Courtesy of Kathy Wahl
Musician Joe Crookson addresses the senior citizens and students involved in a collaborative community history songwriting project at Avon school library in March and April.
Songwriter teams up with Avon students
AVON, NY — A love for music has brought together students and community members because of a unique project at Avon High School developed by Library Media Specialist Kathy Wahl.
Along the way, the 16 participating students who volunteered for this project also learned about history and their local community.
Wahl received a grant through the Genesee Valley Teacher’s Center and the Class of 2008 to fund the project, which is led by the expertise of professional folk musician Joe Crookston. A native of Ithaca, Crookston was awarded 2009 Album of the Year by the International Folk Alliance in Memphis, Tenn.for his 2008 album Able, Baker, Charlie and Dog. He performs nearly 100 concerts a year at festivals, theaters, and schools and has worked with several organizations to inspire children, youth, and teens to explore the world through songwriting, storytelling, and personal expression. Crookston is a regular performer at the Vitale Park Concert Series in Lakeville.
The project was opened up to all high school students, grades 9-12, and at least 20 life-long Avon residents were invited to participate.
Students began by interviewing Avon seniors about their lives, and then working with them and Crookston to create music based on the oral histories. Crookston himself is no stranger to this type of music. He recently received a grant through the Rockefeller Foundation to travel the Finger Lakes region, interview local residents and record songs based on the stories and experiences he collected. Many of these songs ended up on his 2008 album.
Community members and students had their first meeting with Crookston in early March to learn about each other and about the project. From March 16 to April 20, the group met several times to complete interviews and work on the songwriting.
Crookston performed the four songs created by the students in a school-wide concert April 21.
It is Wahl’s goal to give a recording of the songs to the Avon Historical Society, “a lasting contribution of musical art”. She hopes that the students come away from this project with “an appreciation for their community and an understanding of different ways history can be told.”
Music was certainly a major incentive for project participants, but songwriting proved to be more difficult than they had realized.
“I learned that making music takes a lot of time and effort, to write something worthwhile,” said sophomore student Vince Crane. The opportunity to learn from a professional musician really attracted Crane and fellow sophomore Phil Linden, who have dabbled in some songwriting themselves.
Linden admitted he was excited to hear Joe’s performance, but “nervous to find out what my friends and family think of the lyrics that I helped to write.”
The participants included freshman and senior students working side by side with senior community members. This unlikely union may have been as enriching and educational as the musical instruction itself.
“I really liked the chance for the geriatrics to interface with the students. The joint project invited us to share ourselves and work together in a fun way,” said Dr. Richard Collins, a retired family practitioner and an active member of the Avon Historical Society.
Student Hannah Carney came away with a greater understanding of her community and its history, and “I also got to meet some really great people.”
Kathy Wahl hopes to continue to pursue projects like this, bringing together community members and students.
“For me the most exciting parts of the project were watching the students learn and interact with the older Avon community members. I think everyone benefitted from the time spent together. Students were enriched by what they learned about Avon’s past and American history. The community members seemed to enjoy the opportunity to tell their stories and get to know teens in the Avon community,” said Wahl.
Crookston quotes Woody Guthrie, a popular folk musician during the mid-1900’s, when explaining why he enjoys creating songs about history, people, and places.
“When a song or a ballad mentions the name of a river, a town, a spot, a fight or the sound of somebody’s name that you know or are familiar with, there is a sort of quiet pride that comes up through your blood.” – Guthrie (1943)
“There was a moment during the [Finger Lakes] project in Hemlock; I was performing a new song which mentioned Hemlock Lake and the surrounding landscape. The look of recognition and pride on the audience’s faces was incredible, and confirmed what Woody had already experienced… People feel pride about their place, and then for an artist to sing about it deepens that pride.”
And in the audience this week at Avon Central School will be a small group of students who can take even greater pride in those songs, because they helped to write them.