The ten year old girl diagnosed with autism sang “Fever” by Peggy Lee exactly like the record

2011. The ten year old girl diagnosed with autism sang “Fever” by Peggy Lee exactly like the record

excerpt from “History of the Groove, drummer’s story” Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved

The ten year old girl diagnosed with autism sang “Fever” by Peggy Lee exactly like the record. Her mother had brought her in to see if she could possibly sit in with our drumming meditation group. I was astounded.

“She likes music.” her mother offered.

“This is more than liking music.” I explained. “She is a savant.”

Her parents didn’t really know that she could sing so well. I know professional singers who can’t remember all the verses to ‘Fever’. When she joined the group, and we hit another groove, she opened up and sang “You can’t always get what you want.” by the Rolling Stones, improvising on the drum while she sang the lead, putting Mick to shame. When I hit a classic swing groove, she launched into ‘Summer Wind” by Frank Sinatra. “Dear Prudence” followed that. Whenever I hit a new groove, she found a song. But it had to be close to the original tempo. Up to that point she had said absolutely nothing, eyes not focusing on anyone, just looking down, or at some colorful handmade artifact on the shelves in Seasons, Cathy’s sanctuary/gift store of twenty eight years.

“Take it from the top” I said to her and she immediately started the song from the beginning. No hesitation.

She sang into the microphone, while playing the djembe, smiling, improvising. The grown up drummers fell in love with this ten year old angel who was obviously a genius, but had been saddled with the diagnosis of autism. There were tears in her mother’s eyes and the girl’s therapist was in awe. We sailed through songs that I didn’t even know; Jack Johnson, Nora Jones. I checked the youtube versions and realized that she had hit complicated time signature changes on the Jack Johnson song exactly like the record.

“Would  you come to Paris with us?” The therapist asked. “ the international symposium on autism. In Europe, they hospitalize autistic children. We would like to show them what is happening here.”

“Pay my way and I’m there. I want to do this at the Sorbonne.” That didn’t happen. But she is opening for Wayne Newton at the Sands in Las Vegas next month…..just kidding…I am actually doing the drumming therapy, currently on Sorbonne Avenue in Bel air, so drumming to get the universe to provide does work, only its got a bizarre sense of humor…

Sacred rhythms in our culture are hidden within our pop songs. The drum parts that we love so much are our sacred tribal rhythms. I have a great respect for the drum masters from Africa  who come here to teach us their sacred rhythms, but what we have is universal. We have simplified the tribal patterns from all over the world, as they arrived in New Orleans several hundred years ago, and even today, into accessible danceable grooves that function as our cultural highwater marks. America can do things that the rest of the world will resent, but everybody agrees that our music is great. It is great because it has a little bit of everybody in it.

When somebody comes into our shop and says they ‘don’t have rhythm’ I will immediately put a drum in front of them and prove to them that they do have a sense of rhythm and all I use is the Downbeat. The concept of the downbeat is one of the single most important contributions we have made to world culture. It has united, integrated, revolutionized, healed and motivated our society.

When slaves arrived in New Orleans they were allowed to keep the Djembe drum. This was not so on the other slave ports on the Eastern Seaboard because there, it was seen as non Christian. But in new Orleans, the djembe helped create jazz, rhythm and blues, rock n roll. The bandstand was the first place to integrate our races. It was the simple idea that we could all immediately agree on at least one single note; the downbeat; the beginning note of a phrase. Everything else could go off, but as long as we all support the downbeat, we will have a group, a community, a nation. This was not an African concept; if it had been, the story of slavery might have been totally different. It was not a European concept. The invention of the Downbeat was a cultural expediency developed in Congo Square in the French Quarter by a mix of different peoples. It was probably suggested by a woman,

“Why don’t you guys agree on at least ONE NOTE, so that we can dance?”

When our young prodigy sat down at a drum, all I had to do was set up a simple repetitive downbeat at a tempo that had been typically used for our hit songs back before the drum machine crunched our music, and she responded from a deep level of understanding; below intellect, below injury, below medicine. She responded in a common language that most of the society does not even know exists. So when you hear a classic rock song, or a great big band arrangement think of this little girl who can sing and play just by listening for the downbeat. This is not just a miracle, it is a confluence of technology and ancient grooves; she downloaded tunes into her ipod. She has great musical taste. It was a tribute to her parents that they brought her in to the drumming group. She is a blessed and lucky girl.

Here is a link to the video stream I managed to keep. Sorry about the commercials, but go to about 22 minutes and listen to her sing ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ If you don’t fall in love with her, check your heart.

excerpt from “History of the Groove, drummer’s story” Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved



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