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Explorers’ voyage set to new tunes

Thursday, June 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:10 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

Some of the most important artifacts to come from Lewis and Clark’s expedition are the journals kept by members of the Corps of Discovery. They describe everything from the speed of the river to the jerking of deer meat. But one thing is noticeably absent from the journal entries: music.

“Nowhere in the journals does it say what music was played,” local folk musician Paul Grace said. “No one knows.”

Grace and other members of The Discovery String band — Win Grace, Cathy Barton, Dave Para and Bob Dyer — didn’t realize how difficult it would be to find out about the music that was actually played on the Corps of Discovery’s expedition when they set out to create songs for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration.

“You can find books on the Civil War music, but you don’t find that with Lewis and Clark,” Barton said.

The band, known for its historical and contemporary folk music about the Missouri River and the Civil War era, has released a CD, “Most Perfect Harmony,” based on Lewis and Clark’s journey. The band will perform “Lewis and Clark: A Musical Voyage of Discovery” on Saturday night at the Missouri Theatre as a fund-raiser for the Missouri River Communities Network AmeriCorps Project.

“When there are people chronicling their life, there is a tendency to only use the important things and to forget everyday things like music,” Para said.

Most of the songs the band performs are a combination of traditional pieces they know were popular and original pieces based on traditional tunes from the time period.

Steve Johnson, a friend of the band and executive director of the Missouri River Communities Network, encouraged the musicians to make a recording based on the expedition for this year’s bicentennial.

“I saw there was going to be a need for music,” Johnson said. The MRCN, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing stewardship of the Missouri River, has been helping plan the bicentennial for the past three years.

Trying to portray the journey through songs was initially hard for the band, but their love of history made it enjoyable, Barton said. “We started with almost nothing, just basic knowledge of fiddle tunes, but I think it’s the most fun project,” she said. “It’s just been a delight.”

The band discovered that music was present on the journey, as expedition members Pierre Cruzatte and George Gibson played their fiddles along the way. Music had a crucial role in relations with the natives tribes, Paul Grace said.

“It was a way to make contact with the Indians,” Dyer said. “Music didn’t take translation.”

Music also served as a means of entertainment and relaxation during camp site frolics when the weather was nice and everyone was in a good mood, Paul Grace said.

“Music is how they worked, how they relaxed, and also played a role in foreign relations,” Para said.

Many of the songs on “Most Perfect Harmony” are based on journal excerpts from Lewis and Clark and other members of the Corps of Discovery expedition.

“We used the journals as an image to create the idea for the songs,” Paul Grace said. “They created inspiration.”

The song “The Extra-Ordinary Beast/Road to Boston” by Barton is based on a journal excerpt written by Clark about their first sighting of a prairie dog. Barton used language from the time period, such as “O!” and “ye” to give the song an authentic feel and used an old tune called “Revolutionary Tea” about the Boston Tea Party as well. She then combined it with a piece they knew was popular around the revolution called “Road to Boston” to produce a piece that was original, yet reminiscent of the Lewis and Clark time period. Many of the songs by the band members on the CD use this type of blending to create original pieces.

The Discovery String Band is scheduled to play along with the Lewis and Clark events that are running throughout Boone County and in communities along the river. Because many of their scheduled performances have been outdoor venues, the Missouri Theatre is particularly special to them. The theater was the site of the premiere for the “Most Perfect Harmony” CD in November and the band is excited about their return on Saturday, Barton said.

“The theater itself is such a lovely setting for us,” Paul Grace said. “It’s nice to be in a beautiful sit-down setting where we can concentrate on actually performing rather than being beastly hot or cold or worrying that our hats are going to blow away.”


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