SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Michael Hearst has a new album that features songs for extraordinary people who maybe haven't had a song until now. Some of them are well-known - Harry Houdini, Billie Jean King and Jane Goodall. Then, there's a song for a man called Lawnchair Larry. In 1982 - he strapped 45 helium balloons to a piece of outdoor furniture and floated into the sky.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAWNCHAIR LARRY")
MICHAEL HEARST: (Singing) When he was a young man, he dreamed of flying high. He dreamed of flying far above his home and through the clear blue sky.
SIMON: And Michael Hearst, who is a founding member of the group One Ring Zero and whose previous projects include "Songs For Ice Cream Trucks" and "Chicken People," joins us now in our New York studios.
Thanks so much for being with us.
HEASRT: I'm thrilled to be back. Thanks for having me.
SIMON: And please remind us what happened to Larry Walters after he drifted into space.
HEASRT: Well, Larry brought a BB gun along with him on the flight for a good reason, and that was to shoot the balloons so that he could eventually descend. And he did land safely. One of my favorite things, though, I learned though...
SIMON: Wait, landed safely - he got tied up in electric cables.
HEASRT: I should say he survived (laughter).
SIMON: Yeah, right. Yeah.
HEASRT: Maybe landing safely is an overstatement. But they were following him and saw where he was going to get tied up in electric cables and cut off the power, thankfully. But one of my favorite things that I learned about Larry Walters was apparently a United Airline pilot radioed to the tower to say he had just passed a man in a lawn chair with a BB gun at 16,000 feet. And so yes, the gun was used to shoot the balloon so that he could eventually descend.
SIMON: Looking again at the cast of characters that you've written songs for - Jane Goodall, Harry Houdini, Billie Jean King, Marie Curie and Evel Knievel. You don't often have them referred to in the same breath.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARIE CURIE")
HEASRT: (Singing) Madame Curie, your discovery of radium was quite wise. For that they have bestowed on me the noblest Nobel Prize.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVEL KNIEVEL")
HEASRT: (Singing) Evel, Evel, Evel Knievel. Evel, Evel, Evel Knievel. Evel, Evel, Evel - Evel, Evel, Evel - Evel, Evel, Evel Knievel.
SIMON: Michael Hearst songs about Marie Curie and Evel Knievel - why do they both have places on this album?
HEASRT: Well, the idea of writing "Songs For Extraordinary People" opened it up to a lot of different categories. You know, so I had to think about who I wanted to include and curate this project. So there's humanitarians. There's artists. There's activists, daredevils, survivors, criminals. One thing I wanted to make sure people understood was that extraordinary does not necessarily mean role model, especially since this works so nicely as a children's record. I don't want kids to be on motorcycles jumping 14 Greyhound buses. But really, it was just who I thought were interesting people to write music about.
SIMON: Yeah. Roy Sullivan - he was struck by lightning seven times. right?
HEASRT: Yeah, Roy Sullivan was not extraordinary for what he did as much as what happened to him. He had the misfortune of being struck by lightning seven times. Granted, he was a park ranger in Virginia and he was outside a lot. His wife even got struck one time.
SIMON: And Jeanne de Clisson?
HEASRT: I thought it'd be fun to include a female pirate. And I knew there must be a female pirate out there. So I did some research. And sure enough, there was a Jeanne de Clisson, a French female pirate from the 1400s who, to avenge her late husband, bought three ships, painted them black and red and sailed the English Channel hunting down every French boat she could find.
SIMON: And Stagecoach Mary - who is she?
HEASRT: She is fascinating. She was the first African-American woman to be employed as a mail carrier in the United States.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY FIELDS (STAGECOACH MARY)")
HEASRT: (Singing) Stagecoach Mary brought me my mail every single day without fail. Rain or snow, wagon is stuck - It don't matter I'm still in luck.
HEASRT: But she was also 6 feet tall, weighed 200 pounds and was one tough cookie. She carried a gun around with her and smoked cigars. And she started off in an orphanage and eventually opened a restaurant - which failed because she pretty much gave everything away for free - and then became this mail delivery person. And throughout the course of this, she became so beloved that even while women were not allowed in pubs and saloons, Stagecoach Mary was granted access.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY FIELDS (STAGECOACH MARY)")
HEASRT: (Singing) Rain or snow, wagon is stuck - it don't matter. I'm still in luck.
(SOUNDBITE HORSE NEIGHING)
SIMON: When you write a song like that, do you want youngsters to grow up singing it?
HEASRT: (Laughter) Not as much as I want youngsters to be better educated and learn about some of these incredible people, especially now more than ever.
SIMON: A nice, short song here is for a man named Sam Patch.
HEASRT: So Sam Patch was really America's first daredevil. And he became famous by jumping into the water around waterfalls and off bridges and Niagara Falls and ultimately met his match at Genesee Falls. So I thought it'd be fun to read a short little song about this daredevil and have some fiddle and banjo - and "Sam Patch."
SIMON: Let's hear a little.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAM PATCH")
HEASRT: (Singing) Sam Patch, Sam Patch - the jumping bug he did catch, a hundred feet without a scratch. So impressive, Samuel Patch. Sam Patch, Sam Patch - the fame and glory would soon hatch. Plus, a few bucks he would snatch - exciting times for Samuel Patch.
SIMON: Michael Hearst's new album, "Songs for Extraordinary People," the companion to his book "Extraordinary People." Thanks so much for joining us.
HEASRT: Thrilled to be here. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTHEM OF THE EXTRAORDINARY")
HEASRT: (Singing) Are you extraordinary? Are you extraordinary? What have you discovered? What have you seen? What have you invented? Where have you been?
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