Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.
Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson. And this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. Joining me today from Seattle is Laura Dean. Laura is a pianist, music educator and author. She’s originally from Montana and has just released a book titled Music in the Westward Expansion: Songs of Heart and Place on the American Frontier. The book explores the role of music in the history and culture of the 1800s American West. Welcome to Enhance Life with Music, Laura.
Laura Dean: [00:00:33] Thank you, Mindy. I’m delighted to be on your podcast.
Mindy Peterson: [00:00:37] Well, I’m so excited to have you on and talk about this book. Congratulations on the release of your book. I absolutely loved it. The hardest part for me in preparing for this conversation was trying to figure out what to call because there was so much that’s in the book that I wanted to include and just knew we wouldn’t have time for. I love the angle that you take in writing this book. It’s a retelling of the iconic American story of exploring and settling the Western frontier told through the lens of music. And it’s mostly from first hand accounts in written journals which are historically accurate and really do not sugarcoat the reality of life on the trail. It was really fascinating to be reminded of how harsh that reality was. The story that you’re telling, it’s the musical story within the westward expansion story. There are several groups whose music you take a deep dive into and we’ll come back to these if we have time. But I just wanted to touch on them. You talk about the very first musicians of the American West, the Native Americans. You talk about the role music played in the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition, including some diplomatic roles which were fascinating. You talk about the trailblazers and you include in that group explorers, fur trappers and missionaries. And you also talk about the real cowboys in the Old West and the role that music played in their experience. And that just had some really fascinating information to. That was new to me.
Mindy Peterson: [00:02:12] But for now, we’re going to jump into the music of that pioneer experience, kind of the classic pioneer experience that we think of when we think of those pioneers. I’m just going to lead off with a quote from your book that was a really great summary. You said, At the core of the westward expansion lies some 400,000 people who uprooted their lives in pursuit of the dream for a better life in the American West. Taking only the bare essentials that would fit into a simple wagon. The Pioneers made room for musical instruments right alongside their guns, ammunition, food and tools. And you went on to say, For these early pioneers, music often provided the only spark of light and happiness during what seemed like an endless, dusty journey filled with the risk of drowning, disease and starvation. And you said the carry. The pioneers carried only the clothes on their backs and the bare necessities in their wagons. Yet they experienced a rich musical life in the wilderness. Each group wove their own thread of music into the colorful and diverse musical tapestry of the American West. And I just love those quotes. So starting out after that long winded introduction, because I’m so excited about this book starting out. Tell us, what was the allure of the West? You had a chapter about this that gave me some really new information. Tell us, what was it that motivated so many Easterners to give up their life and leave loved ones to take on the risk of the Oregon Trail?
Laura Dean: [00:03:50] Well, thank you for that great introduction, by the way. That was terrific. And a great, great lead in the allure of the American West started with the Lewis and Clark expedition at the beginning of the 1800s. And the Lewis and Clark Expedition was an expedition set out by Thomas Jefferson to explore the land of the Louisiana Purchase. And it was like those men were going to the moon. They had no idea what was out there. They thought that they were going to paddle up the Missouri River all the way to the Pacific Ocean. And, you know, they found out that the Rocky Mountains were there and that the river stopped. They made this fantastic journey all the way to the Pacific Coast and then back to the east. And they started telling their stories through journals and through word of mouth about what the land was like in the West. And on the heels of the Lewis and Clark expedition came. Mountain men who were hunters and they were hunting beaver and other skins for hats and to satisfy the rich people in the east, their need for furs. And they also began to tell their stories about the West, the wide open spaces, the beautiful country. And then the missionaries came, and the missionaries sent stories back to the east about the healthy living, the freedom of religion, the opportunity.
Laura Dean: [00:05:33] And frankly, they were interested in converting Native Americans to Christianity. And people in the East, meanwhile, were dissatisfied with the growing population in the large cities. It was dirty, unsanitary living conditions, unregulated food production. There were a handful of diseases yellow fever, malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis. Cholera. Farmers in places like Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee were unable to earn a living wage. There was unemployment and low wages. So the motivation for going west, these people started thinking about economic gain. And later on in the mid 1800s came the Homestead Act and that promised free land to people who could prove their homestead. People were enticed by this clean living, this fresh start. Some people went to seek gold. After the Civil War, many African Americans moved west and emigrated west for Fresh Start. And so those were some of the reasons and the pull for going west. It was a powerful pull because people with the means had to sell everything to get on the road with a wagon and livestock. It was not an inexpensive proposition. It was $1,000 or more to even get on the road, pull up your family, leave everything behind. Maybe you wouldn’t see your parents again, your brothers and sisters, just for this wild dream of what was out there.
Mindy Peterson: [00:07:17] Yeah, well, I imagine that sense of adventure is really individual to people. And I imagine some people just have that bug, and they. They like risk and they like adventure. And others like me. Not. Not quite so much, probably.
Laura Dean: [00:07:33] Right.
Mindy Peterson: [00:07:34] But as you’re talking, I’m just thinking opposites tend to attract. I can imagine some married couples. One really wanted to go out west and one probably really did. And one thing that you point out in your book is during this time period, it was like the first time in US history when adult children could move away from home to earn a living on their own and their chosen field, and they could marry whoever they wanted. And I thought, Wow, I hadn’t really thought about that, but that was really fascinating.
Laura Dean: [00:08:02] That is correct. And as you touched on, maybe the people in the couple, both people did not want to go. But guess what? Who got the final say? The man. So he might have come home and said, honey, we’re moving west. And she might have been thinking, what about our four kids and the piano.
Mindy Peterson: [00:08:23] And their school and et cetera.
Laura Dean: [00:08:26] But she had to follow the man at that time.
Mindy Peterson: [00:08:30] Yeah, well, talk to us about the kinds of instruments that the pioneers did take with them. Obviously, they weren’t taking organs and pianos. But talk to us about the instruments they did take with them.
Laura Dean: [00:08:41] They took small, portable instruments that could fit into a wagon. One thing that I learned in this project was that women played guitars in that time period. So many of the women brought little guitars along and several journal accounts. I mean, more than several just dozens of journal accounts talk about women just strumming and singing along with the guitar, because that was one of the instruments that a young lady could play in her parlor in the east, along with a harp and piano. Well, the harp and the piano weren’t coming along, so the women brought the guitars and maybe some smaller keyboard instruments, like a small, pumped keyboard instrument called the rocking melodeon. It’s just a very petite keyboard that you were kind of pressed on a table and you made the bellows go and that produced the sound. People had banjos, flutes, and this was interesting. People used a bugle out on the trail to get the party moving in the morning so they would announce the break of day or that they were moving with a bugle.
Mindy Peterson: [00:09:58] Well, and I know. Just breeding Little House on the Prairie. You hear about PA and his fiddle. Like, when I think about PA, I always think of him with his fiddle. Yeah, I don’t think that’s because I’m a musician. I think it’s because Laura mentions him so often playing that fiddle and it was such an important part of their family life and. Yes, so important to him.
Laura Dean: [00:10:19] Yes.
Mindy Peterson: [00:10:20] And so that certainly was something that went along with these pioneers, with those fiddles. And you do a good job of explaining in the book that fiddle and violin are used interchangeably in the journals.
Laura Dean: [00:10:31] That’s right. And that the fiddle was probably the number one instrument that people brought with them. And there was not a lot of mention of women playing the fiddle or the violin, because I think at that time they thought it was an unladylike instrument. As you know, in the book, there’s a photograph of a sod house and there’s four there’s three musicians sitting on top of a sod house with a cello, a violin. And I think it’s two violins. And then there’s also somebody keeping guard with a rifle on the top of this sod house. So that’s quite an image. And it shows it also shows the instruments that came out.
Mindy Peterson: [00:11:13] Yes. Well, in one interesting note that you make, too, about the difference between fiddle and violin, as violin was often associated with formal affairs balls, the player usually read music from a written score, whereas the fiddle that nomenclature was used more for informal occasions folk tunes, country style dancing so that oral tradition songs rather than the written notation, which was sort of interesting. Tell, tell us about the kinds of music that was part of the pioneer experience, like the genres that were common, maybe specific composers, or there are a lot of specific song titles that were mentioned in journal entries. Talk to us about some of those and some that we may recognize still today.
Laura Dean: [00:12:00] Yes. Well, along with the instruments, of course, the instrument that everybody carried with them at the time was the voice. And people saying people knew these songs. It was the mark of a manly man who could produce the correct song for whatever the event was or whatever the feeling or emotion that he wanted to express. And also that was part of a young lady’s upbringing so that she could sing. So some of the songs that styles of music that they brought along were folk songs that had been passed down from generation to generation. So English ballads like Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies, Barbara Allen, which is kind of an Appalachian ballad. Oh, dear, what can the matter be? So songs that we are still familiar with today. Dan Tucker That’s one that is mentioned a lot in Little House on the Prairie Old. Dan Tucker was a good old man and washed his face with a frying pan. Yeah, yeah. The popular music of the day was the music of Stephen Foster. And that music is mentioned so much in the journals sung such as Old Folks at Home, I Dream of Jeannie, Beautiful Dreamer. This kind of nostalgic music that Stephen Foster wrote about is representative of the 19th century music. Just music about home music, about family music, about loved ones, sentimental songs like Cottage by the Sea. I Have Something Sweet to tell you. These are some of the titles. And then there were songs about the West that people composed in the time such as The Girl I Left Behind Me. I hit the road in 79, the trail strung out behind me. As I jogged along my mind ran back to the girl I left behind me.
