Canal-Era Music and Entertainment: Study and Performance Project

"[The] Canal-Era Music and Entertainment Project is an excellent touch point for building a program of humanities-engaged scholarship at Penn State Altoona. It is of sustainable value to students across disciplines and enhances the research and creative activity areas of my work as well as of the other involved faculty. The unique partnership between the Greenway and Penn State Altoona can be used as a vehicle for innovative teaching, for new hands-on learning opportunities, and for having a practical impact on the communities in our service area."
— KT Huckabee, assistant professor of integrative arts and dance

The Canal-Era Music project enables students and faculty in the humanities to explore early 19th Century American music and entertainment (dance, theatre, oratory) likely performed on Pennsylvania's Main Line canal and railroad systems and in the communities supporting them. The project is part of an ongoing Penn State Altoona academic-community partnership with both the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway and the National Park Service/Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site/Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

Students learn about, perform, and record historic songs and performance entertainment styles with authentic interpretation from a contemporary performance perspective. Recorded songs and performances will be incorporated onto Greenway website/social media platforms and the Juniata River Water Trail Mobile App – two ongoing, complementary Greenway partnership projects. The recordings will help preserve 19th Century American music and knowledge of local history for a new generation of musicians, performance artists and historians. The project also includes investigation into the entertainment of the era in central Pennsylvania and the research component of the project will provide detailed resources, an annotated bibliography, and a collection of photographs and newspaper articles.

The Division of Arts and Humanities and CCBS envision this project as long-term and evolving for years to come.

Project Overview

Academic-Community Partnerships

  • The Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway
  • The National Park Service – Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site/Johnstown Flood National Memorial


Penn State Altoona Community-Based Studies Project Grant award


  • Dr. Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber, associate professor of music
  • Dr. A. David Villani, instructor in communications and music
  • Dr. J. Jerome "Jerry" Zolten, associate professor of communications arts and sciences
  • Alessia Zanin-Yost, reference and instruction librarian
  • KT Huckabee, assistant professor of integrative arts and dance
  • Steven Sherrill, associate professor of English and integrative arts
  • Dr. David M. Parry, assistant professor of philosophy

Guest Musicians

  • Dr. William Hullfish, distinguished professor emeritus of music, SUNY Brockport, NY
  • The Golden Eagle String Band, Brockport, NY; Smithsonian Folkways Gold Medalists
  • Up in the Batten House, Samuel Bayard Collection folk music group, Pittsburgh
  • Richard Sleigh, harmonica musician and craftsman, Philipsburg
  • Dearest Home, 19th Century American music group, Gettysburg

Project Goals

  • Strengthen academic-community partnerships with the Allegheny Ridge Corporation/Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway and the National Park Service/Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site.
  • Identify key faculty members and engage them within their respective fields of expertise as these pertain to 19th Century American music.
  • Facilitate the study of folk music traditions and balladry as they relate to the history of contemporary popular music.
  • Provide varied opportunities of research, public performance, and professional recording for students.
  • Continue research and development of projects in a variety of disciplines on campus.
  • Generate student and faculty interest in humanities-engaged scholarship opportunities.

Specific Project Goals for 2016-2018

Audio-Visual Product Development project

  1. Support the work of Communications students interested in Mass Media, Multimedia Production, Video/Filmmaking and Audio Production.
  2. Take eleven "canal song" recordings that were captured from Dr. Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber's SP15 VOICE 110J course students and produce an audio CD and downloadable MP3 files. The CD and MP3 Files will also feature song introduction narratives written by Cutsforth-Huber as well as historical narrative, music and storytelling by Dr. J. Jerome Zolten, Steven Sherrill, and Dr. David Parry – all whom were a part of the 2015 project.
  3. Take the "raw" video footage, including the video footage from two Communications students, of two visiting musician workshop and performance events – the SP15 "Dearest Home On-Campus Visit" and the FA15 "Canal Jam 2015" – and create a video documentary.
  4. Archive all photographs taken at the Canal Jam by a Communications student.
  5. Produce a DVD of the documentary and include it along with the audio CD/MP3 Files, ultimately creating a packaged state-of-the-art multimedia compilation. Eventually, the multimedia compilation will include an illustrated cover(s) and booklet insert, designed by Integrative Arts or Visual Arts students, and a historical narrative provided by History students.

