Friday, August 24, 2012

Learning through folk songs

I had the great good fortune to attend Milwaukee's Irish Fest last weekend.  The event included all the joys of summer festivals -- food (including corn on the cob on a stick and a lot of variations on corned beef and potato themes),  people watching (most of them dressed in green), spectacle (tug of war, Celtic Canines),  culture (genealogy and Gaelic lessons) and amazing music.

 It is held on Milwaukee's Summer Fest grounds,  an ideal location for a summer music festival.  Some of the stages are set under the highway overpass, so I was able to send my nephew  pictures that included two of his favorite things:  acoustic speakers and bridges [he's studying Architectural Engineering] 

It is an impressive display of Irish-American Culture, and includes musicians from Ireland as well as the Irish Diaspora  -- this year's theme was the relationship to Bluegrass music, so there were a lot of banjos!. 

The stories told in folk songs and popular tales are always interesting to me, and, I think, educational.  This year, in addition to the songs I've heard often about leaving Ireland, I heard a few that were new to me  -- two about Irish soldiers fighting for the North in the American Civil War, and one written about tenement life in New York City near the turn of the twentieth century. 

What struck me in these songs was that they told a key but small part of United States history, and that it is very important that we as a community and a nation remember that we are all immigrants

With the exception of Native Americans, many of whom also experienced forced migration and relocation to other parts of our vast country, all of our ancestors came to the United States from somewhere else.  Not all driven by poverty, but most driven and shaped by events beyond their control.

The American Folklore Theater in Fish Creek, WI, is just finishing their outdoor season this week.  They do original musicals, usually with Wisconsin themes.  This year featured an historical musical, Victory Farm, about World War II German prisoners of war who are sent to work on a Door County cherry farm.  Their presence provokes complex reactions for the German-American farm wife and daughter who are struggling to get in the cherry harvest -- after the death of the head of their family in the war. 

It's a great play, and I hope it will be performed often.  It has its lighthearted musical moments as well -- the company is known for their comedy -- but that is not what I remember most clearly about it.  The indelible impression at the end of the play is of the humanity all the characters share -- including their love of music, family, and home.

Did you attend any cultural events this summer that celebrated different strands of our culture contributed by "hyphenated Americans"?  What's your favorite food -- and how did it become part of our culture?  My heritage is Irish, Scots, Welsh, English, and Canadian, but I would have long ago starved to death if it were not for the contributions of Italian and Mexican Americans to our food heritage.

People have used a lot of metaphors for our collective culture here in the United States, but I like to think of it as a tapestry -- where each strand of different colored thread contributes to the whole picture -- and enhances the colors that are its neighbors.

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Fortune Cookie

Information is not knowledge.
Knowledge is not wisdom.
Wisdom is not truth.
Truth is not beauty.
Beauty is not love.
Love is not music.
Music is the best.
Frank Zappa