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Exploring American roots music through New Harmonies exhibit
Oct. 10, 2011

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

DASSEL, MN – Music, in its many forms, has the ability to invoke a variety of emotions and shares stories of the times that transfer from one generation to the next.

New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music highlights the many musical styles that have evolved throughout American history, each with a story of its own.

The exhibit, now open through Saturday, Nov. 5, is a partnership between the Smithsonian Institution and the Minnesota Humanities Council.

“It’s interactive, informative, and has universal appeal,” said Mary Jensen, co-chair of the Smithsonian project. “It’s the music of numerous cultures and [shows] how they have woven into American music,” Jensen added.

Roots music is defined as the music that “rises out of America’s story, carrying our history and cultural identity in its songs.”

Evolving from a blend of Anglo-European, Native American, and West African music traditions, American roots music includes folk ballads, country, blues, bluegrass, and gospel.

As visitors walk through the exhibit, they will see how each form of music came to life, from gospel to folk-flavored protest songs, and how each reflect American values, such as freedom, democracy, and diversity.

Each display identifies well-known artists during their time, lyrics from popular songs, and various instruments used to develop the music.

The exhibit is set up in chronological order, starting with what has been known as “the first sounds” of sacred songs.

In America’s early years, spirituality was the foundation of American music, with European immigrants escaping religious persecution, enslaved Africans executing their one true freedom, and Native Americans using music to communicate with their Creator.

“Singing was a form of prayer,” said Marcia Johnson, exhibit docent.

The exhibit then shows how these sacred songs evolved through time combining European influences during The Great Awakening, and then moving into the much more joyful and charismatic sounds of gospel in the 20th century South.

Country music is also explored in the exhibit, taking a broader form from old-time, hillbilly, mountain, and bluegrass music.

The exhibit points out how the Grand Ole Opry, both on TV and radio, helped popularize this form of music.

Each style of music has its own purpose and meaning. For instance, the Blues was derived from poverty, oppression, and racism, with roots in sacred music and “field hollers.”

Instruments featured with this form of music are the harmonica and diddley bow; a piece of wire (usually from a bale of cotton) stretched between two nails.

Early bluesmen made music by plucking the string while sliding a bottle or knife along the wire, “producing a whining, bluesy sound.”

Artists featured include BB King and Muddy Waters.

Other forms of music are explored including the diverse music that all have one thing in common – the accordion. Such styles include zydeco, cajun, tejano, and polka music.

Much of the Roots music was used as a way to stand up for a society’s customs, beliefs, and values.

This became further evident in the 1960s, with civil rights and anti-war rallies with the voices of Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Joan Baez.

Absent Narratives

In conjunction with the Smithsonian exhibit, the Dassel History Center also has its own exhibit highlighting the faces of Dassel whose stories of immigration aren’t often told.

Those familiar with the Dassel-Cokato area know that its earliest settlers were Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, and from the British Isles.

The faces and stories in Absent Narratives looks at the many ethnic groups that have come to make up the community.

Stories shared include those of Denise Alger, who is Native American; Marcella Craswell, who is from Costa Rica; and Eric Okari Ngoko, who was raised in Nairobi, Kenya.

The exhibit features belongings representing each of their cultures, as well as a video that shares their thoughts about coming to Dassel and the similarities and differences between the cultures.

Upcoming programming

In addition to the exhibit, the Dassel Area Historical Society is also providing programming related to three cultures represented in “Absent Narratives: The Faces of Dassel.”

During the opening week, the history center hosted The Little Thunderbirds, a Native American drum and dance troupe from Minneapolis.

Coming Sunday, Oct. 16 is Ballet Folklorico Mexico Azteca, a 10-member dance team whose goal is to “preserve and maintain the culture of Mexico through the performance of traditional Mexican dance, and to increase the knowledge of the Mexican culture.”

The show begins at 2 p.m. and there is no charge for admission. Refreshments will also be served.

Providing the African American music component will be Soli Hughes, a concert guitarist and ensemble performer, who will be working with DC Middle School students as part of a week-long residency.

A performance with the students will take place Thursday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m.

There is expected to be other cultural programming throughout the year featuring Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, German, Irish, and Asian entertainment.

Hours and tours

The Dassel History Center will be open extra hours during the exhibit.

The regular hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Added hours will be Sunday from noon to 3 p.m., and Monday evening from 5 to 8 p.m.

Guided tours will be available Tuesday through Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.; Saturday at 10:30 a.m.; Sunday at 1 p.m., and Monday at 7 p.m. Special tours may be scheduled through the history center, (320) 275-3077 or dahs@dassel.com.

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