Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Channeling Family History

Help – I’ve already fallen behind in watching Ken Burns’ new film The Roosevelts: An Intimate History on PBS, and now I discover that season two of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. is starting tonight on PBS.

I never even saw one episode of season one! I guess I’m going to have to block out more time in my schedule to watch television. It counts as research, right?

I also never found the time to finish Gates’ four-part show in 2010 called Faces of America, although I enjoyed it very much. All of these shows are right up my family history/research alley. Maybe I can binge-watch this weekend, and get caught up on those Roosevelt episodes, too.

Tonight, the new season of Gates’ latest show kicks off with “In Search of Our Fathers,” an episode featuring writer Stephen King and actors Gloria Reuben and Courtney Vance, who learn more about their fathers’ histories.

Here’s a preview:

Other well-known Americans who will be included in this season include Tina Fey, Ben Affleck, Billie Jean King, Carole King, Anderson Cooper, Angela Bassett, and Ken Burns himself. You can’t get away from that guy these days.

I want to be sure to catch the episode he’s in, based on the brief clip shown in the preview, where he tells Gates: “My mother died when I was eleven. I think the reclaiming of the loss made me an amateur historian.”

The other quote I particularly liked from the preview was from Billie Jean King, who was busy making history herself when I was a kid. She tells Gates, “The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself.”

If you need to contact me tonight, don’t bother calling between 7 and 8. I have a date with Twin Cities Public Televsion, and I will be busy finding out more about myself.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

12 Unbelievable Photos of My Great-Grandfather

You won’t believe where we’ve spotted Flat G. Oliver Riggs on vacation this summer! The 143-year-old bandmaster really got around, visiting his old music-related haunts in Bemidji, Des Moines and Chicago. He also found time to attend a Riggs family picnic in the Twin Cities. It must help to travel light.

Take a look and vote for your favorite!

No. 12: Reconnecting with old friends Paul Bunyan and Babe in Bemidji
Paul Bunyan and Babe date back to 1937; G. Oliver directed Bemidji bands from 1919-1923.

No. 11: Admiring himself at the Beltrami County History Center
G. Oliver with his 1922 Bemidji Boys’ Band

No. 10: Along the Bemidji lake front, circa 1900 (via the history center exhibit)
Before G. Oliver’s time as director, band concerts were held along the lakeshore.

No. 9: Surrounded by descendants at the Riggs Family Picnic

No. 8: With his mini me, Griffin — or is it the other way around?

No. 7: Goofing at the Drake Tent at the 2014 Iowa State Fair
G. Oliver, Oberlin grad, class of 1892; Steve, Drake grad, class of 1990

No. 6: Strolling the grounds of the 1909 Iowa State Fair
G. Oliver played cornet in an Iowa regimental band at the 1910 State Fair.

No. 5: Visiting the Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair Exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago
G. Oliver’s future wife, Islea, attended the World’s Fair with her parents and sister.

No. 4: Admiring the Bean and the contrast between old and new in Millenium Park
G. Oliver studied violin in Chicago in 1894.

No. 3: Touring the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University
G. Oliver and his Montana Cowboy Band performed in the auditorium lobby in 1912.

No. 2: Shopping for music at the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave.
G. Oliver studied cornet under Chicago bandmaster A.F. Weldon. 

No. 1: Pondering the quote in the lobby of the Fine Arts Building

The historic 10-story building was designed specifically for working artists – people like G. Oliver!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Vintage Band Festival 2014

We had the perfect weather on Saturday for the One Day Vintage Band Festival. The only thermometer that burst was the one we created with cardboard and a red marker to track our donations. I don’t know how we got so lucky, but the other board members and I were happy and relieved that it worked out.

While some audience members sat and listened to the morning concerts, others browsed the Riverwalk Market Fair.
My sincere thanks goes out to the members of all 12 bands that performed that day (13 if you include the Tuba Dorks, who played a special gig at the Contented Cow), to all the audience members who came and were entertained, to all of our business and other sponsors, to the organizers of the Riverwalk Market Fair, to the City of Northfield, and to all of the volunteers who helped make the event a success.

