Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Fall 2013 Speaker Series Wrap Up

by Frank Boles

During the fall semester, the Library sponsored four programs, including a discussion of WCMU Radio’s popular show, “Our Front Porch,” a presentation by noted children’s illustrator Peter Sís, a remembrance of famed musicologist Alan Lomax's 1938 tour of Michigan, and a presentation by Deborah Thomas regarding the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website, which features fully searchable newspapers from across the United States.

On the air for more than thirty years, “Our Front Porch” has been a welcome friend to PBS listeners throughout mid and northern Michigan. Hundreds of concerts have aired on the show, and its founder, John Sheffler, has donated more than 300 concert tapes to the Clarke Historical Library. On September 24, he, Dan Bracken, the show’s long time “sound man,” Peggy Brisbane and Robert Barclay, who have photographed the show since its inception, and Bob Ebner, “chief roadie,” reminisced about their experiences. Bob Ebner, for example, recalled standing with John Sheffler in a partially renovated Cheboygan Opera House. Looking about, Sheffler wondered aloud if they could really pull off a concert at the venue. Bob replied, “hell yes.” And they did. But perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening was when Peggy Brisbane recalled the positive consequences of the concerts. People left the events a little happier, their lives a little richer, and perhaps with just a little better attitude about life. A pretty good long-term outcome, when all your ticket bought was 90 minutes or so of good music.

On October 17, Peter Sís brought a fascinating view of America to the stage. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Sís sought political asylum in the United States in 1982, which was eventually granted. He has, for more than thirty years, resided near New York City. Sís still takes a bit of mischievous delight when someone asks him “where ya’ from” by responding, in his still strong Czech accent, “New York,” where he has, after all, lived for a very long time. What he sees, though, in the inquirer’s eyes is the question they meant to ask: “no, where are you really from?”

Sís devoted much of his presentation to a fascinating discussion regarding how his past life informs his current art. Perhaps his most personal observation was that his love of birds, and flight in general, came from his sense of restriction in his former homeland. Sís came of age in a land where borders had walls with guards and only birds could fly freely from one country to the next. Birds became a metaphor for the life he longed to live, and eventually achieved.

Alan Lomax (1915-2002) devoted much of his life to recording traditional folk music. In 1938, he made a remarkable tour through Michigan, recording more than 1,000 songs. Celebrating the 75th anniversary of this tour, the Clarke Historical Library joined with the Michigan State University Museum on October 22 to present a program discussing the tour and sharing the music Lomax found, through original recordings, motion picture film Lomax shot during his trip, and live performances onstage.

Finally, on October 29, Deborah Thomas from the Library of Congress visited to discuss Chronicling America. The website will eventually include a fully searchable sample of newspapers from across the country, telling the nation’s stories through the local headlines across the United States. The Clarke's staff was particularly pleased to sponsor this presentation because the Clarke serves as coordinator for Chronicling America activities in Michigan and sees the site as an important extension to the Clarke Historical Library’s ongoing work in preserving and digitizing Michigan newspapers, many of which are found at the Central Michigan University On-Line Digital Object Repository (CONDOR).