Singer-songwriter Peter Alsop honed his talent the hard way--performing in Central Park for audiences that weren't always receptive. But it was there that he learned a lesson that has served him well over the years.
"I found that if I played funny songs, people would stop and listen, as opposed to if I played some heart-felt love thing--where they'd keep on walking and I'd feel crushed," he recalled.
For the past 12 years he has used humor and music to address subjects that most people find difficult to discuss--like incest, emotional and physical abuse.
Since 1975, when he recorded the first of eight solo albums, Alsop has become nationally recognized as a singer, songwriter and lecturer on hard-to-talk-about topics--a combination that has gotten him invitations to more than 400 colleges and universities around the country. His songs are used by thousands of parents, therapists and educators to help families address sensitive issues.
"His lyrics are so universal and innocent, and yet they are so powerful," said Johanna Lessner, incoming president of the California Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists, which asked Alsop to perform and lecture at its annual conference in San Francisco last weekend.
"He sees with the eyes of children, things like the hurts children experience, and does it in a way that everyone can hear it without building up defenses or being threatened," she said.
Both of Alsop's children's albums have gained critical acclaim. "Take Me With You," which contains the song "Letter to Mr. Brown" about the child-abuse backlash, won the 1986 Parents Choice Award. "Wha'D' Ya Wanna Do" received the 1984 Indie Award for Best Children's Recording. That album contains the song "My Body," which currently is being used in abuse prevention programs in the U.S. and Canada:
Sometimes its hard to say "No!" and be strong.
When the "NO!" feelings come, then I know something's wrong!
Cause my body's mine from my head to my toe.
Please leave it alone when you hear me say "no!"
A former teacher in the South Bronx ghetto with a doctorate in educational psychology, Alsop believes his songs are just as much for adults as they are for children.
"I don't consider this kid stuff," Alsop said recently in his rustic office in Topanga Canyon. "I consider it family stuff."
Changes in Perception
In deceptively simple melodies and lyrics, Alsop's songs frequently create subtle changes in the way people perceive certain types of behavior. It is not at all unintentional.
In "Take Me With You" for example, a child pleads with a parent not be left alone at home:
Did someone used to leave you home when you were little too?
Can you remember that far back and how it felt to you?
What if goblins in the basement come and eat my bones?
What if something happens to me when I'm all alone?
One characteristic common to most people, Alsop said, is the need for answers. "In school, we're taught that everything has an answer; that's what tests are about," he said. "But when you get out into the world, there aren't always answers to everything, such as why something bad happened to you. But because we're not comfortable with that," he explained "we will come up with simple solutions--such as 'I must be a bad person.' "
Through his songs, Alsop seeks to address many of those complex issues, for which there are not always simple solutions. In "Look at The Ceiling," for instance, a little girl sings about incest:
Look at the ceiling, the shadows are bears.
I wonder what's on the TV?
And Daddy's hands rub me all over.
I wonder do leaves in the creek find their way to the sea?
\f7 Alsop says that when he sings that song at conferences, it is always followed by "Love Is The Only Medicine," something he believes is true for all emotional trauma.
One topic the singer says he has not yet addressed, but wants to is wife battering. "Again, it's a simple solution to say 'you do that and so you're a horrible person,' " Alsop said. "There's so much more to it than that. It's an incredibly complex issue, but I'm working on it."
Alsop, 39, has a background as varied as the topics he sings about. A one-time military academy student who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Alsop did his undergraduate work in architecture, religion and art at Trinity College in Connecticut.
After getting involved in numerous "sensitivity training workshops" that became popular during 1960s, he decided to attend Columbia University to earn his doctoral degree in educational psychology.
During college, Alsop played bass guitar in various rock 'n' roll groups. While in graduate school, he began playing acoustic guitar, writing songs and honing his skills as a performer in New York's Central Park.
It was then he began writing satirical songs that dealt with everything from a male chauvinist's claim that everything he does is for his girlfriend's own good, to the painful and often unavoidable cycles people perpetuate with their lovers.