Mindy Peterson: [00:14:01] Yeah. I didn’t recognize that time at all. And even with the tune, I don’t recognize it. It’s probably some of those are probably becoming kind of like for he’s a jolly good fellow, you know?
Laura Dean: [00:14:11] Yes.
Mindy Peterson: [00:14:12] They’ve been around so long. And now when I have young students come to lessons and I’m trying to teach them the sound of an interval of, say, a major third, you know, and I sing that song and they look at me like, never heard that one before, right?
Laura Dean: [00:14:27] The old fourth to Here Comes the Bride and you get a blank stare. Yeah, right. They also sang hymns. Of course, it was a very people from Christian backgrounds sang Amazing Grace, Wondrous Love, Coming Sinners, Poor and needy. These tunes I grew up with. But again, they’re not as prevalent in our culture. Just our kids don’t know these tunes today because it’s a different time. Patriotic songs are a bit like Yankee Doodle and then blends of art song. Songs like Home Sweet Home was one of the most popular songs, and that is from an 1820s opera.
Mindy Peterson: [00:15:07] One thing that you mention in the book, and I didn’t realize this either, was that Stephen Foster had a really tragic life, even though he was really well known and really talented. He was an alcoholic and people said that he could write a song in the morning, sell it in the afternoon, and spend all the earnings on it and alcohol by the end of the same night. And he died at age 38, basically penniless.
Laura Dean: [00:15:32] That’s right. And he had a daughter and a wife who had left him because of his disease. And it’s just so tragic.
Mindy Peterson: [00:15:42] The other thing on this topic that caught my attention, too, is on the subject of hymns. One of the journal entries that you quote in the book says This afternoon, quite a number of our neighbors gathered in our tent and sang Sunday school songs. It seemed old fashioned, and then multiple references to this seems so old fashioned in these journal entries, which just kind of cracked me up. And I was like, Well, and I know.
Laura Dean: [00:16:08] It’s all relevant.
Mindy Peterson: [00:16:09] Yeah. And then another journal entry that really caught my attention that you quoted is the writer was writing about a specific hymn that was very comforting to her during the cross country journey. And she said, I repeated on the road as I wrote along the hymn Guide Me On Thou Great Jehovah, which sounded more appropriate to me in this wilderness than ever in my life before and with more force. What do we know about barren wilderness in a city church? I had never felt the words and meaning before, as I have done since I have been on this journey. And those words, which I do. I recognize that hymn from growing up and occasionally our church. We do a lot of worship songs, but occasionally we’ll do some of those old hymns too. And just reading those words guide me on thou great Jehovah pilgrim through this barren land I am weak but thou art mighty hold me with a powerful hand. And so I was just reading that, and it really gave me fresh perspective on the words of that hymn to.
Laura Dean: [00:17:13] Yes, I think that people reached back for those familiar lyrics, familiar songs, because it did provide something that they could hang on to because this was an arduous journey. Six months walking across desert, across mountains, losing loved ones along the way, the wagons were rolling along the trail, sometimes over and near bodies who had just died along the way, and they just had to keep rolling. It was a very dusty, dirty trail. It’s not like we see in some movies.
Mindy Peterson: [00:17:56] You know.
Laura Dean: [00:17:56] Where it’s just beautiful meadows and the wagons are just rolling gently.
Mindy Peterson: [00:18:02] Along and everyone’s hair is freshly washed and their clothes are.
Laura Dean: [00:18:06] Fresh.
Mindy Peterson: [00:18:07] Right? That’s right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a good reminder for me just reading through those journal entries like, wow, what these people took on and how they lived through this process. And some of the I remember one journal entry that kind of caught my attention. A woman was writing about her husband, had accidentally shot himself and died. And it was just kind of like yesterday he was here. Today he’s gone and we’re moving on. And that kind of brings us back to the topic of the role that music played in the lives of the pioneers on the trail. Just a funeral, even. I mean, how much more meaning would that take on having some music to go along with that funeral? But talk to us about some of the other roles that music played. You actually have a list of these in your book that you call a hurt list that highlights the roles that music played. Part of it was remembering loved ones, whether because they died on the trail or because they were left behind in the east. Talk to us about some of those other roles that music played.
