The Queen of Picture Books directs the King of Blues
Sandra Boynton may be the only New York Times best-selling writer with a Grammy nomination and more than 4,000 greeting cards under her belt. Her 2002 combined picture book/audio CD Philadelphia Chickens reached #1 on the bestseller list and featured stars such as Meryl Streep, Laura Linney and Natasha Richardson singing in an “imaginary musical revue.” With One Shoe Blues, Boynton succeeds in a new creative venture: writing, directing and designing a short film. B.B. King and a group of loveable sock puppets star in this book and nearly 5-minute music video about the familiar frustration of misplacing a shoe. In an email Q&A, Boynton answers questions about losing stuff, her dream project and working with B.B. King.
“One Shoe Blues” is your filmmaking debut. Why did you want to try a short film?
I wanted to try film because I was curious to know what it was like. Also the possibility of spectacular failure is much too intriguing to pass up. The most challenging part was during the actual shoot: having to keep in mind and coordinate the technical demands of filming simultaneously with responding to and guiding what the actor is doing. The most fun was working with such an exquisite performer. B.B. King’s sublime musicality, subtle comedic talent and unfailing benevolence are nothing short of extraordinary.
The song “One Shoe Blues” debuted in 2007, on the book and CD Blue Moo: 17 Jukebox Hits from Way Back Never. Of all the songs from that CD, why did you choose to turn “One Shoe Blues” into its own book and movie?
At the original recording session with B.B. for the song of “One Shoe Blues” —in March 2007 at Avatar Studios in New York City—I watched in awe as B.B. King assumed easily and plausibly and with brilliant humor a child’s persona. It’s this skillful and nuanced wry transformation I wanted to capture on film.
Why did you decide to sell your CDs inside of books, instead of directly in music stores?
It’s partly practical: I’m not a singer, so in music stores, I have no slot. The CDs would be lost somewhere in the haze of “Children’s: Various Artists.” But the important reason has to do with the wonderful relationship I have with Workman Publishing. I’ve been with them nearly 30 years—all that time with the same editor, Suzanne Rafer. Suzanne and the ingenious company founder, Peter Workman, support me and guide me in pretty much any quixotic and inexplicable direction I want to go. Also, I like the dimension a book adds to a child’s experience of this music I write. And, too, a book means I get to do more drawings.
When were you first introduced to the music of B.B. King? Did you grow up listening to the blues?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know B.B. King’s music. Everything is right in what he does: the unfussy yet complex vocal journey, that impossibly articulate guitar, the yearning, the knowing. I grew up listening to an eclectic mix of the records my parents played—Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey, Tommy Dorsey and a whole lot of choral and instrumental classical music—and the music played on the legendary AM radio stations of 1960s Philadelphia (these stations include those from New York City on clear nights.) I somehow assume I first heard B. B. King on Cousin Brucie’s WABC show. Which is why I have Cousin Brucie do a radio intro at the beginning of this short film.
The co-star of One Shoe Blues is the sassy Momsock, a sock puppet. Why did you include sock puppets in your book?
It seemed to me that sock puppets are the clear choice to appear in a video called “One Shoe Blues.”
What was B.B. King’s response when he found out that he’d be working with sock puppets?
I suspect the sock puppets are a significant part of why he said yes. He has a distinctly droll and playful approach to things.
You dedicated One Shoe Blues to “people who lose stuff.” Do you lose a lot of stuff?
Ah. When I wrote the dedication, it did occur to me that it was really a self-dedication. It’s mildly defiant, I guess. My father was a kind and patient man, but I remember his frequent exasperated, “Sandra, I do wish you could keep track of your things.” I couldn’t, and can’t, and neither apparently can B.B King. At the recording session, B.B.’s grandson said, “This song is so him.”
In the “making of” video, we learn that the filming of “One Shoe Blues” was bumped at the last minute from September to July. Did the tight deadline cause the movie to change at all from your original vision?
Although it made for some terrifying preparation, I think if anything the tight schedule enhanced the project, because there’s great energy and focus in that kind of pressured collaborative work. We did have to film some of the sock puppet shots later, and that also turned out to be a good thing, since we were able to better evaluate exactly what was needed to complement B.B’s work and complete the film.
If you could collaborate with any musician or actor, who would it be? Why?
I’ve been so lucky to have worked with so many of my heroes already. I don’t know: Mark Knopfler? The Dixie Chicks? REM? Foo Fighters? Gwen Stefani? Rufus Wainwright? Muse? The Rolling Stones? (There’s nothing like being cheerfully and profoundly unrealistic, I think.)
Describe your current project.
I’m thinking of cleaning my room. Though maybe I’m not quite ready.
In her own handwriting, Sandra Boynton answers questions about Hey! Wake Up! (2000).
Video about the making of “One Shoe Blues”: