This fall, Harper College’s Community Music and Arts Center (CMAC) launched its newest ensemble: Harper’s Back Porch Revue.
Lead by Scott Cashman and Bekr Ali, this ensemble explores the music of the American South during the late 19th and early 20th Century: early blues and country music, old time, folk, spirituals and more. See music details in the interview below.
Harper’s Back Porch Review Concert
Sunday, December 17, 3 p.m.
Harper College Main Campus
Tickets will be available for purchase at the Harper College Box Office.
Read below for an interview with Dr. Scott:
What kind of musician are you looking for?
Primarily I see this as an acoustic group. We’ll need a certain number of guitars, banjos, fiddles and other string instruments but I think there is also room for other things. If the odd wind instrument appears, so much the better. Vocals are also a key component.
And then we will reintegrate the drum into the mix. When the African slaves were brought here they were stripped of their material culture and in musical terms that meant there were no drums allowed. The drum was naturally central to African music. While rhythm remained central to African American music it generally had to be expressed without the drum. We would love to have a couple of hand drummers join in!
Can anyone join?
Well, we will accept just about any instrument in the acoustic realm. Players do need a certain level of basic development so that they can play along. Players should be able to play in the keys of A, C, D, E, G, at a minimum. Reading music and improvising solos are pluses, but not required. People who aren’t sure if this fits them should come to the first meeting and we can together make a determination of the fit.
In the beginning, Bekr and I will provide some songs to get us started but we will also want the members of the ensemble to bring some songs into the repertoire. We will be performing before the end of the semester! And it’s really a goal of mine for us to perform off-campus to begin to get the word out that the Community Music Center wants people of all levels and intentions to join in. Just want to play in your home? We are the perfect place for you. Want to study with some of the best musicians in Illinois? We are also the perfect place for those students. We teach children and adults of all ages. We are not just trying to turn out professionals at Harper College (though we can do that and the credit side of the college specializes in that) but we can also be the place where people who just love music come together to form a community and maybe join an ensemble like ours.
How do you see this ensemble re-arranging the music that you will select?
My approach to this is to use those old songs as the base upon which we build. I want to make sure that we incorporate a strong rhythmic approach and that improvisation is used liberally. We’ll see who ends up being in the group and play to their strengths. We’ll use configurations based on what the members play. We’ll take their vision of what should be happening into account when settling on an arrangement. I don’t intend to create museum pieces that don’t deviate from the original recordings but to retain this as living, breathing, evolving music. We’ll pay respect to the source material but make it our own.
Where does the name “Back Porch Revue” come from?
Well, of course the term Revue is an old term that was common in the early 20th Century. To me at least, it evokes the idea of a larger ensemble that covers some territory musically rather than being strictly focused on a specific genre. There is also an entertainment component to it and I think that people will be entertained hearing the repertoire that we’ll develop.
The Back Porch idea is one that is central to understanding the mission of the Community Music and Arts Center. Both Issa Boulos (CMAC Coordinator) and I really believe that the future of music lies not in a commercial venture but in its permeating every-day social life in our communities. We really want people who are part of our program to play music in their living rooms and back yards, and on their back porch! I think that is so important in terms of getting people interested in music and particularly getting children interested in music. My own son got interested in becoming a guitar player because I am fortunate enough to have a group of friends that regularly gather to jam. When I’d have them in our living room we would play music, have dinner, generally have a good time and Aidan wanted to be part of that. So I taught him the basic chords and then it took off for him! Now he’s way more advanced than I, having been trained as a performing musician. But if we were not having those jams in our yard and living room, that might not be a part of his life.
What makes you so interested in music that comes from the early part of the 20th century?
There are so many fascinating levels of this part of American culture. I really became interested in the blues at a young age and my first concert ticket was to a Muddy Waters concert in the ice arena in my hometown. I had learned his name from the first Allman Brother album and it just took off from there. By the time I was in college though I had already become interested in understanding the exploitation of African Americans by the plantation and share cropping culture. I began to realize that despite that, African Americans had created something that was unique and liberating in their music and I was interested in all forms of that. Eventually that became the focus of my graduate work.
In college I was lucky enough to take classes and then study independently with Archie Shepp who is one of the most significant African American musicians to emerge from the 1960s. While you will find his work in the jazz section of a record store he really understood that the development of genres called jazz and blues as ways of commercializing the music but did not reflect any real division of African American culture. They were constructed artificially because the music coming out of black churches, and being sung in the fields, and being played at dances, and being recorded commercially was all the same thing – it was African American music.
So as I began to study more deeply I also learned that the music industry, not surprisingly, had created the perception that there were such things as white music and black music. Country was considered to be white music and blues was considered to be black music to define their market. The reality however was that in the folk setting, the place where people actually live, this was one music. Jimmie Rodgers was playing blues and recorded with Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin Armstrong. The Carter Family was getting their repertoire from Leslie Riddle. Arnold Shultz was the primary influence on the young Bill Monroe. And, Deford Bailey was the most popular performer on the original broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry. So it’s then also obvious that what was going on with music mirrored American society in the larger sense. And the lyrics from the period mirrored society’s concerns. There were love songs and break up songs but there were also songs about being mistreated and racism. Songs like Cotton Mill Colic told the story of the economic dependence created by “the company store” culture. Deep Elem Blues could be the story of any city’s Red Light district in the 1920s. Some of this stuff I got by going directly back to the source. Leadbelly’s Bourgeois Blues is his vivid story about racism. But some of it came to me from more contemporary sources who took a look back before me. Deep Elem Blues and I’ve Been All Around This World came via Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.
Contact Scott Cashman at email@example.com for details about this exciting ensemble, which is offered again in Spring 2018.
Browse all our Music courses in the January-May CE Course Schedule
or visit our CMAC Music page for additional information.