Laura Dean: [00:19:14] Yes, the heart list is a is a list of. Yeah, the roles that music played. And I think these still speak to us today. One of the things was a connection between different people, between different ethnic groups on the road. I want to go back to the Lewis and Clark expedition. And they met with so many Native American tribes, Indians along the way, and they had, for the most part, very friendly relations. They wouldn’t have made this journey without the help of the different tribes along the way and the great chiefs and the scouts that went out with them. And of course, Sacagawea. The teenage mother. Shoshone. Woman. Without her, it wouldn’t have happened. There was an instance on their way back from the Pacific, so they were in an area of eastern Washington near Walla Walla, and they were with the clueless. And the chief of the Lolas, Chief Yella Pit said, We will sing a medicine song and you will sing a medicine song back to us. This was a great honor that he was asking the men of the Corps of Discovery to sing a medicine song because it was a song that is gifted to the recipient and it’s has power. The Lula’s sang one song and the Corps of Discovery sang two songs, according to the journal entries. There were so many journal entries about music on the Lewis and Clark Expedition over 100. The only sad thing is, is that we don’t know what the songs were. They didn’t mention any, not even one title. I just want to go back in time and say, Come on, Meriwether Lewis. Could you just write the title in there? So we just have to guess. So it was it acted as diplomacy between diverse cultures.
Mindy Peterson: [00:21:21] In sign of friendship.
Laura Dean: [00:21:23] And a sign of friendship. Yes.
Mindy Peterson: [00:21:25] And in before we leave that topic of diversity, that’s another thing that was so fascinating in your book. You do such a great job of pointing out that diversity and the different ethnic groups that are represented in this westward expansion experience that we don’t necessarily realize, like even with the Cowboys. Yes, the real cowboys in the West, you point out that they were culturally a very diverse group and they included civil war vets, Mexican vaqueros, Native Americans, freed slaves. In fact, you said it’s estimated that one in four cowboys was African American, which was just fascinating. And you don’t really see that represented in a lot of the movies depicting that time.
Laura Dean: [00:22:09] That’s right. Yes. One in four of the cowboys was African American. And in fact, the great cowboy song I write in Old Paint was composed by an African American cook, a guy that was on the chuck wagon.
Mindy Peterson: [00:22:22] And it was to soothe the cattle. Right.
Laura Dean: [00:22:24] Yes. With the cowboys who drove cattle from Texas way up to places in the north. The Cowboys used songs sung back and forth between two cowboys to soothe the cattle, to entertain themselves on these long trips. But it really soothed the cattle and kept them from stampeding, because if one cow stampeded, then it was just mayhem and they could lose a lot of the cattle along the way. And the cowboys put the cowboys in danger. So they wanted to create a soothing atmosphere. And there is a story in the book about three cowboys coming across, another cowboy who had died and they found him on the range. And there’s just a poignant story of them burying this guy and singing to him. They gave him a funeral on the On the Prairie. They did mention the name of the song. It might have been Oh, Bury Me, Not on the Old Prayer on the Lone Prairie. It’s not coming to me right now. But there’s so many stories like that. Another example of diversity is the Mattie fiddle tradition. The Mattie people are a mixture of Native American and French or European descent and the mighty people. There’s a lot in Montana didn’t ever feel like they were part of the white world and they didn’t feel that they’re part of the Indian world. They felt that they were kind of on the outside of both worlds, but they developed this fiddle tradition that they carried with them throughout the 1800s and still going today. And it’s a very specific style of fiddling and dancing that has French roots. But because Native Americans had so much music in their lives with the drumming and the singing, it’s like they were just natural, naturally attracted to the fiddle playing and developing this musical tradition that was their own and in the May tradition.
Mindy Peterson: [00:24:27] Wow. Well, some of the other items on the Hart list I think we’ve taught will be touched on worship, including impromptu church services. Along the trail. We talked a little bit about expressing cultural identity, friendship, joy, sorrow, remembering loved ones. That was another important role. Yes. Of of music. Music provided a historical record of events, including marking some gruesome historical events that happened. That’s right.
Laura Dean: [00:25:00] Well, that’s right. Yeah. A lot about the death and battles. There was a song about a teacher who was in love with a woman, and she refused to marry him. So he wrote a very kind of macabre song about her. And that was a sad story. One of the things that we haven’t talked about on the list is love. And that goes back to the first chapter and the Northern Cheyenne Courtship Flute. And I want to touch on this because that was one of my first experiences with researching this book. I wanted to find an authentic Native American voice because let’s face it, the Native Americans were here first. And this is a very horrible time in history for the Native Americans during the westward expansion. And I wanted to honor an authentic voice. I’m from Montana, and I was trying to find a Native American musician who I could just learn from. And I connected with a man named Jay, Old Morse, and he was the keeper of the Northern Cheyenne Courtship Flute living in eastern Montana in a place called Lame Deer, which is right outside of the Custer battlefield. So I got on a plane. I mean, we it was hard to track him down. He did not have a website. He said, I found him by the moccasin telegraph. I really had to to hunt him down. And we connected and we spoke on the phone a few times, and I wanted to learn about the Northern Cheyenne Courtship Flute.