Canal-Era Music and Entertainment Research project

The goal is to provide a wide scope of information about 19thC American music and entertainment that was performed in Central Pennsylvania, mostly between the canal towns of Huntingdon and Blairsville. [An even wider geographic scope can extend all across the Main Line Canal in the future as both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would have many types of entertainment being performed in various performing art locations.]

  1. The Canal-Era Music project focuses on the time frame 1850-1899 – the later days of the PA Main Line Canal system and the evolution and transition of transportation with the PA Railroad (PRR), which followed closely to the original canal path.
  2. The geographical scope of the project begins and ends with the key "canal towns" of Huntingdon (Huntingdon County) to Blairsville (Indiana County), including Altoona (Blair County), Ebensburg (Cambria) and points in between.
  3. The project will focus on identifying key places, people, and types of "entertainment" that was being produced or performed along the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal/Pennsylvania Railroad line in various towns and villages:
    1. Opera Houses, theatres, taverns, schools, fairgrounds – any physical location where entertainment was performed.
    2. Actors, singers, musicians, circus performers, vaudeville/minstrelsy entertainers – any figures either local or national/International that traveled along the Main Line/PRR to perform. Name and any biographical/performance backround information will be researched and notated.
    3. Performance genres: song, dance, vaudeville/minstrelsy, circus, theatre/drama, etc. will be notated with titles of performances, place performed, entertainers involved, etc.
    4. Any photographic or newspaper materials gathered will be included. A wide range of scope using will support as well as leads on any books that will include information, bibliographic resources, or other leads.

Project Activities

Spring 2015

On Campus Events and Outside Participants

Guest Artist - Dearest Home
Traditional PA Civil War and Appalachia music group, Gettysburg. On campus workshop and performance held Tuesday, February 3, 2015.

On-campus Common Hour
VOICE 110J Students (11)
Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber introduced canal-era songs sung by students on Thursday, April 30, 2015.

VOICE 110J Audio Recordings
With David Villani
Canal-era songs were audio recorded on Monday, May 4, 2015.

Faculty Roles

  • DVillani: VOICE 110J; recorded 11 student songs
  • DVillani: MUS 007 course module on canal-era music
  • BC-Huber: VOICE 110J perform and record
  • JJZolten: INART 115 course module on canal-era music
  • KTHuckabee: DANCE 497A course module on canal era culture with movement

Summer 2015

On Campus Events and Outside Participants

Canal-Era Music Research
Alessia Zanin-Yost guided UGR assistant investigating canal-era music resources specific to the Juniata Valley region.

Research included online newspaper resources, publications, journal articles, and related historical society sources.

A bibliography of resources was created along with a collection of UGR assistant notes for further investigation.

Faculty Roles

AZ-Yost: UGR Assistant Faculty adviser

Fall 2015

On Campus Events and Outside Participants

Canal-Era Music and Entertainment Summit – Canal Jam 2015
All-day performance and workshop event held at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, Gallitzin; Saturday, September 26, 2015.

Canal Jam Guest Artists:

  • William Hullfish Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Music, SUNY Brockport; Golden Eagle String Band, Smithsonian Folkways Gold Medalists, Brockport, NY (5)
  • Up in the Batten House folk music group; Southwestern PA music/Samuel Bayard collection, Pittsburgh (4)
  • Jerry Zolten and Richard Sleigh, folk music duo, Central PA (2) with Luther Gette, folk music figure (1)

Canal Jam Guest Artists from Penn State Altoona:

  • Steven Sherrill and David Parry, storytelling with music
  • Jerry Zolten, folk musician
  • Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber with VOICE 110J students (5), canal-era song performances

Canal Jam Additional Support from Penn State Altoona:

  • David Villani w/ one COMM student, A/V recording
  • COMM Livewire students (2), A/V recording + photographs
  • Lion Ambassadors (2), hospitality

Faculty Roles

Canal-Era Music Research
Alessia Zanin-Yost continues her role as UGR Assistant Faculty adviser for the ongoing canal-era music research project which received funding for FA15-SP16. A different student is participating.

Fall 2015 Faculty:

  • DVillani, BC-Huber, JJZolten, SSherrill, DParry: Canal-Era Music and Entertainment Summit – Canal Jam 2015
  • AZ-Yost: UGR Assistant Faculty adviser