Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Googling in the Afterlife

A solicitation arrived in the mailbox on Monday addressed to G. Oliver Riggs, my great-grandfather, who’s been dead for 66 years (and who never lived in Northfield, by the way).  Either Google is not as omniscient as some people fear, or it knows something I don’t.

I read the letter and found it highly amusing to learn that Google wants to help G. Oliver promote his small business by offering him $100 in free advertising.  You might be surprised at the number of people who are searching Google for exactly what you have to offer.  Yes, I think it’s fair to say he would be surprised. 

I imagine he might be interested in the offer, if he had a band with a heavenly sound to promote.  He was a master of PR when he was alive, frequently placing announcements in the local newspapers about his band concerts and band practices, chatting up the editors about his latest achievements, and convincing businessmen to donate to the band uniform fund.

G. Oliver also was willing to help instrument companies promote their products.  His Bemidji Boys’ Band was featured in a promotion for instruments made by the Harry B. Jay Co. of Chicago, and his photo was among those featured in an ad for C.G. Conn Instrument Co.

G. Oliver is in the second row, on the far left.
Perhaps instead of convincing G. Oliver to advertise his business with them, the folks on the Google small business team should consider using him as a pitchman for their company.  He’d be perfect – he has the experience, and he even has the right initial. 

If they decide they’re interested, I guess they know where to find him.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bully for Presidential Visits

Theodore Roosevelt has been on my brain lately.

It started a week ago Monday (Feb. 13) at the Northfield High School band concert, when the symphonic band played Karl King’s “Rough Riders.”  According to the concert notes (written by our friend Joseph), the piece is “perhaps a double reference to the nickname given the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry regiment commanded by Col. Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War and the portrayal of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the popular Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World touring shows.”

A few days later, we saw Teddy in action, digging locks in the Panama Canal and crying “Bully” before charging up San Juan Hill.  It wasn’t the real Teddy, of course – it was a character in Arsenic and Old Lace who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt.  Steve is performing in the Northfield Arts Guild’s production of the popular play (it’s funny and well-acted, and tickets are still available for this weekend’s shows; click here for information).  Steve is not playing Teddy; he’s Dr. Einstein (no, not that Einstein – Dr. Herman Einstein, a fictional plastic surgeon).  I went to the dress rehearsal with the kids on Thursday, and Louisa especially appreciated the historical references, since she’d just been learning about Roosevelt and the Progressive Era in her AP U.S. History class.

Then this past Monday, Presidents Day, I was revising a timeline of the life of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, and decided to follow up on a clue I’d received from a relative about an encounter G. Oliver had with Roosevelt in 1903.
The 51st/55th Regimental Band. G. Oliver Riggs is in the back row, second from right.
My second cousin, Patricia, had mentioned to my dad and me last month via email that she had a newspaper clipping with a photo of G. Oliver’s band playing for President Roosevelt in front of a hotel; did we have that one?  I not only didn’t have it, I didn’t know anything about it.  I did, however, remember that an Iowa regimental band G. Oliver occasionally played in – led by his longtime friend, George Landers – had played for an appearance Roosevelt made in Keokuk, Iowa.  But that was in 1907, and I’m not sure G. Oliver was with the band at that event.

I also remembered that G. Oliver just missed seeing Roosevelt at the Minnesota State Fair in 1901.  The then-vice president spoke at the fair on Sept. 2, giving his famous “speak softly and carry a big stick” speech.  G. Oliver and his Crookston band performed at the fair that year, but they didn’t arrive in St. Paul until the day after Roosevelt’s appearance.

So I searched on Google and discovered (thanks to the Clarinda Chamber of Commerce website) that Roosevelt visited Clarinda, Iowa, in 1903 and had breakfast with Iowa Gov. Albert Cummins at the Linderman Hotel.  Now I was onto something!  Clarinda is where Landers’ band was based, and Cummins is the governor who accompanied the band members (including G. Oliver) and a delegation of Iowa Civil War veterans to the South in 1906, to dedicate the battlefield memorials to Iowa soliders (I wrote about this trip in a previous blog post, Vicksburg is the Key).

I have written an email to the historical museum in Clarinda, in hopes that someone there can provide me with more information about the event.  It would be fun to add that band photo to the collection – in fact, you could say it would be bully!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Music and Muscle Memory

My mom and dad came to town earlier this week to attend Louisa’s high school band concert.  It was a wonderful concert that featured klezmer music and included a song by Karl King, “Rough Riders,’’ that Louisa appreciated (she’s in an AP U.S. History class and just finished studying Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Era).

My parents rarely show up for their short visits without some present for me, or for our family.  This time they brought smoochies baked by Mom (cookies made with Nutella and caramel Hershey’s kisses), and from Dad’s archives, a stack of my old piano and French horn books.

I didn’t look too long at the books that evening, but later in the week, plagued by an evil combination of writer’s block and procrastination, I searched through the books and found a soothing distraction: Japanese Festival: Seventeen Piano Pieces for Students by Yoshinao Nakada.  Inside was a piece I played one year for the annual piano contest sponsored by the Minnesota Music Teachers Association.