Laura Dean: [00:26:43] So I went there to eastern Montana and I spent a day with him, and he made me he built me a flute. But he taught me about the tradition of the flute and how the original tradition of the courtship flute was for a young man, a young, brave, to woo the woman of his dreams into marrying her. He would go to the flute maker and have a flute made and then would play this flute in hopes of attracting his intended bride. And Jay’s flute tradition could be traced back four generations. So when I got to his home, he had these flutes that dated back to the early 1800s. Yes. And we developed this friendship over the years. And he taught me how to play the flute. He gave me permission to talk about the flute because it’s traditionally an instrument for men. There’s a story devoted to the Northern Cheyenne flute and the culture. We would have these big, long conversations during the beginning of COVID online, and unfortunately he ended up dying from COVID, which was just just so painful and horrible. But through his music, I’m I’m just glad that his story will be in this book. And we don’t know who’s going to take over the flute tradition from him. I don’t I’m not Northern Cheyenne. I don’t know the ways of that. This is going to be handled. But very, very special friend, special person, special musician. That was a huge part of this book.
Mindy Peterson: [00:28:29] Yeah. In the epilogue, you explain that one of your goals in writing this book is to inspire readers to add more musical experiences into their own 21st century lives. And you say the stories found throughout the book prove that musical experiences create energy, spark conversations, bring people together and touch people’s hearts. What was true at the time of the westward expansion remains true today. Tell us about the corollaries that you see between frontier life and the pandemic life that we’re hopefully emerging from, and also how you see these roles of music from the Frontier era having relevance to our modern lives.
Laura Dean: [00:29:16] First of all, how did music soothe us in the pandemic? We saw it right away in Italy, where it was really bad at. It was one of the first countries to be hit hard with people seeing opening their doors and singing opera from their balconies and singing to the health care workers. I think so many people did find solace in music. I know that the students that I worked with continued to play online. We did whatever we could to continue our lessons via Zoom recitals, via Zoom. I had neighborhood music parties outside where I’d hand out song sheets ahead of time and. People would come and we would sing together from our different spots and bring my keyboard outside. But you saw all sorts of kinds of experiences at that time. I read about a guy who put on a marching band uniform every single day and marched up and down the street playing the trombone, and people came out and listened to him. And it brought joy to people. It brought joy and it brought comfort to have any music in their lives at that time. And they also honored people with it. That’s the way that they honored the health care workers and that we stayed connected.
Mindy Peterson: [00:30:37] Well, even just looking through this heartless, I’m looking, you know, celebration, comfort, creative outlet, education, diversion and entertainment, including dancing on the trail or dancing in your home when you’re on lockdown.
Laura Dean: [00:30:54] Yes. Didn’t we have a lot of dance parties just right in our living rooms?
Mindy Peterson: [00:30:59] Right. Worship memories of home sense of place, sustaining spirits by providing stress relief and sort of an antidote to the hardships of the trail and the hardships of life now. So yeah, definitely so many corollaries and we’re out of time, so I won’t talk. We won’t talk too much about it. But you have wonderful appendices in the book. To one of them you include a representative song list. For each of the chapters, you have a selection of sheet music, a suggested recordings list, and a collection of lead sheets. You also have a meaningful musical experiences section with ideas to get started on your own musical journey, and it appeals. You have so many ideas that appeal to a wide range of budgets and tastes and ages and audiences. So really highly, highly recommend those appendices at the end to well, Laura, I ask all my guests to close out our conversation with a musical ending a coda by sharing a song or story about a moment that music enhanced your life. And I asked if you could share one of these songs that you feature in the book. You also have a blog, which I’ll include the link to that in the show notes. People can follow your blog, but tell us about the song that you chose to share with us as we close out our conversation.
Laura Dean: [00:32:23] The song I chose is called Harvest Time, and it was the theme song of a man named Brother Vann, who was a methodist minister and circuit writer in Montana. This hymn just speaks to me because it’s it’s such a beautiful melody. And I think it does represent the quiet, serene and also kind of elegance to rise above circumstances, through music, through this beautiful, gentle hymn.
Transcribed by Sonix.ai