Sangamon Songs brings history to life and music

Performances Nov. 18-20 at Hoogland Center for the Arts

click to enlarge Sangamon Songs brings history to life and music
Owen, Tom and John Irwin performing a song in a scene about a barn dance from Sangamon Songs: A Musical Play.

When I wander through antique stores I'm always drawn to postcards, especially those of local scenes penned – and sometimes charmingly penciled – more than 100 years ago. They are portals to another time, and often the messages speak across the decades. "Daisy had six puppies last night," or "We visited granddad in Salem last week. Mom says he won't be around at Thanksgiving." You wonder what world the writer inhabited, and where life's journey led him.

While postcards stir the old imagination, a forgotten journal can be magical. Harry Glen Ludlam, a 16-year-old boy in rural Sangamon County, left such a journal in a pie cabinet in 1894, and the house he then lived in passed into the Irwin family. The house still stands near the Route 97 turnoff to Petersburg, and it's where Springfield-based singer-songwriter Tom Irwin grew up.

Tom is a remarkable wordsmith and an intuitive writer. Harry's journal, which records events over a six-month period between 1893-1894, is the essence of Irwin's Sangamon Songs, a beautifully recorded CD (2012) that opens a window on the young lad's life – work, play, adventure, more work, dreams, death and future – as it unfolded daily in the fields and hollers Irwin later wandered. Sparta musicians and producers Gary and Roberta Gordon helped make this recording exceptional and essential to my library, as it is an inspired musical landscape of central Illinois. Bits of bluegrass, old timey ballads, work songs, barn-dance stomps, tender waltzes, and thoughtful songs that express the longings of a teenager about to enter the world – that's the soundtrack Irwin created for Harry's ephemeral musings.

That soundtrack earned Irwin accolades from many folk music critics, who perhaps saw its potential for walking out of the CD player and onto the stage. Irwin and his playwriting collaborator, John Arden of Skokie, carefully crafted a vignette-filled production that centers around the song cycle and introduces audiences to Ludlam. The play includes lots of local history and tidbits Harry included in his journal that were not necessarily song material.

The result is pure magic. Irwin and his sons, guitarist Owen and actor John, bring the play to life, with John, sporting a straw hat and trumpet, infusing his character with enough joy and hope to inspire audiences long after the curtain falls. Tom Irwin narrates, plays guitar and sings with the knowledge and conviction that he and Harry share a fate, a destiny that the Sangamon Valley will never let them go.

I have so many favorite songs from Sangamon Songs, and the play allows the audience to sing along with the cast. "What Went On Last Night," "Nellie Manchester," "Corn to Shuck," "Footsteps of My Maker"–these are gems, showcasing Irwin's ability to harvest the essence of an idea and make it singable, memorable, unforgettable. Other songs focus on Ludlam's family, such as their once-in-a-lifetime trip to the "World's Columbian Exposition" in Chicago, or the death of a relative whose demise signals the end of Harry's known universe. These are carefully crafted songs, full of mystery and simple beauty such as you'd find in a prairie sunset, a rural cemetery, or on the quiet banks of the Sangamon. Other songs will simply haunt you, like "Rain, Rain, Rain," and "Moonlight Now."

Irwin, a son of the Sangamon River Valley, originally created Sangamon Songs for a master's degree project at the University of Illinois Springfield, formerly Sangamon State University, so by rights the play is a product of that institution's public affairs mandate, to realize the potential of this storied prairie from which Lincoln, Lindsay and Masters drew their inspiration. My hope is that Sangamon Songs – both the CD and the play – will inspire audiences to sing about this place and its people for decades to come. And, perhaps, we'll find more stories in the pie pantry.

Springfield has a rare opportunity to see Sangamon Songs staged with the original cast this weekend, Nov. 18, 19 and 20 at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Tickets are $18-$20. Evening shows are at 7 p.m., with Sunday's matinee at 4 p.m. Joining the ensemble on Saturday night is fiddler Paula Launay, who will add her own tasty licks to the show. Send me a postcard. You won't be disappointed.

William Furry of Petersburg is a musician, a historian, and a former editor of Illinois Times.

About The Author

William Furry

William Furry is executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society and editor of Illinois Heritage, its popular history magazine. He is a former editor of Illinois Times.

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