Our St. Olaf interns, Sarah and Emily, masterfully operate the donation/information tent.
One of my favorite moments of the day was when I was surprised by my childhood neighbor, John Engebretson, who found me in the crowd late in the morning. John is a band director who lives in a Twin Cities suburb, and he had come to the festival to substitute on saxophone for a member of the band Swing and a Miss.

That’s one of the things I love about the Vintage Band Festival – the event brings people together through a common interest, a love of music, and it makes the world feel smaller, in a good way.

John Engebretson performing with Swing and a Miss/photo by John Walters
John also comes from a musical family; his dad, Paul Engebretson, and my dad have played together in bands for as long as I can remember. This Thursday, they will perform a 7 p.m. concert on the courthouse lawn in Alexandria, Minn., as members of Doc’s All Stars, a group Paul founded in 1982. If you’re going to be in the Alexandria area, you should go; they will be playing music from the Big Band era, and the concert is free.
Sebastian and Steve, singing along with the Manitou Brass Regimental Band
Speaking of free, although admission to the One Day Vintage Band Festival was free, we planned the event as a fundraiser. It costs about $130,000 to host the four-day band festival, and the next one is only two years away. The other board members and I were thrilled to learn that people had donated so generously throughout the day on Saturday, we exceeded our $5,000 goal for the event. This is great news, because it helps put us on a more stable path toward planning the best four-day event yet, set for July 28-31, 2016.

Copper Street Brass Quintet, the last of 12 bands, prepares to perform in Bridge Square.
People were so enthusiastic and encouraging about the one day event, it’s likely we will hold another one next summer. Keep checking our website for more information about that and other Vintage Band Festival-related activities. And if you weren’t able to attend Saturday’s event and would like to make a tax-deductible donation, you can also do that through our website.

Friday, August 1, 2014

12 Bands in 12 Hours!

If you enjoy live music in a beautiful outdoor setting, get yourself to Northfield’s Bridge Square tomorrow for the One Day Vintage Band Festival. Twelve bands are performing over a 12-hour period, beginning at 9 a.m. The bands are all from Minnesota and will showcase a variety of music styles – from Civil War-era, to mariachi, to jazz  – so check out the lineup below and come for a concert or two or for the entire day.

The event is a fundraiser and also a fun-raiser, as the Vintage Band Festival board (I am currently its secretary) prepares for the next big four-day Vintage Band Festival set for July 28-31, 2016.

The festival has grown each time it’s been held (in 2006, 2010, and most recently last summer), and it takes a lot of coordination, effort and money to pull it together. Tomorrow’s event is free, but we will be gratefully accepting donations and donation pledge forms throughout the day; if you can’t make it to the one day event but want to support the planning for 2016, you can give online through our website: Vintage Band Festival.
And if you have a hour or two – or four – to spare tomorrow, we are still looking to fill a few volunteer spots. We can use help with tasks like handing out programs, taking donations, and assisting the bands with set up. You can sign up through our VolunteerSpot page; just click the button below:

The weather forecast for tomorrow looks extremely promising – low- to mid-80s and sunny – so you might want to bring sunscreen and sunglasses along with your chairs or blankets. The Riverwalk Market Fair starts at 9 a.m. and runs until 1 p.m., so be sure to arrive in time to browse the booths selling summer produce, artisan foods, and art. Then stick around to browse the downtown shops and get something to eat or drink at a local restaurant or one of the food booths supporting the VBF (Maria’s Taco Hut, the Cannon Valley Lions Club, and the Main Street Moravian Church).

It’s going to be a day filled with music and fun here in the Second-best Small Town in America – I hope you can join us!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Link Between Video Games and Classical Music

I turned on Minnesota Public Radio’s classical station (99.5) last week, on my way to picking up Elias from tennis, and I was immediately drawn in to the topic of discussion on the program Performance Today: the music of video games.

