River Songs of America: Thoughts
I grew up near the Platte River, about 70 miles from where it flows into the Missouri River, south of Omaha, Nebraska. I was always fascinated by this wide, slow-moving waterway, which is about three feet deep most of the year and close to 30 feet deep in the springtime. It isn't navigable by anything but a canoe or small, flat-bottom boat, but it plays a significant role in our nation's history. Early pioneers used the river to guide them west from Omaha. In fact, the wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail run within sight of the Platte across Nebraska and Wyoming, as do modern semi-trailers and Rocky-Mountain-bound tourists on Interstate 80 today.
The role this little trickle of a river played in American history exemplifies how important our nation's waterways have been and still are. In recent years, we hear news on how, when there's flooding on the Mississippi or our other major rivers, barge traffic slows and global markets are disrupted as people around the world feel the effects. When the North American continent was settled, its agriculture, and its industry all centered around the rivers. It is no wonder American culture has so many references to rivers and waterways. The men and women who worked on the river, washed in the river, and drank from the river couldn't help but make it a part of their artistic expression.
The need those everyday working people had to express their lives through music is manifest in the many river songs that have become a part of the American canon of folk music. I have decided to plumb the depths of this tradition through the New-Trad Quartet by presenting a concert entitled "River Songs of America." We were able to partner with Brooklyn's Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge as a venue and were fortunate to receive a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council to help us present the program.
To research the music, I looked in several key places. One amazing resource is the recordings Pete Seeger has done for Smithsonian Folkways. His scholarship of American folk music continues to amaze me and is certainly a national treasure. I also turned to one of my favorite founts of folk music, the field recordings of Alan Lomax. I'm so thankful to the WPA for having started him off in the 1930's. Add to that recordings by folks like Doc Watson and my collections of dusty old hymnals and we were on our way.
As I researched the music, I found several themes the songs seemed to fall into. One theme was songs about work—which were based on the hard labor and associated hard drinking of river folk. Other themes included the strength and power associated with the unstoppable movement of water and a longing for the perceived peacefulness of a river—or a home along the river. One of the most fascinating to me is the cleansing power of the water—often associated with baptism and the river as a sacred place to meet with God.
Working with these songs, I had a lot of fun pairing different melodies with interesting new rhythmic and harmonic settings. Of course, Louisiana and backwater Cajun rhythmic feels had to be in the mix, as well as some spirited marches and high-stepping African Highlife. I also indulged myself in some of the dramatic bombast associated with the romanticism of the powerful river. It was particularly interesting to work at getting these emotions across within the parameters of the New-Trad Quartet, with three melodic voices—sax, trombone, and tuba—and a drum set.
I am thrilled to be presenting this concert on the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge as it floats on the East River in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The Museum is a unique and wonderful gem, founded by David Sharps, an amazing performer and visionary. The fact that we'll be sitting smack in the delta of the Hudson River, one of the greatest river systems in the U.S., should also be noted. It was the Hudson River's connection to Lake Erie by the Erie Canal in 1825 that gave New York City access to the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and the nation's breadbasket. This access helped the city to grow into the financial and cultural capitol it has been for well over a century.
The day of our performance, Saturday, June 8, promises to be a great time. The Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge is moored at 290 Conover Street @ Pier 44 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, near the giant Fairway Store. We'll be playing from 2:00 to 4:00 P.M., in an informal setting that allows people to listen and look at the museum. Be sure to join us. The afternoon will be full of BIG FUN!