The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Caterpillars Crawl

A lighthearted look at the daunting act of “going out on a limb”

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: Elizabeth Alexander

A lighthearted and thoughtful look at the daunting and transformative process of “going out on a limb,” offering clever, down-to-earth lyrics, delightful text painting, and the opportunity to fly!

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

The music I write teaches me astonishing things about myself. Most of the time the lessons it teaches me are delightful, offering me new and interesting ways of looking at the world. But in the case of Caterpillars Crawl, the lesson held a surprising amount of pain.

I originally wrote Caterpillars Crawl just for fun. When I sang it to myself, strumming along on my guitar, it made me happy. It always reminded me that I was absolutely okay even when I didn’t feel particularly popular or talented or smart.

One day I got the delicious idea to make a children’s choir arrangement of Caterpillars Crawl. I was so excited to share this song with the world! A few days after it was finished I was happily playing it at the piano when I suddenly realized something that stopped me in my tracks: the most important rhyming words in my song didn’t actually rhyme! I felt so ashamed that I started to cry.

Unless you’ve lived in Appalachia or the South, you may have no idea what I’m talking about. It all has to do with different ways of pronouncing vowels. Where I grew up, words like “them” and “stem” have the same vowel sound as words like “slim,” “limb,” and “interim.” When I went to graduate school in the Northeast, my fellow students noticed right away that I said “rint” instead of “rent,” “pin” instead of “pen,” and “mimmo” instead of “memo.” Even some of my professors made fun of me, joking that I was a “hillbilly” or a “Southern belle.”

There is a strong stereotype that people who speak in a Southern dialect are uneducated and stupid, and I sure didn’t want anyone thinking I was uneducated or stupid, so I worked hard to change. Some changes were not too hard to make, like avoiding using the word “y’all.” But changing certain vowel sounds required a lot more practice. I finally thought I had stamped out all traces of my accent, and yet it was clear I had failed. Any sophisticated musician who heard Caterpillars Crawl would instantly know I was still a dumb hick.

Of course, I was not a dumb hick. You would think I’d know this by the time I was a thirty-year-old woman with an doctoral degree in music composition from an Ivy League university, but self-doubt is a brutal foe. It can be powerfully hard to believe in your own beauty when the folks around you don’t see it. It took me many years to truly believe, deep inside, that my “down home” dialect was not inferior. In fact, I finally came to understand that it’s an exquisite and expressive way of talking, with its own poetry and grace.

One day I realized I was ready to claim my heritage and, like the caterpillars, “go out on a limb.” I officially changed my professional biography to read: “Elizabeth Alexander grew up in the Carolinas and Appalachian Ohio.” That same day, I added a new composition to my music catalog: Caterpillars Crawl — a song that always reminds me that I am absolutely okay even when I don’t feel particularly popular or talented or smart.


Caterpillars Crawl

Caterpillars crawl and that’s okay for them.
It gets them where they need to go and keeps them slim.
They inch along and roll around,
And pretty much stay on the ground,
And from a very early age they learn to blend right in.
And like I said, that’s okay for them.

Caterpillars crawl and that’s okay for them.
They rarely think beyond their local flower stem.
Upon their bellies day and night,
They do not often dream of flight.
They live their caterpillar lives and munch on blades of grass.
And like I said, that’s okay for them.

Caterpillars crawl and that’s okay for them.
Except for those who take a lonely interim.
To search their caterpillar souls,
Rethink their caterpillar goals,
And nurture what they have inside in hopes of finding more.
And, so to speak, go out on a limb.

Elizabeth Alexander

© 2022 by Elizabeth Alexander
(Original version © 2006)

© 1996 by Elizabeth Alexander



Premiere: Children’s Choir of First Unitarian Church / Elizabeth Alexander (Ithaca, NY)
Angelica Cantanti Youth Choir / Ann Schrooten (Bloomington and Minneapolis, MN)
Children’s Choir of First Unitarian Church of Nashville / Jason Shelton (Nashville, TN)
Children’s Choir of Unitarian Universalist Church of Fullerton / Judi Herz (Fullerton, CA)
Children’s Choir of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton / Marjorie Herman (Princeton, NJ)
Choir of Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church / Beth Nakao Syverson (Glenside, PA)
Choral Leadership Academy Workshop / Rodney Eichenberger. Choral Leadership Academy, ACDA California Conference (Fresno, CA)
Earthrise Chamber Choir / Bertram Gulhaugen (Seattle, WA)