Host Fred Child was interviewing Emily Reece, the creator of Top Score, a weekly podcast on MPR that explores the art of music in video games. Reece joined MPR in 2008 and has hosted the podcast since 2011; you can read more about its origins here.

At the point when I began listening, Reece was making a connection between a video game called Guild Wars 2 and the turn-of-the-last century English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams.

“[Vaughn Williams] just had a bead on writing lush music. He could write something that made your heart melt – and in a lot of ways, I feel that way when I listen to music that Jeremy Soule wrote for Guild Wars 2,” Reece said. “I feel it kind of borrows on that lush English tradition, even though I’m not even particularly certain that’s what he had in mind.”

Child then played a song from the game called “Call of the Raven.” You can listen to it here:

Reece and Child went on to discuss the connections between the music of Vaughn Williams and of Soule – the orchestral textures, the use of solo instruments and of the harp, which Reece said is often used in fantasy.

“It gives us the sense of being in a different place and in a different time. Instrumental choices like that can do that for us,” she said.

Child said the music of both composers also reminded him of movie score soundtracks, and Reece agreed, noting that Vaughn Williams’ unique sound, with full orchestra and lots of strings, reminded her of a song that John Barry composed for the movie Dances with Wolves: the John Dunbar theme, which is among my favorite movie songs.

I had to shut off the radio when I arrived at the tennis courts. But I was soon back in the car with Elias, telling him about the program, and we listened to it all the way home. Once we got inside, I turned on the radio in the kitchen so I could hear the rest of the hour-long program.

I should mention, in case you don’t know me well, that I am not a big fan of video games. I really have no interest in playing them myself. But my kids are fans of them, so in the past few years I have made a conscious effort to be a little more open-minded about recognizing the positive qualities of video games.

Thanks to Elias and Sebastian, I already was aware that some video games incorporate more complex music into their story lines, way beyond the bleeps and buzzes of 1980s arcade games. The boys often fall asleep listening to the Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary special orchestra CD. It is a medley of music from the various Legend of Zelda games, all of which involve a hero named Link. I do like the songs on the CD – they evoke adventure, drama, and suspense, and the phrases and melodies can stick in your head much like the great music written for movies.

But still, my mind was a little bit blown last week when I realized that composing music for video games is a growing field. Listening to the radio program expanded my appreciation for the link between music and video games, and talking about that link with my younger son was one of highlights of the week for me.

What I find exciting, and important, is that it is another way to introduce young people to orchestral music – much like people of my generation were exposed to opera and Wagner through Bugs Bunny (“Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit”).

It’s impossible to know what my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, would have thought about music composed for video games. However, his band concert programs 100 years ago did include excerpts from operas and popular songs of the day as well as marches. He also liked to challenge his players with intricate pieces of music.

Program from a 1909 band concert in Crookston, Minn.
This link between video games and classical music reinforces a theme that runs through the book I’m writing about my great-grandfather and his career as a music man. The theme is this: music has the power to connect people among different communities and across generations. It is a connection worth promoting and celebrating.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Echoes of the Fort Snelling Military Band

We don’t attend the Northfield Public Library’s summer Books & Stars events regularly now like we did when the kids were younger. But I couldn’t pass up the chance last Wednesday to take my great-grandfather – the small cardboard version – to hear the Fort Snelling History Players Band perform at Bridge Square. Steve and Elias also came along for the fun.

G. Oliver Riggs meets the members of the Fort Snelling History Players Band.
I had never heard of the band until I saw an advertisement for the event. I was expecting a larger group; turns out, it was a talented duo. The two musicians kept the crowd entertained by demonstrating official calls on a fife and drum and by performing some marches and popular tunes of the past. They also explained the role of musicians at Fort Snelling, from the time before Minnesota became a state through World War II.

