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Voices Spring-Summer 2012:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Low Bridge, Everybody Down! An Erie Canal Music Celebration” by Lisa Overholser here.
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Volume 38
Spring-Summer
2012
Voices

Low Bridge, Everybody Down! An Erie Canal Music Celebration by Lisa Overholser

Canal season may be over, but at The Erie Canal Museum in November 2012, the music of the Canal resounded in “Low Bridge, Everybody Down!: An Erie Canal Music Celebration.” The two-day public celebration, co-organized by The Erie Canal Museum and The New York Folklore Society, was the first-ever event devoted exclusively to an exploration of the rich musical heritage created, developed, and transmitted by means of the Erie Canal. Workshops, concerts, presentations, discussions, and displays provided activities that appealed to a wide variety of audiences.

The celebration originated with a simple question posed by Dan Ward, folklorist and curator at The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, and a long-time canal researcher who co-produced Canal Stories for the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor: “What if we gathered together all of the performers and researchers of Erie Canal music in one place?” Surprisingly, it’s never been done. And, even though most people think they know the lyrics to “Low Bridge, Everybody Down,” one of the most well-known canal songs in existence, it’s a little known fact that the original lyrics refer to “Fifteen years on the Erie Canal” rather than fifteen miles. With these inquiries and observations, a public symposium was born.


Glenn McClure leads the Professional Development Workshop for Artists and Teachers
on Friday November 2, as a part of 'Low Bridge, Everybody Down.' All photos are by the
author Lisa Overholser.
Glenn McClure leads the Professional Development Workshop for Artists and Teachers on Friday November 2, as a part of “Low Bridge, Everybody Down.” All photos are by the author Lisa Overholser.

An Arts-in-Ed workshop kicked off celebration on Friday, November 2. Led by Glenn McClure, a composition professor at Eastman School of Music and SUNYGeneseo and an enthusiastic arts-in-ed supporter, the workshop brought teachers and artists together to collaboratively explore ways to make core curriculum connections through canal songs, musical instruments, stories, and objects. Many of the workshop topics referred to themes highlighted in panel sessions the following day, including the history of immigrant communities that settled New York State, minstrelsy, social life along the Canal, and the Canal’s economic impact.

Steve Zeitlin, folklorist at City Lore in New York City and the other co-producer of Canal Stories, moderated Friday evening’s keynote panel discussion, “The Song We Know and Love.” The discussion centered around “Low Bridge, Everybody Down,” the iconic aural representation of the Canal. In addition to the uncovering of the original lyrics, “Low Bridge” highlighted the many access points to a discussion about music of the Canal through a look at the history of its composition and printing, the stories of life represented in its lyrics, and the way the song was transmitted along the Canal to become part of a newly crafted American musical history. Panel discussants included some of the most well-known performers and researchers of Erie Canal music: George Ward, Bill Hullfish, Rich Bala, Dave Ruch, and Robert Snyder. A showcase sampler concert following the keynote panel included many of the panel discussants along with Chris Holder and Rick Heenan performing canal favorites and original songs.

Aaron Walker sings his presentation about the Pearl S. Nye collection at the Library of
Congress in the panel 'Through a Cook's Eyes.'
Aaron Walker sings his presentation about the Pearl S. Nye collection at the Library of Congress in the panel “Through a Cook’s Eyes.”


Harry and Merlyn Fuller (aka 'Merry Mischief') presenting songs and dramatic bits in
the panel 'Through a Cook's Eyes.'Harry and Merlyn Fuller (aka “Merry Mischief”) presenting songs and dramatic bits in the panel “Through a Cook’s Eyes.”

Saturday’s daytime presentations featured seven panels covering a wide range of activities and topics. Canal cooks were the featured topic at the first panel, “Through a Cook’s Eyes.” From songs discovered by Aaron Walker in the Pearl S. Nye collection at the Library of Congress, to interactive sing-alongs and dramatic reenactments by Merry Mischief (Harry and Merlyn Fuller) and Gretchen Sepik, the panel nicely demonstrated the variety of modalities in discovering and experiencing the same body of music.

Two songwriting panels illuminated folkloric processes at work. “Recreating and Reviving” (moderated by Dan Ward) focused on the use of archival and documentary sources in canal songwriting, a textually oriented process that serves as a strong link to the past and becomes the basis for many musical products like the Erie Canal Songbook, compiled by Bill Hullfish. “The Birth of a Song” (moderated by George Ward) explored more community-oriented songwriting techniques and sources of inspiration, such as Dennis Lafontaine’s reliance on family canal stories to Rick Heenan’s production of the annual Erie Canal Song contest, a community-songwriting project in Lockport, NY.

Dave Ruch, Rick Heenan, and George Ward demonstrating and discussing their
individual canal songwriting techniques in the panel 'Birth of a Song.'
Dave Ruch, Rick Heenan, and George Ward demonstrating and discussing their individual canal songwriting techniques in the panel “Birth of a Song.”

Nils Caspersson
presenting on possible links
between the fretted dulcimer
and Swedish instruments in the
panel 'Singing, Dancing and
Community.'
Nils Caspersson presenting on possible links between the fretted dulcimer and Swedish instruments in the panel “Singing, Dancing and Community.”

