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Duo puts music to posthumous work of Margaret Wise Brown

Emily Gary and Tom Proutt

Emily Gary and Tom Proutt sing songs from their “Goodnight Songs” books on the stage at Books To Be Red. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Connie Leinbach

Singing duo Emily Gary and Tom Proutt are spreading the music of their best-selling books by late Margaret Wise Brown.

The singer-songwriters, of Charlottesville, Va., played their music Thursday to a small but appreciative audience at the stage on the Books to Be Red Stage.

“The publisher takes care of the books,” Proutt said about the concert. “We’re trying to spread the music.”

So far, the two have set two books of Brown’s poetry to music and published by Sterling Children’s Books, New York

Those are “Goodnight Songs,” which reached number 4 on the New York Times best-seller list for children’s picture books after it was published in 2014, and “Goodnight Songs: A Celebration of the Seasons,” published in 2015.

Audience members follow along in “Goodnight Songs.” Photo: C. Leinbach

Both books, which include CDs of the music, are available at Books To Be Red and at major booksellers and retailers nationwide.

Margaret Wise Brown is probably best known for her children’s book “Goodnight Moon,” one of the most popular children’s books ever. It was first published in 1947 after Brown had already had 15 years of publishing success.  

After Brown died of a post-surgical embolism in 1952, her sister, Roberta Brown Rauch, found dozens of Margaret’s writings and put them away in a cedar-lined trunk in her Vermont home.

More than 30 years later, Gary’s sister-in-law, Amy Gary, who was starting her own children’s book publishing company, got to know Rauch, who shared the treasure trove of approximately 60 manuscripts of poems and songs with Amy during a visit in 1989.

Amy just happened to know a singer-songwriter.

 “There was so much material,” Emily said about the process of selecting what poems to put to music.  “We just sifted through it.”

Amy spent 10 years cataloging all the songs and Emily and Proutt set them to music.

Each book of 12 poems/songs each is illustrated by an award-winning children’s book illustrator, and Emily said there may be a third book.

Emily Gary and Tom Proutt in the WOVV studio. Photo: P. Vankevich

Emily Gary and Tom Proutt in the WOVV studio. Photo: P. Vankevich

Longtime collaborators, Emily and Proutt’s voices blend easily in the gentle, lovely melodies.  Although the songs on the CDs employ more musicians and instruments, for the concert Emily played an electric bass and Proutt an acoustic guitar.

Throughout the concert, the two shared tidbits about Brown’s “remarkable life” between her  world travels and homes in New York and Maine.

“On an island in Maine, she had a house called “The Only House,” Emily said.

“It was rustic,” Proutt added. “It had no electricity or plumbing, but it had an outdoor washroom just standing outside.”

During the concert, the two performed songs in both books while some audience members followed along in the books.

“They’re pretty talented to put all of these to music,” said islander Henry Schliff, whose wife Grace West held open one of the books. “They’re pretty melodies.”

Emily and Proutt have performed their original compositions for 13 years.

“As a duo, this is what we do now,” Emily said about the “Goodnight Songs” concerts. “This has been our favorite project of all.”

Earlier in the week they performed and were interviewed on WOVV 990.1 FM, Ocracoke’s community radio station.  

To view a video clip of the concert, click here: 

Emily Gary

Emily Gary. Photo: C. Leinbach