Little Steven wants to chat with Laura Bush.
That’s what Steven Van Zandt–a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, the actor who played Silvio Dante in The Sopranos, and the host of the syndicated radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage–told me on Monday after a press conference in which he teamed up with the National Association for Music Education to promote music in primary education. At the event, Van Zandt announced his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation is creating a music appreciation curriculum for middle and high schools that will cover the history of rock and roll.
Van Zandt is no fan of the Bush administration. He has long identified with progressive causes. His 1984 album, Voice of America was loaded with rough anti-Reagan sentiment. In 1985, he pulled together dozen of top recording artists–Bob Dylan, U2, Run DMC, Springsteen–for the antiapartheid anthem, “Sun City.” And in 2004, Van Zandt (with Springsteen and the rest of the band) was part of the Vote for Change tour that hit swing states to encourage people to, well, vote for change–that is, to vote against George W. Bush.
But now Van Zandt is pushing an issue that he says “transcends politics.” At the press event, he was joined by John Mahlmann, the executive director of the National Association for Music Education, who noted that student access to music education has dropped about 20 percent in recent years–thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act. Mahlmann also said that students’ “contact time” with music and all the arts has fallen 40 percent. The No Child Left Behind law, Mahlmann claimed, has caused schools to obsess over testing for math and reading and that “pushes out other areas of the curriculum.”
Van Zandt added, “We don’t live by just math and science alone.” He and Mahlmann repeatedly made the point that music education teaches kids to how to be creative, how to solve problems, and how to work in groups–skills that can be transferred to other endeavors. And they cited a poll showing that adults in higher education and income brackets had music education when they were in school. Arts are as essential in education as the basics, argued Van Zandt, who was wearing a red leather jacket and one of his trademark bandanas, “We seem to be the only country in the world that considers the arts a luxury,” he said.
After Van Zandt signed a white Gibson electric guitar that will be auctioned to raise money for his project, Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (which represents school superintendents and principals from across the country) approached him and complimented Van Zandt for talking about the obvious connection between music education, smarter (and happier) kids, and U.S. productivity. “The fact that creativity is critical to our international competitiveness is a major point,” Houston told the musician/actor/activist. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Van Zandt nodded in earnest agreement.
So will this lefty guitar hero be able to meet with and win over Laura Bush? “This transcends politics,” he says. “I’d like to get her advice and opinion.” But as of yet, the First Lady is not on his schedule. Nor is Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education and another target of Van Zandt’s policy-minded interest. But while Van Zandt is in Washington for two sold-out Springsteen shows, he will be hobnobbing with Senator Ted Kennedy, Senator Mitch McConnell, and–naturally–the two senators from Jersey. It would be surprising if he gets that gig with Bush’s wife. She’s probably not a fan.