The Erie Canal Song Contest formed the basis of another panel, “The Music of Place” (moderated by Dan Ward), along with a presentation and mini-performance by Pamela Vittorio of the Chittenango Landing Boat Museum. Heenan’s community- songwriting project in Lockport and Vittorio’s original musical about historic canal life in Chittenango provided nuanced portrayals of how the idea of “place” is conveyed through musical activity. They affirmed a sense of community both local and corridor-wide.

“Singing, Dancing, and Community” (moderated by Lisa Overholser) focused attention on the musical heritages brought by immigrant groups that worked and migrated along the corridor. Ted McGraw, folklorist, musician, and leader of the Comhaltas organization in Rochester, talked about two contemporary collections of Irish tunes, many still heard in Irish music circles today. Nils Caspersson and two members (Tim Cuddy and Don Sandy) from Svenska Spelmän, a Swedish gammeldans quartet in Jamestown, suggested a possible link between the spelmäner (a psalmodikon-dulcimer hybrid) and the fretted dulcimer, a well-known American folk instrument.

Bill Hullfish points out some of the locations his group, The Golden Eagle String Band, sing about in their Saturday evening show 'An Immigrant's Journey.'
Bill Hullfish points out some of the locations his group, The Golden Eagle String Band, sing about in their Saturday evening show “An Immigrant’s Journey.”

“Minstrels on the Canal” (moderated by Jim Kimball) was a lively panel about the development of minstrelsy and its contribution to a distinctively American musical heritage. Jim Kimball and Rich Bala discussed and performed show tunes that were created in the context of minstrel shows and popularized by means of canal town performances, while Robert Snyder, historian at Rutgers-Newark contextualized the musical findings in a larger American social context.

A particular highlight of Saturday’s public symposium was George Ward’s presentation of “‘Live Steam Voices’: A Legendary Tribute to the Empire State in Music and Steam.” Excerpts from a documentary film made about the musical flotilla carrying several historic steamship whistles through the Canal in 1988 were framed by Ward’s brief history of the procession and his description of the continuing work he does in collecting oral histories of the event. “Live Steam Voices” showed an entirely different, and quite literal, perspective of the music of the Erie Canal.

Displays throughout the day on Saturday included the collection of handmade instruments crafted by Zeke Leonard, founder of the Salt City Found Object Instrument Works. All the objects were assembled by hand from scrap pieces and found objects (a technique not uncommon in canal days), and beautifully functional. An original copy of Thomas Allen’s sheet music for “Low Bridge”— with the original lyrics—was also provided courtesy of the Motto Sheet Music Collection at the Fayetteville Free Public Library.

A few of Zeke Leonard's handmade instruments on display, one of which bears the
signature of Pete Seeger.
A few of Zeke Leonard's handmade instruments on display, one of which bears the
signature of Pete Seeger.
A few of Zeke Leonard’s handmade instruments on display, one of which bears the signature of Pete Seeger.

Of course, the public symposium wouldn’t have been complete without lots of music, and there was plenty of opportunity for that! Rich Bala and Dave Ruch led a fun Kids and Family concert during lunch on Saturday, while Bill Hullfish’s Golden Eagle String Band closed the entire event with “An Immigrant’s Journey,” on Saturday evening. “An Immigrant’s Journey” took the audience all the way from Ireland to Chicago by way of the musical experiences that documented and expressed the often perilous and always adventurous journey taken by immigrants coming to America in search of work and opportunity.

The New York Folklore Society and The Erie Canal Museum are grateful for the support of contributors, including The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, The New York Council for the Humanities, The New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), and for general operational support from The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). But our most heartfelt “thanks” goes out to the talented performers, scholars, researchers, and artists that keep the musical communities of the Canal alive and thriving. There is so much more to learn about the sonic world of the Canal, and we hope to keep the momentum going with more events in the 2013 canal season. Stay tuned!





 









Lisa Overholser is staff folklorist at the New York Folklore Society, where she manages the mentoring and professional development program and contributes to many other projects and intiatives. She holds a PhD in folklore and ethnomusicology from the University of Indiana.



George Ward prefaces his original canal
ballad 'Captain Billy and the Whale' with
a contemporary poster courtesy of The
Erie Canal Museum.
George Ward prefaces his original canal ballad “Captain Billy and the Whale” with a contemporary poster courtesy of The Erie Canal Museum.


Gretchen Sepik performs as Erie Canal Sal, a female canal cook, in the panel 'Through
a Cook's Eyes.'
Gretchen Sepik performs as Erie Canal Sal, a female canal cook, in the panel “Through a Cook’s Eyes.”


Don Sandy and Tim Cuddy
look on as Ted McGraw demonstrates
traditional Irish tunes heard in canal
days and today in the panel 'Singing,
Dancing and Community.'Don Sandy and Tim Cuddy look on as Ted McGraw demonstrates traditional Irish tunes heard in canal days and today in the panel “Singing, Dancing and Community.”





This article appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Spring-Summer 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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