Firefly Pointer Fiberglass Jacket: Music and Sign Language: Were U2 the pioneers?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Music and Sign Language: Were U2 the pioneers?

 The story begins when I went to an outdoor concert at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The Gin Blossoms, a very 90's band were playing that afternoon ("Hey Jealousy" "Follow you down" "Found out about you."). Off to the left of the stage was a young lady doing sign language to the songs they were performing. I had never seen this before and immediately loved the idea. I found my eyes almost more drawn to her than the charming lead singer. Robin (the lead singer) began to bring her into their performance more by dancing with her and getting her to play tambourine between lyrics.

 Ever since this concert the idea of helping the deaf experience music has been a fascination of mine. I truly believe in the power of music. I feel that anything that helps those who can't hear to still feel and understand music is important. I'm happy to say that this is becoming more and more of thing. For example, singer Sia did it on SNL and Ingrid Michaelson did it in her music video. It's catching on at music festivals and live shows big and small. I wanted to find out who "started" this trend, or find out it's origins. Truth be told I'm still investigating, but I've already found a ton of information.

 On my page Rock & Roll Resurrection a comment about asl being used at a concert in the 80's was posted. The article U2 CONCERT REVIEW: 04/13/1987 AT SAN DIEGO BY ROBERT J. HAWKINS talks of something truly special happening at their April 87' concert.
"BONO STOOD at the edge of the stage, drenched head with sweat, pointing off into the darkness. He had stopped singing, as the rest of U2 kept alive "Pride (in the Name of Love)." "There's a lady in the middle of the audience," said Bono. "I want her to come up here. She knows who she is. Signals. She's been sending me good signals all night."

That might have been half of the 13,000-plus people in the Sports Arena last night.

One woman did come forward, her face a mixture of incredulity and ecstasy.

Bono had been right about the signals. Martin Luther King Jr., the young woman translated the lyrics in the sign language of the deaf.

"For the first time ever at a U2 concert," said Bono.

The woman's fluid, joyous gestures rose above U2's amplified sound, resonating off the hearts of thousands of fans. Chills ran up the spine, cresting in moist eyes.

If there is such a thing as a shared moment among 10,000 people, this was one."
 Wow, what a story! Sounds like U2 are pioneers in helping to translate music with asl to the deaf. But I knew I had to look further into it. I soon came across a lady by the name of Susan Freundlich.
"When Susan Freundlich appears onstage at the side of Emmylou Harris or Pete Seeger, weaving back and forth in her own spotlight, the singers’ audiences grow by anywhere from 70 to 170 people. The numbers are not impressive, but Freundlich’s fans, who often sit in a roped-off area of their own, are different. Accompanying dozens of performers over the last five years, Freundlich, 31, has used a combination of dance, mime and American Sign Language to open up the concert experience to the country’s nearly 20 million hearing-impaired."
 The article With Sign Language and Love, Susan Freundlich Gives the Beat to America's Hearing-Impaired explains how Susan has been doing this since the early 80's. Accompanying folk artists like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, she would do sign language and interpretive dance for show attendees. On youtube "Signalongs" are growing in popularity. Signalongs are simply sign language being paired with popular songs into a music video.

 Late last year this really touching commercial appeared of a guy trying to help his deaf brother experience music. Although he uses lights and colors generated from a computer connected to an electric guitar; it highlights the desire to experience music. This extended commercial got some flack from the deaf community (and for some valid reasons). To me this commercial was beautiful, but everyone is entitled to their opinions. 

I didn't know which one to watch @snoopdogg or the #interpreter 🙌🏼 #JazzFest #neworleans @tglradioshow #TheGoodLifeRadioShow @wbok1230 To use this video in a commercial player or in broadcasts, please email

Posted by The Good Life Radio Show on Saturday, May 6, 2017

  I also came across Amber Galloway Gallego who interprets songs at rock concerts with the likes of rappers and way more excitingly... The Red Hot Chili Peppers. This chick rocks!

 The earliest example I can find is Susan Freundlich doing asl and music interpretation for a Holly Near Concert in Sacramento, California, 1981.

Susan Freundlich doing ASL 1981
"Often recognized by people who have seen her work as a performance sign language interpreter, Susan is widely acknowledged as one of the primary creators of the bridge building work of making progressive politics, social movements and culture accessible to deaf people through sign language interpretation in concert halls and on theatrical stages. Susan performed and collaborated with Holly Near, Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Arlo Guthrie, June Jordan, Linda Tillery, Emmy Lou Harris, the New York Shakespeare Festival"

 If you have any additional information about this topic feel free to email me! I am particularly interested in early examples of music artists collaborating with people doing sign language for the viewing audience.

Were U2 the pioneers of music and sign language?
Nope, that honor goes to Susan Freundlich.

Just a few articles I found on the subject:
Sign Language Interpreters Who Kick Ass At Concerts - VH1
For Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the Joy of Live Music
Inside the World of Concert Sign Language Interpreters

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