Scattering Gold Nuggets
When I was young, my friend Jonathan and I took a handful of river rocks, painted them gold, and scattered them about the shallows of the Quequacommisicong flowing past the base of Mount Nebo. Of course WE knew there could have been no gold in that little tributary of the Delaware, but the other kids who hung out under the bridge did not. The shrieks of discovery delighted us no end. We got ‘em good but forty years later, I understand my actions differently.
I play mandolin. I can play a few other instruments but I don’t play them publicly yet because I’m a gentleman. I care about you. I keep meaning to really focus–no kidding, I mean it this time, an hour a day, as god is my witness–on clawhammer banjo. I can scratch out a tune or two on the fiddle, the operative verb being “scratch.” I can even still play competent, if uninspired, rhythm guitar. Mostly I play the mandolin. I love the mandolin.
I play Southern music forms on my wee guitar, my big ukelele (it’s a thing mandolin players get used to, sorta like being called “Frank Keller” on stage by distracted band leaders). I used to play Irish, I’ve tried to pick up some swing, but I really love playing old time, string band blues, classic country, and Monroe-style bluegrass. Follow links for exemplars.
I live in Minnesota, a place noted the world wide for funny accents (lost most of my Noo Yawk upon moving here in ’75 but never caught the Neo-Scandihoovian lilt), fishing, and hot dish. There is old time music here but it’s played with accordion and brass. Traditional musics flourish as well but cleave closely to ethnic roots more than their cousins in the South. For example, Irish traditional music played here in Minnesota by generations of Irish Minnesotans sounds very much like Irish music played in Ireland (and it’s amazingly good).
Old time traditions in the South date back at least a century, often more. Minnesota’s received musical traditions are either lost or much more recent. More on these topics in future reports but let’s say that I’ve found remarkably few oral or folk music traditions–songs or tunes–in Minnesota.
Now on the other hand, Minnesota teems with stories that could be and should be the topics of traditional music. Stagger Lee existed as did Tom Dula (“hang down your head Tom Dooley”) and Old Joe Clark. But how many of us know Stephen Hanks, Engineer William Best, or William Whipple Warren? Who alive has been to Fortuna, Point Douglas, or Fawn’s Leap? That’s where I come in, trying to turn river rocks into gold nuggets again.
I enjoy writing music that structurally fit into the old Southern traditions. I love digging and scrabbling around the old stories of Minnesota, unearthing names, places, and events buried in the rich loam of time. I pick them up, dust them off, and break out the gold paint. Then I get to sing and play them with you and while we may no longer shriek, the delight glows the same.
I have this notion of myself as a back-filler, creating, to the best of my modest abilities, a musical tradition that could have, would have, or should have been. Just like the way the Quequacommissicong should have been strewn with gold nuggets, our old time tradition should be strewn with songs about Stephen Hanks the river raftsman; William Best, the true hero of the Hinckley Fire; and William W. Warren, a French/Ojibway man who learned Ojibway history firsthand from the elders of his tribe and then wrote a book for a white audience around 1850.
In the same way Fortuna–merely a name platted on a railroad map and never inhabited–should have been built. Point Douglas (where Fort Snelling was originally intended to be built) might have become a prosperous city had not the lumber played out. Fawn’s Leap, a waterfall cascading into the Mississippi and a tourist destination in the 1800’s, dried up when housing and industrial development turned the Bridal Veil Creek watershed into what is now the area around the intersection of Highway 28 and Energy Park Drive (from St. Anthony Park southwest through Prospect Park and down to the river). But wouldn’t it be great if it was still a marsh, a river, some waterfalls, and a pond known as Bare-Ass Beach? Wouldn’t a song or two about them help us connect back?
“Disconnection from the past can breed indifference for the future.” That comes from the report on the proposed Bridal Veil Creek watershed revitalization project. I can’t think of a more fitting way to describe why I’ve started this website, this idea of The Deep North. It’s my playground and I want to share it with you. I want to keep painting these rocks up, not to con anyone or try to make things up that didn’t exist but to present a time and a world that might have existed or did exist and we forgot. With luck, that connection might make us care a whole lot more about this wonderful place we all get to explore every day.