This week, as part of Darke County Center for the Arts’ Arts In Education series, troubadour Lee Murdock is teaching local fourth through sixth graders about the history of the Great Lakes region through folk songs exploring the culture and lives of those who have lived in the area. And the students are gaining knowledge about our shared history while having a really good time.
Folk songs are the music of the people, and belong to all of us. Lee’s songs offer insight into our common history by telling stories of the people who worked and played on and around the Great Lakes. As the students joined in the singing, one could feel the power of music to not only inform and entertain, but also to bring people together while sharing a common experience.
After an introductory song which defined the Great Lakes as “a diamond on the hand of North America,” Lee asked students to imagine the huge sailing ships of yore, then sang about these vessels racing from city to city, with the kids lustily adding their voices to the recurring phrase, “Hooray for a race down the lakes.” But seafaring men were not the only folks working in the Great Lakes region, as was readily demonstrated in a centuries-old song which remains relevant yet today; written by a pioneer woman, “The Housewife’s Lament” recounts the trials and tribulations of spending life “in a struggle with dirt.”
“Haul Away Joe,” a call-and-response sea shanty utilized to set the rhythm for hauling a huge sail up a tall mast, earned enthusiastic participation from the students as they sang the title phrase, emphasizing “Joe” as they hauled away on imaginary lines, and discovering how the music helped seamen work together to accomplish a necessary task. Lee then led the audience even further back in time with a haunting rendition of “Shenandoah,” a song from French fur traders who, unlike the British, embraced the native American culture from which the beautiful melody was derived.
One could almost feel the struggles and triumphs of those who worked in lumber camps surrounding the Great Lakes when Lee sang “The Lumberman’s Alphabet.” A recurring triumphant chorus of “When the Michigan Pine comes tumbling down” was shouted by the youngsters as Lee aptly described from A to Z life at those camps: “C for the chopping, D for the danger we always are in, L for the lice that keep us from sleep, O for the owl that hoots all the night, T for the team that hands it along, U for the underwear in flannel of red, Y for the yells when the timber comes down” are but a fraction of the lyrics evoking a sense of life in that long-ago place and time.
After explaining that cheaply moving things and people from one place to another is best achieved via water, Lee sang of the Erie Canal, celebrating the man-made waterway that allowed settlers access to lands west of the great barrier presented by the Appalachian Mountains. Following a song about a Beaver Island fisherman, Wesley “Yankee” Brown, who hailed from New York and was known for his ability to stretch the truth as well as stretch his nets to capture fish, the concert concluded with “The Red Iron Ore,” heralding Cleveland industrialist E.C. Roberts whose tall-masted ships would sail from Chicago to pick up and deliver the ore used to make steel. As the song named many stops on the journey, some on a map and some known only in sailor’s lingo, the kids happily joined in to chant “Derry Down, Down, Down, Derry Down” at appropriate times.
Responding to questions from his audience, Lee confided that he does what he does because it’s fun to do what you love to do. “Music can take you someplace else,” he explained to the students who had just been transported to other times and other places through the talents of a masterful artist.