PRYOR — Charlie Maguire, who played guitar for a decade on “A Prairie Home Companion,” was trying to encourage the Pryor Elementary first- and second-graders to open up.
“Hum your secret melody to me,” he told the class earlier this week, and one little girl began to hum a tune. Maguire, with his guitar in his lap, immediately grabbed onto the melody and began writing a song.
“It's really cool,” said Lori Walker, one of the school's helpers and the wife of principal/superintendent Joseph Walker.
Maguire has been at the Crow reservation school all week, teaching students to write songs and draw from their cultural heritage. Working with the first- and second-graders, he and the class wrote a song about animals native to the area.
Under Maguire's direction, the third- and fourth-graders wrote a song about the land on which they live, and the fifth- and sixth-graders wrote a piece about their people.
The three groups will perform their songs in a concert at the elementary school at 2 p.m. Friday.
“I'm seeing kids who are just soaking up music like a sponge,” he said. “It's something they respond to.”
Sitting in class Thursday, Maguire pulled his guitar from its case and sat down with the first- and second-graders at their desks. The lyrics for the song “Animals Outside” were written out on a large sheet of white butcher paper hanging at the front of the classroom.
“So guys,” Maguire said to the kids, “I went over to the high school and said I wanted to put some Crow language in our song.”
The high school's Crow language teacher has been helping Maguire incorporate words into the music the students are writing.
The problem, he explained, was that the word had to fit into the rhythm and rhyme scheme already established for the song. Many of the words, he said, simply had too many syllables.
Until they got to buffalo, which in Crow is “bishée.” It fit right into the verse about buffaloes.
Maguire has long been a staple on the nation's folk scene. He grew up in upstate New York, and as a young man in the 1960s he was hanging out in New York and Boston learning from folk revival pioneers like Pete Seegar and Arlo Guthrie.
He attended college at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., graduating in 1970. Lori Walker first heard of Maguire when she was a student at Northland, after Maguire had graduated.
Setting up shop in Minnesota, Maguire toured, recorded and played on “A Prairie Home Companion.” His first visits to Montana were on the college circuit, playing concerts on campuses during the 1970s and 1980s.
But during his entire professional career, Maguire has always found schools he could visit and students he could tutor, showing them the importance of music.
“I've done music with all kinds of people,” he said, “Hmongs, Latinos and now with the Crow.”
Walker thought to contact Maguire over the summer. School leaders had met with parents before the start of the school year asking them what more they wanted for their child's education. The resounding reply was music.
The school couldn't afford a full-time music teacher, so Walker thought she'd call Maguire to see if he would be interested in visiting the school for a week. Before she could even ask the question, he volunteered to come.
“They took to him right away,” Walker said. One boy has started calling him Uncle Charlie.
Maguire, a self-described “flatlander” enamored with the wild, rolling hills and distant blue-shadowed mountains of southeast Montana, has enjoyed the experience immensely.
“They're good kids,” he said, smiling.
Contact Rob Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1231.