The piece, “Etude Allegro,” looks impressive on the page, filled with changing dynamics, tricky fingerings and – ooh boy, a glissando at the end.  Could I still play it?  I sat down at the bench and gave it a try.  Wonder of wonders, my fingers complied.  I was stiff, I mangled some notes, I had trouble seeing some of the notes clearly (darn older eyes), but I could still play it.  I was elated!

I loved – and still love – the piece.  I don’t know how many hours I spent learning it, memorizing it and performing it, but my fingers remembered.  It made me wonder: is everything we’ve ever learned inside our minds and bodies somewhere, waiting for an opportunity to return?  When something does return from long ago, it’s usually something I don’t need or care to remember, like the lyrics to the Mac Davis song, “Oh, Lord, It’s Hard to be Humble" – which came up in a recent conversation (click here for a video of Davis singing the song on The Muppet Show).

I’ve played through the piece a few times now, and I plan to keep working on it, so I will be ready to perform it the next time we have a “My Musical Family” recital.  Maybe I’ll even be able to memorize it.  If I do, I’ll try to be humble – but I won’t make any promises.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Instruments for All Drive is Here!

For all you Northfielders reading my blog, tomorrow is the day to drop off band and orchestra instruments you no longer need or want, plus gently used lesson books and other music accessories.
When: Saturday, Feb. 11, 9 a.m. to noon
Where: The Northfield Middle School, 2200 Division Street South

Members of the Northfield Fine Arts Booster Club will be at the Northfield Middle School cafeteria accepting your tax-deductible donations and handing out receipts.  The Northfield Area Foundation is providing a $5,000 matching grant for the program, so we are hoping for great participation!

If you don’t have any instruments to donate or can’t make it to the event, you can still support the cause of making music accessible to all.  The Northfield Fine Arts Booster Club will happily accept your cash donations to repair these instruments and purchase supplies for students who use donated instruments.

Checks can be made out to NFAB and mailed to the Northfield Fine Arts Boosters, 1400 Division Street, Northfield MN 55057 (please write “Instruments For All” in the memo line). Or, you can visit the NFAB site at GiveMN and donate securely online.

We’ll also have some brochures available tomorrow for anyone who wants to become a member of the NFAB.  The group’s worthy mission is to provide resources and promote community support for all the fine arts programs at Northfield High School, including speech, theater and visual arts.

I plan to arrive at the middle school shortly before 9 a.m. with some lesson books (for trumpet, French horn and viola) and an airport of coffee from Goodbye Blue Monday.  I don’t want to drink all the coffee myself, so stop by and visit me!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Buffalo Soldiers and Cowboy Musicians

Steve, Sebastian and I attended an inspirational presentation today by Shelton Johnson, a National Park ranger who has spent the past 15 years telling the story of the Buffalo Soldiers who served at Yosemite and Sequoia national parks at the turn of the last century.

Buffalo Soldiers were African Americans who joined the U.S. Army after the Civil War, served in the West and fought in the Indian Wars.  The story of their service in Yosemite and Sequoia had nearly been forgotten until Johnson uncovered it (for a longer explanation of this fascinating story, including why they were called Buffalo Soldiers, click on this Yosemite National Park link).

I didn’t know about Johnson or Buffalo Soldiers until a few years ago when I watched the Ken Burns documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (I did know of Bob Marley’s song, Buffalo Soldier, but didn’t know the history behind it).  Johnson, who is featured in the film, wrote the book Gloryland, a fictional account of a buffalo solider who patrols Yosemite in 1903.  We bought the book today for Sebastian, a history and National Park enthusiast, and I’m looking forward to reading it, too.
Shelton Johnson signs a copy of his book for Sebastian (photo by Steve).
During his presentation at Carleton College, “Gloryland: Using History and Literature as Tools for Social Change,” Johnson explained how astounded he was to come across an old photo of five Buffalo Soldiers at Yosemite.  When he asked about it, another employee told him there was a rumor that a few Buffalo Soldiers had worked at the park in its early days.  Through further research, he discovered that a few actually meant about 500.
The Yosemite Research Library photo of Buffalo Soldiers that drew Johnson’s curiosity.
The story had nearly been lost.  But thanks to Johnson, who portrays one of the Buffalo Soldiers as part of his work at Yosemite, the story is not only being told, he is using it to address a greater cause – getting more African Americans to visit the parks and feel that the parks are part of their heritage.  He even convinced Oprah to go camping!

I felt at times that Johnson could have been speaking directly to me because much of what he said applied to my work with the G. Oliver Riggs project.  I got out my notebook and wrote down some of his quotes:

• “You know the people you came from enabled you to become who you are.”

• “What happens if you don’t tell your story?  Your story disappears.”

• “Stories aren’t just stories.  Stories can change the world.”

• “Don’t let the people who came before you ever be forgotten.”

His talk made me think of the great stories I’ve uncovered during the past few years, including G. Oliver’s participation in the Montana Cowboy Band in the early 1900s, an experience that has a connection to another one of our wonderful national parks, Glacier.
G. Oliver is in the back row, second from right.
I will never forget my delight in finding the Montana Cowboy Band photo and seeing G. Oliver’s face among the group.  I am inspired to keep writing about him, his family, and his adventures in music because I don’t want him to be forgotten.  I don’t know yet how I’ll change the world by telling these stories, but I am inspired to keep trying.