days, many schools are faced with budget cuts and music programs are generally among the first to be cut. Programs like Brandt's fill a tremendous void. The program shows kids how different instruments are played and what they sound like while teaching them important history as well. It's a combination that makes the students learn while having fun. And Brandt can always tell when they've touched a chord with the kids.
"During the question and answer period, that's where you can really tell which kids are digging it the most," said Brandt. "Probably the most rewarding thing is when some of them get inspired enough to ask if I'm going to be coming back next year because they want to play guitar with me... They inspire me as much or more than I inspire them."
The music played during "This Land Is Your Land" is folk music - the music of the common people. Some of the artists played include Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Lee Greenwood and Steve Goodman; songs include such classics as "That Ragged Old Flag", "Blowin' In The Wind", "I've Been Everywhere", and, of course, "This Land Is Your Land." Brandt also throws some of his originals like "Growin' Up In America" into the program.
"All throughout history since the beginning of time, music has always reflected the mood of the times much in the way journalism does," explains Brandt. "It gives us an outlet to talk about our government and our country and our day to day life. I think that songs and pop culture reflect the times in which we live. And these songs stick around for centuries and centuries because as much as things change they still stay the same.
"I think songs kind of serve an inherent purpose to remind us where we've been, where we are, and where we're going."
for more information, please contact:
Children's Educational Assemblies
35 Comanche Dr. Oceanport, NJ 07757
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.