Friday, March 5, 2010

Songs of New York State!

Last night, the Grand Island Historical Society met for a special treat at Historic Trinity Church. Dave Ruch, who combines teaching the fun aspects of New York State history with performance, delighted all who were in attendance.
Dave, who lives in Buffalo, came prepared to perform with a plethora of musical instruments, including a mandolin, a jaw harp, a guitar, and a banjo.  Before he began playing the jaw's harp, he explained how to play the instrument. It's a very little musical instrument that can be stored in its owner's shirt or pants pocket when not in use. The way to play this little instrument is to press the object against your teeth and pull a little lever that vibrates as you breath out. If you breathe heavily, you can make it sound like a noise from a cartoon!
The only requirement to being a successful jaw harp player is that you have to have teeth!
The jaw harp was one of a number of very portable instruments that people could pull out on a moment's notice and play when in the mood for music.
In the past, Dave explained, if you wanted music, you couldn't just go to the CD player or the computer and turn on instant entertainment. Speaking about instant entertainment, that's what I'm doing right now! I'm listening to a CD of Dave Ruch playing his instruments and singing silly songs, including one that ends up: "the girls are went to heaven and the boys all went to Albany!!!" (um. No wonder that, when people from other states come here and want to run for statewide office, they all want to be senators and not the governor... Anything but Albany!!!)
But I digress.
So. As an example of proper nineteenth century entertainment, Dave Ruch sang a few songs that went on and on and on.
Apparently, people in the nineteenth century had to entertain themselves since they didn't have the aforementioned CD player. They did so by singing really long songs. Fortunately, they didn't have the monotonous quality of One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall (Has anyone actually finished that song without losing count??)
Dave talked about a Stevens family that was one of many New England families that came to Western New York in the 1830s. This family maintained a journal and wrote down songs that were common at that time. These songs contained as many as forty to fifty verses.
As an example of songs that had been collected by the Stevens family, Dave performed an argument between a husband and wife. The title of the song was "Wisconsin." Dave had to sing both parts, which made the song seem a little confusing. It was hard to tell when he was being the husband and when he was being the wife. On his CD, the song was presented as a duet, with Dave as the husband and Buffalo's very own rock star, Alison Pipitone, as the wife.
The couple was arguing over whether or not to travel to the wild land out west. That wild land was Wisconsin! As I spent seven weeks in the summer of 2008 walking through the state of Wisconsin, I found the song especially amusing. The husband was eager to find an adventurous life in Wisconsin, but his wife was not. She went on and on about everything that could go wrong if the two of them were to make the trip to... um... dare I say it? The W state. It was a wild place, she argued. Horrifying. She scared him sufficiently  to make him stay away from that terrifying state.
In addition to the spousal battle song, Dave presented songs about the Erie Canal and the War of 1812. The War of 1812 song was about the battle of Plattsburgh. At one point, during the battle, both the Americans and the British took a break from killing each other to bury their dead.
OK. Speaking about killing (yuck), Dave shared the story of the Thayer brothers. There were three brothers, who were all executed after they had killed a farmer named John Love in Boston, New York. The hanging of the three brothers occurred in 1825. The execution occurred in  Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo and, apparently, was a big spectacle. According to Dave, approximately 10,000 people came to watch the event.
Well, the combination of three brothers being hanged and the enormous, apparently bloodthirsty audience, make Buffalo seem a heck of a lot more frightening and wild than nineteenth century Wisconsin.
Dave then played a mournful instrumental piece after telling the sad tale of the Thayer brothers.
Fortunately, Dave also played silly songs and he told stories of mountain men from the Catskills and the Adirondacks.
After the lively performance, which featured a sing-along, the audience and the musician-storyteller were invited for the delicious refreshments that have made the Grand Island Historical Society famous!
The performance was made possible by a grant from the New York State Council for the Humanities.
All had a good time. I even purchased a CD so that I could continue to enjoy Dave's renditions of songs of long ago.


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