Madison Monday: Wilderness Plots

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Last week, I reviewed Scott Russell Sanders’ book, Wilderness Plots. A lovely little book that was inspired by research into the frontier history of the Ohio River Valley, including Indiana and Ohio.

This Friday, my family was lucky enough to be able to see Wilderness Plots performed at the historic Ohio Theatre in Madison, Indiana. I bought the tickets a while back after having heard Carrie Newcomer sing just one song from Wilderness Plots at our lovely Ohio River Valley Folk Festival in May. But both my husband and my stepdaughter kept asking me, “What is this thing we’re going to?” And I made up an answer every time they asked, but, really, I had no idea. Except that it would involve the book somehow. And songs.

Well, here’s what the Wilderness Plots is. An exercise in spoken word and music. Scott Russell Sanders stands up at times and recites little snippets from the book that usually set up the song which the musicians then sing. Snippet of prose, and then a song. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it was so very wonderful.

I teach for a living, which sometimes involves lecturing, and often involves going to hear people speak. I have long realized that we are no longer an oral culture. We grow quickly impatient with listening to people talk, especially when that is all they are doing. I could almost hear my students asking, “Where’s the Powerpoint? Where are the video clips?” There were some pictures projected overhead, but mostly what you had to look at were people’s faces, singing songs. Which if you take one tiny step out of our current lives of constant, flashy stimulation, can actually be pretty interesting.

Songs are, of course, another way of telling stories. But it’s interesting to see the difference between the story with just the words, and the story when it’s sung, with melody, rhythm, and instrumentation. Wilderness Plots is a lesson in the powerful expressive ability of music.

For example, there’s a story in Wilderness Plots about a former slave woman, living free north of the Ohio. She wants her children to be able to go to school, but the officials tell her that whites and coloreds can’t be educated together. She should get with her own people and form her own school. Of course, there are no colored people living within 20 miles of her, so instead, she learns to carve pens out of quills and sew together composition books. In exchange for providing writing implements and materials for the school, they let her sit in the classroom. What she learns, she teaches to her own children, who go on to Earlham College, eventually becoming teachers themselves. She makes her children swear to never deny anyone a place in their classrooms if they want to learn.

Beautiful story, both written and read out loud. But imagine it as a song. Imagine it as two songs, one sung by Tim Grimm and the other by Krista Detour. Both beautiful. Both different. Both that tell you much more than the words by themselves can do.  Or the story of the hermit who would be seen along the banks of the Ohio River. The story was interesting; the song was like a small universe being created in the space inside the theatre.

Wilderness Plots is inspired by stories from the past, but in its format, it also mimics the entertainment of the past. Before all our fancy technological means of entertainment, we had our voices and the stories we wanted to tell. We had guitars and mandolins, and sometimes just a stick rubbed against another stick for the sound of rhythm. I certainly like my television, my internet, the ability to go the movie. But it was so magical for an evening to be in entertained in such a very different way.

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