When Tim Whitaker founded the Philadelphia educational nonprofit Mighty Writers in 2009, he had a clear mission in mind. “It was the same then as it is now,” says the former Philadelphia Weekly editor. “To get kids to think clearly, and write with clarity. We say that same thing to them over and over.”
The challenge, Whitaker says, “is to find ways to get kids excited abut writing. So for some kids that’s sports. For some it’s comic books, or food. And for many kids it’s music.”
Now, Mighty Writers has launched Mighty Song Writers, a video series in collaboration with the online magazine Literary Hub that features musicians performing songs and talking about their favorite teachers and writers.
The impressive lineup debuted July 29 with Nashville singer and violinist Amanda Shires — who brought along her songwriting husband Jason Isbell to play guitar and talk about what he learned from Tom T. Hall. New episodes go live every Wednesday on both lithub.com and the Mighty Writers YouTube channel, where they’re archived after that.
This week, Mighty Song Writers featured jazz pianist Marcus Roberts in a bravura performance. In his segment, Roberts talks about losing his sight at age 5 and credits his mother, who was born blind, with firing his passion to read and write braille.
Roberts also touts author Robin D.G. Kelley’s biography of Thelonious Monk and talks about how great music uses dramatic storytelling techniques “to keep you on the edge of your seat, just like great literature does.”
Musical segments in the episode show the range of Roberts’ own virtuosity, from Monk to Ravel’s Bolero and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” — and a timely new composition: “The Year We Won’t Forget.”
Upcoming episodes include Delaware County soul man Devon Gilfillian. “Who Will Save Your Soul?” singer Jewel, Matt Quinn of Philly-born duo Mt. Joy, Tennessee troubadour and banjo player Valerie June, GLAAD award-nominated songwriter Wrabel, and Phil Augusta Jackson, a comedy writer for Insecure and Brooklyn 99 who grew up in Yardley and is also a musician.
The idea for Mighty Song Writers came from Joe McEwen, a Concord Records executive and Philly native who is on the Mighty Writers board.
“Joe and I have been talking about it for a couple of years,” says Whitaker. “It’s so smart because in addition to playing a few songs, musicians are talking about writing and who got them interested in writing. So it has a real connection to what we do.”
Since first opening at 15th and Christian in a building owned by Kenny Gamble, Mighty Writers has grown. Its seven outposts today include learning centers in West Philly, Camden, and Kennett Square. Its annual budget, from foundations and individual donors, is approximately $3 million, Whitaker says.
Before the pandemic hit, the organization was serving 3,500 students and exploring expansion to Newark, N.J., and Atlantic City. With everything now gone virtual, the number of students has dropped to 1,500, and Mighty Writers has been forced to shift focus.
“As soon as the virus came,” says Whitaker, “we immediately began distributing food. We started with lunches, and then groceries and diapers and wipes and masks.
“All of our centers are in disadvantaged communities,” he says, “so we had to jump in and do what we can. That’s become a big part of our mission now. You can’t think clearly if you’re hungry.”
The pilot for Mighty Song Writers was recorded by singer Rhett Miller this spring and is available on Vimeo. It’s not part of the official series but is more than worthwhile.
He explores tunes from the Great American Songbook, and shares useful tips for anyone who wants to create art. “Don’t worry too much about the rules,” he suggests. “Just start making things. Let them dictate what they are.”
Music publicity company Shore Fire Media, whose clients include Bruce Springsteen and Kesha, was instrumental in pulling in high-profile artists.
Shore Fire’s Marilyn Laverty said she and her colleagues have been “knocked out” by Mighty Writers mission, ever since McEwen introduced her to the organization.
“They’re creative, they’re tireless, and they are deeply committed to their kids and communities. They help the kids get better grades, expand their world, access more opportunities, and most importantly help them understand their own lives and express themselves to others. Many of the musicians we work with are authors themselves, and we jumped at the chance.”
Mighty Songs Writers “is an obvious fit for us,” said LitHub editor Jonny Diamond. “We love to talk to people outside of the book world about their relationship to reading and writing and books and stories.”
“LitHub is really cool,” said Shires, “and when I got word about Mighty Song Writers I thought that was right up my alley.”
She spoke this week from her home outside of Nashville, where she lives with Isbell and their daughter, Mercy, and where she has just relaunched I So Lounging, her now weekly virtual performance series.
“When I was a kid, I was a product of a broken marriage and raised by a single mom, and we didn’t have access to as many sources of good information as we could have,” said Shires, who grew up in Lubbock and Mineral Wells, Texas. “I wanted to do this because I hope it helps.”
In her segment, Shires wears an “Elect More Women” shirt and give props to her eighth-grade teacher Maddie Mae McKinney. “We don’t get to talk about the teachers that influenced us or affected us the most. Where would you be without that teacher who believed in you, or was hard enough on you to make you better?”
Phil Augusta Jackson is a successful screenwriter nominated for an Emmy for HBO’s Insecure. He’s also sold a pilot for a show to NBC about the social lives of wine-drinking Black men called Grand Crew. But he’s a musician at heart. He has a new hip-hop EP, The Redondo Tape, due in September.
In Jackson’s upcoming Mighty Song Writers segment he sings and plays the keyboard, shouts out Frank Ocean and his English teacher mother Oona, and plays Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” on soprano saxophone.
Participating in the series was “a no-brainer,” he says, speaking from his home in Southern California. “I grew up in a family where the importance of reading and writing was stressed in finding out who you are.”
He found Mighty Writers especially compelling because the nonprofit does most of its work in communities of color.