IHC's New Release of Unique CD of Historical Idaho Songs
The Idaho Humanities Council announces the release of The Idaho Songbag, a CD of more than two dozen historically based songs inspired by Idaho people, places, and events from the mid-19th century to the present. Performed by musicians as diverse as folk music icon Pete Seeger and Salmon River loner “Dugout Dick” Zimmerman, The Idaho Songbag features songs about mining, murder, labor disputes, politics, protests, and cowboy laments, and comes with an illustrated 72-page booklet of lyrics and stories behind the songs.
The CD selections are the work of Nampa resident and “song catcher” Gary Eller, who several years ago began traveling around the state, thanks to an IHC grant, to search archives large and small, scour the internet, meet with musicians in public “song swaps,” and gather recordings of musicians both well known and unknown who have either written original music or passed along old songs they’ve learned from others. The Idaho Songbag is a compilation of polished studio recordings, wax cylinder, reel-to-reel, and cassette recordings, and more recent field recordings of musicians performing songs in their kitchens and living rooms.
“It’s a work of historical preservation in the tradition of Alan Lomax to gather this sampler of music unique to Idaho,” says Rick Ardinger, Executive Director of the Idaho Humanities Council. “It’s a labor of love for Gary, who came to the IHC with a proposal to travel the state in search of Idaho’s musical heritage--and one song has led to another.”
So far, Eller has gathered more than 1,000 songs.
Inspired by Idaho folksinger Rosalie Sorrels’ songbook Way Out in Idaho (1991), published for Idaho’s statehood centennial a generation ago, Eller met with Sorrels, recorded himself singing several songs from her long-out-of-print book, and found hundreds more obscure and little known songs he has recorded for the first time.
“This is not a CD featuring Idaho’s best-known musicians,” Eller says. “That’s really not its purpose. With a couple of exceptions, most featured on The Idaho Songbag are not professional musicians. The project is about the content of some historically based songs you won’t find elsewhere, not so much about who performs them.”
Two exceptions are recordings by folk icon Pete Seeger, singing a song he wrote in the 1970s protesting further dam development in Hells Canyon, and beloved Idaho songwriter Pinto Bennett, who performs a song based on a story told to him by his own grandfather about a revenge-killing, Basque Country fugitive who settled near Mountain Home during the Great Depression.
Idaho City’s Beth Wilson, for example, sings a song that was first published in the Idaho World newspaper in the 1880s. Fellow Idaho City musician John Thomsen performs a humorous song he wrote about nuclear potatoes. St. Maries musician Earl Gleason sings a song of labor woes in north Idaho logging camps. Givens Hot Springs musician John Larsen sings a catchy autobiographical tune written by an inmate of the Old Idaho Penitentiary in the 1950s. Former Idaho Fish and Game manager Stacy Gebhards, of Lake Fork, sings a satiric song about the natural and manmade challenges salmon face as they return from the ocean to Idaho to spawn. Ione Thielke, the 1950s “Musical Poem Recorder of Cascade Idaho,” sings a song about wild horses in the Owyhees. Other highlights are songs from Frank Church’s 1956 Senate campaign; a song of 1850s Mormon pioneers; an 1880s Oregon Short Line railroad song, a ballad about the infamous murder of Lloyd Magruder . . . and much more.
The Idaho Songbag CD was the final component of a larger three-year initiative of the Idaho Humanities Council to promote greater appreciation of American roots music, that featured a weeklong institute for teachers, a traveling Smithsonian exhibit, and other activities, all funded in part by a grants from the Idaho Community Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The title of the CD is taken in homage to poet Carl Sandburg, who published the book The American Songbag in 1927.
The Idaho Songbag CD is available for $15 (plus $3 shipping and sales tax).