It was a beautiful evening for an outdoor concert! The event was sponsored by the library, the Northfield Historical Society and the Northfield Public School’s Community Services Division, and was also supported by a grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council.

G. Oliver never played in the Fort Snelling Military Band, but he was well acquainted back in the day with the ensemble and its longtime director, Carl Dillon. I’m not sure when the two men met, but I know their friendship went back at least as far as May of 1924. That’s when Dillon brought his Third U.S. Infantry Band of Fort Snelling to St. Cloud to perform in a public concert with the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band during a Minnesota Bandmasters Association convention.

At the time, G. Oliver described the Fort Snelling band as “easily the classiest band in Minnesota today.”

Dillon and G. Oliver worked together for several years as members of the Minnesota Bandmasters Association, and both men served as president of the organization – G. Oliver in 1929, and Dillon in 1928. I don’t know what happened to Dillon in the 1930s, or how long he stayed with the band. I am sure there’s a way to find out, but I will leave that to other researchers for now. The life and career of one overachieving bandmaster is more than enough to keep me busy.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Legendary Locals of Crookston

My paternal great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, is mentioned in a new book about the legendary men and women of Crookston, appropriately titled Legendary Locals of Crookston (Arcadia 2014). There is a page about him in the chapter about music and entertainment, and a 1902 photo of him with the community band he directed.

The page came about because of this blog and our modern ability to make connections over the internet. Although the book’s author, Kristina Torkelson Gray, is a Crookston native, she had never heard of G. Oliver. But as she was working to meet her deadline, she discovered my blog through a post I wrote in December 2013 about Ted Thorson and his brother Nels (Encyclopedia Riggs and A Tale of Two Thorsons).

T. W. ‘Ted’ Thorson was a longtime band director in Crookston who died in 1973. He is featured in the new book, too, and is also featured in Kristina’s previous book about Crookston history: Images of America: Crookston (Arcadia 2013).

Once she learned about the important contributions G. Oliver made to Crookston’s history, Kristina knew she wanted to include something about him. So I am grateful to her for making it happen. She also found a photo of the band that I had never seen, and she sent it to me. It was too large for the scanner, so she scanned it in two pieces.

Steve connected the pieces through the magic of Photoshop, but I like the way it looks when viewed in two pieces, too – it has kind of a stereoscopic effect.

G. Oliver and his wife, Islea, were such movers and shakers in the city’s early cultural life, it seems unfortunate that they could become so nearly forgotten a century later. But that’s what can happen when people who remember you are no longer around to tell those stories. It reminds me of a passage from Ian Frazier’s book Family:

And soon all the people who had accompanied me through life would be gone, too, and then even the people who had known us, and no one would remain on earth who had ever seen us, and those descended from us perhaps would know stories about us, perhaps once in a while they would pass by buildings where we had lived and they would mention that we had lived there. 

And then the stories would fade, and our graves would go untended, and the graves of those who had tended ours would go untended, and no one would guess what it had been like to wake before dawn in our breath-warmed bedrooms as the radiators clanked and our wives and husbands and children slept. 

I don’t want these stories to fade. I don’t think Kristina does, either, which is why she is getting the word out about her new book. She is signing copies of it this weekend during the Crookston All School Reunion. Kristina will be at the Crookston Carnegie Library today (Saturday), June 28, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The building, which is no longer used as a library, has G. Oliver connections. When it was dedicated in 1908, G. Oliver’s orchestra provided the music. Also, the building was designed by his friend, architect Bert Keck. Keck, like G. Oliver’s wife, Islea, grew up in the Illinois town of Aledo, and Keck played in G. Oliver’s Aledo cornet band in the mid-1890s before the two men moved to Crookston.

I wasn’t able to attend the events in Crookston this weekend, but I bought an autographed copy from Kristina and she mailed it to me earlier this week. I look forward to reading about some of the town’s other local legends and helping keep their stories alive.