If like me you loved to read Shel Silverstein to your kids (or you’re lucky enough to be doing it now), you remember “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “The Giving Tree.”
Here’s another Silverstein poem I found, one I didn’t know. It’s a riff on the Pied Piper myth. It’s a poem about staying home—for fear of God knows what.
The One who Stayed
-by Shel Silverstein
You should have heard the old men cry
You should have heard the biddies
When that sad stranger raised his flute
And piped away the kiddies.
Katy, Tommy, Meg and Bob
Followed skipping gaily,
Red-haired Ruth, my brother Ron
And crippled Bailey,
John and Nils and Cousin Claire
Dancin’, spinnin’, turnin’
‘Cross the hills to God knows where—
They never came returnin’
‘Cross the hills to God knows where
The piper pranced a leadin’
Each child in Hamlin town but me
And I stayed home unheedin’.
My papa says that I was blest
For if that music found me,
I’d be witch-cast like the rest
This town grows old around me.
I cannot say I did not hear
That sound so hauntin’ hollow—
I heard, I heard, I heard it clear . . .
I was afraid to follow.
The story of the mysterious piper is most often used as a cautionary tale for children. Stay close to home. Don’t listen to the alluring sounds of any old piper who comes to town. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it leads to ruin. And so on. The myth reinforces the power of home and hometown, of conventional morality and religion (in the Brothers Grimm story, the piper comes on Sunday morning when all the parents are in church, and pipes away 130 children. What are these parents doing in church without their children? Hmmmm.).
What the myth hints at—and what Shel Silverstein nails—is the power of home and family and church and community to both enfold and imprison. A great home and family, church and community always enfolds its children and young people. It is not afraid to hold fast and hard when the young press the boundaries. But somewhere along the line the task of the young is to break free anyway. Because if you don’t, you end up imprisoned, sad and shriveled at the end of your life, wondering what happened to your dreams and visions.
The good news is, it is never too late to hear the dulcet notes of a song that compels you, pulls you, inspires you. So if you hear a pipe today, drop everything.