Dom Flemons

Canal Jam 2017

On Saturday, September 23, music and the environment, plus local history, come together for the 2017 Canal Jam at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site in Gallitzin, PA.

By: Terry Boyd

Music festivals often have a theme—the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Bourbon and Beyond, to name but a few. Some even have an environmental connection, like Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival. What they don’t often have is an obvious connection to history. On Saturday, September 23, music and the environment, plus local history, come together for the 2017 Canal Jam at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site in Gallitzin, PA.

A number of Penn State Altoona faculty members were involved in the festival planning. “The Center for Community Based Studies has worked with the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site to put this together,” says Tom Shaffer, coordinator for academic internships and Community-Based Studies at Penn State Altoona. “This is a heritage festival that we’re crafting into a net-zero waste event, an eco-friendly gathering funded in part by a PepsiCo mini-grant to Penn State’s Sustainable Communities Collaborative.”

Steve Sherrill

Steve Sherrill

Image: Penn State

The day will include readings and storytelling as well as music. Steve Sherrill, professor of English and integrative arts, will read from his book, The Locktender’s House, “a ghost story not for the faint of heart,” says Shaffer, who feels that the choice is appropriate beyond the obvious canal connection. “His reading is less focused on the details of the ghost story and more on the fact that, from a contemporary perspective, the entire history of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal is shrouded in mystery.”

The festival is intended in part to bring some of that mystery into the open or, as Shaffer says, “reach back into that time period and recover what it was like through song and story.” Musicians Jerry Zolten (also associate professor of communication arts and sciences and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona) and Richard Sleigh will accompany Sherrill’s reading. “They’re going to be playing some of the tunes that Steve wrote into the book,” says Shaffer.

Richard Sleigh and Jerry Zolten

Richard Sleigh and Jerry Zolten

Image: Penn State

The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, which followed the Juniata River, was in operation from 1832 to 1889, but “we don’t have a lot to point to to know what this era was about,” Shaffer notes. “There is very little that remains of the canal era.” When the Pennsylvania Railroad bought the canal, the canal channels and towpaths were “basically turned into railroad beds,” erasing evidence of the canal. Today the Lower (pronounced like “Lauer”) Trail in the Rails-to-Trails system runs along the old railroad bed/canal towpath from near Canoe Creek State Park to just past Water Street.

Also on the program is storyteller and musician Dom Flemons, a founding member of the Grammy Award–winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. According to Zolten, Flemons “epitomizes the old-time ‘songster’ tradition, itinerant musicians who in the post–Civil War decades traveled the countryside performing pop, folk, and blues songs, dance tunes and minstrel songs, playing to audiences black and white wherever crowds might gather. Dom is accomplished on guitar, banjo, spoons, bones, quills and all manner of exotic folk instruments from days of yore.  Like Rhiannon Giddens, his longtime partner and co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom has distinguished himself as a solo artist and Grammy winner. He won’t just stand there flat-footed and sing. Expect him to tell jokes, dance, and take you on a journey that brings to life what homespun music was like in the American past.”

Dom Flemons

Storyteller and multi-insrumentalist Dom Flemons

Image: Penn State

Dom’s performance follows a “period-inspired, locally sourced lunch provided to registrants by the festival organizer. Several local producers and restaurateurs have contributed to the fare,” Shaffer says. Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber, professor of music at Penn State Altoona, will lead seven of her voice students in performing songs from the Cannaller’s Songbook, collected by canal music expert and Smithsonian Folkways gold-medalist Dr. William Hullfish, on the lawn of the historic Leon House Tavern during lunch.

“Canal music—music about canals or performed by canal-ers,”says Shaffer, is not a recognized genre but it “is one of these things that has been lost because the music was really individual. The whole life on a canal was pretty isolated. The music was about the experience of that person, written to pass time, kind of like the cowboy in the West. Tunes stolen from popular music—jaunty, silly, happy, sad. What can music tell us about life on the canal?” Bill Hullfish and the Golden Eagle String Band will bring some of that music to life.

Dearest Home, a group from Gettysburg, will “use traditional instrumentation to perform music most lay people would have been playing or listening to on the canal,” Shaffer says. “None of this music was written down. It was all kind of passed on from person to person.” Their performance will have another Penn State connection. “They went to the Sam Bayard Collection at PSU [for material]. This group focuses on interpreting that music.”

The festival will end on an unusual note—instead of just listening to a finale, attendees can participate in an “all-out jam,” says Shaffer. Scores are available at the link. Get ready to rock 1800s style!