Words Without Songs: Making Music For Everyone with Ally ASL

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Allyson Townsend, better known by the moniker Ally ASL, is a rising Internet star who was featured in one of our daily video's signing to Ke$ha's "Tik Tok." Having found out that Townsend was a Texas girl, we decided to sit down with her and find out exactly what prompts someone to bring to life the lyrics of Taylor Swift, Ozzy Osbourne, and others for the benefit of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

RO: What made you start recording videos of American Sign Language to pop songs?

AT: Well, my freshman year in college at Baylor University, I somehow got addicted to the whole YouTube craze. I was in my sixth year of learning ASL (approximately) and was searching for ASL when a video came up of a guy signing songs. He was Deaf himself, and I was so captivated by what I saw. It was truly amazing that he could portray the songs through his hands.

I had some Deaf friends back home whom I knew had some questions about music. One time at a church camp, my Deaf friend asked me, "How do you know when to sing what word and how fast to sing them?" I wasn't really quite sure except that I just listened to the music, but how was I to explain that? I did as best as I could. Thinking back on this, I decided that I would sign a song and post it, and show it to my friend, if only to help her better understand music and song.

Somehow people found me in their search and asked me to record more. Eventually I had about 100 subscribers and I started taking requests. It's blown up since then, and it's absolutely incredible.

RO: How do you choose which songs to do?

AT: At the beginning, I was able to take requests. I did an Ozzy song, I did mostly country, and then I had a few pop songs here and there. Now, I can't do requests, as I get so many every day. I read EVERY single message and comment for ideas, but I make the decision on my own. I like to do new songs, though.

RO: Do you ever do live performances?

AT: I have performed live a few times, but not very recently. My first live performance was in Sunnyvale, TX. An ASL teacher at the high school found my YouTube account and showed the videos to her class. She invited me to come perform during a school day for the ASL kids. I went and performed a few songs, and then the kids convinced me to stay and perform at their show that night. I've also performed at the ASL Festival in San Francisco; as well as performed in Oyster Bay, New York for an ASL class. I also did a workshop on interpreting songs with the kids there.

My most recent performance was in Sunnyvale again, when I performed an opening song for Keith Wann's Comedy Show. It was an incredible experience; one I will never forget. (Ed. note: Keith Wann is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). He is hearing, but both of his parents are Deaf and his first language was ASL.)

RO: Do you think that your rising fame as an Internet star will help you as an educator for the Deaf?

AT: I sure hope so! Haha! The entire time I've been signing these songs, it's been for really one sole purpose: reaching out to Deaf and Hard of Hearing people who have always been curious about songs and music and letting them know that they CAN access music (and should) and that they have the right to get that access from major corporations as well, such as Warner Brothers.

It's been an ongoing battle with Warner Bros. since I started this YouTube. There should be professional interpreters with each music corporation, signing each and every song. It's only fair. But back to your original question, I hope that the quality of Deaf education is improved. And I guess that I hope my videos will help me accomplish that.

RO: What is your favorite song?

Oh gosh, I really cannot choose. I love all music. I guess if I was forced to choose ONE song, it would be Styx's "Come Sail Away."

RO: How difficult is it to translate songs into ASL?

AT: It's fairly complicated. There are many opinions on how songs should be translated into ASL. Some people think it should be word-for-word. In true ASL, it is not proper to sign word-for-word. That would be for mainly English signing.

Others think that it should be translated into ASL word order, but keeping all of the metaphors. For instance, in the sentence "Another one bites the dust," is not referring to someone actually BITING dust... it just means that the person wins again. So, it's all in how you translate it.

I prefer to sign in complete ASL, though I admit I am still learning. Signing the underlying meaning, not just the words. The words are just letters on paper, it's all about what the song is trying to get across, and yes, it is pretty difficult.

RO: How have people reacted to your videos?

AT: I have had many people that send me messages saying that I encouraged them to follow their dreams of ASL, people who have said I inspired them to start learning, people who have never seen ASL and/or never met a Deaf person and finally realize that there is a complete language and culture behind a Deaf person.

Then again, I also get people who think what I do is "stupid" and "useless because Deaf people cannot hear," but my hope for those people is to explain what I'm doing and why, and perhaps opening their minds and hearts to ASL and the Deaf community and how important it is for the Deaf population to have equal access to music. Music touches so many people in so many different ways, and it is just not fair for Deaf and hard of hearing people to not have proper access to that.

The messages that perhaps touch me the most are the ones from Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals themselves. Some tell me that they had never seen a song signed before, and that seeing it has touched them. For the most part I have had a very positive reaction, and that's all I could have ever hoped for.

RO: If you could sign for any artist in an official music video, which one would it be?

AT: People have often asked me this question, and I really don't know. Maybe... Taylor Swift? Haha, I have no idea!

Rocks Off wants to thank Ally for sitting down with us, and wish her luck in her new job teaching Deaf Education to second graders in Mesquite, TX.

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