As you may recall from a previous blog, The Endless Highway, I am a roadie for my husband, Phil Passen, who is a hammered dulcimer player. As roadie, I get to sit in on his performances. This has led me to not only observe that Phil’s performances are loved by the audiences he plays for (public libraries, historical societies, high schools), but also to analyze why they are so popular.
Here are a few of Phil’s musical programs:
Music of the Civil War
Music to Commemorate the Sinking of the Titanic
Carl Sandburg’s Songbag
The Music of Thomas Hardy
Music to Commemorate the Illinois Bicentennial
There are two basic reasons for the success of these programs. The first is Phil’s playing. I won’t spend much time on this (you can hear some of his tunes, such as “Shady Grove,” on his web site), mainly because one of the reasons for a musician’s success should be his playing. Phil’s ability to play music that people enjoy is evident on his first CD, Swinging on a Gate, which has sold steadily for almost twenty years.
The other reason I won’t dwell on this is that I myself am not a musician and while I find Phil’s music very enjoyable, I simply don’t have the knowledge to analyze its component parts.
The second basic reason for Phil’s success is his ability to create and present story. As a writer, story is something I feel I do have the knowledge to analyze and talk about. On its most basic level, story is an account of people and events, meant to entertain.
One of the ways in which stories entertain is in the way they’re constructed, so that listeners can see the cause-and-effect of events and behaviors. So that listeners can see the underlying conflicts between the story’s characters. So they can sense a foreshadowing of what is going to happen. So they can feel empathy with the people who experienced these events, perhaps caused them, perhaps fought against them.
A good story touches the human heart — it helps create empathy for others and helps us see how very much we have in common with those others.
Phil weaves story into all of his programs, but particularly into the historical ones. He researches the events he sings about and constructs that information into story form. True story, not fictional story. He puts his songs and tunes in the order that they will best tell the story. Between songs, he presents information. Audiences leave Phil’s programs saying they loved the music and the stories equally well.
Phil does this for all of his historical presentations, but I’m going to use only one of them as an example.
When audiences settle in to hear When That Great Ship Went Down: Music to Commemorate the Sinking of the Titanic, they first hear a spirited old-time tune, “A Man Named William Morgan,” which contains the refrain, My name is Morgan, but it ain’t J.P. I see them tapping their feet, smiling . . . and looking perplexed. Surely some of them are thinking they wandered into the wrong program.
After he finishes that number, Phil tells them about the vast financial empire ruled by J.P Morgan — an empire that included steel mills, railroad lines, banks, and shipping lines. Including the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic.
From J.P Morgan (who did not perish on the Titanic because he let his luxury suite go empty while he stayed in France with a mistress), Phil goes to the first and second class passengers, who would have listened and danced to the Irving Berlin tune, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” When Phil plays this, I can see not only that the audience enjoys it, but that listeners are getting into the feel of the 1910s era.
From the first and second class passengers Phil goes to “Shores of Amerikay,” a traditional Irish tune that was sung at the time and that represented the dreams of thousands of Irish who were emigrating to the US in hope of a better life. These third-class passengers were blocked from mingling with either second or (perish the thought!) first class passengers by steel gates and doors, which prevented their access to the upper decks.
The majority of Titanic deaths were working class people — the crew and third-class passengers. Only 706 lives were saved when the Titanic sank: 1,517 were lost. Of those 1,517, crew members totaled 685 dead and third-class passengers 556 dead.
After establishing the foundations of the story, Phil goes on to play more music performed on the ship, including “An Der Schonen Blauen Donau,” by Johann Strauss. He also sings songs about the ship, including Huddie Ledbetter’s 1912 composition “The Titanic,” which mentions the story that World Champion boxer Jack Johnson was not permitted passage on the ship because he was black.
By the time the program is finished the audience is immersed in the story of these ill-fated people whose loss of life was totally preventable had not human vanity (the belief that the Titanic was unsinkable) interfered. The story of the Titanic is one of history’s great ironies, and the audience appreciates that. The unsinkable ship sank because of the hubris of those in charge, and lives were lost because the White Star line considered it more important to give first-class passengers a view that did not include lifeboats than it was to provide lifeboats for all aboard.
The program truly lives up to its title: it commemorates the fateful incident and the people who died and those who lived. Both the music and the story grip the hearts of those who hear them.
As one who works hard at creating story, it is a real pleasure for me to sit back and enjoy a story created by someone else’s research and construction.
For more information on Phil Passen’s programs, contact him here. For help on how to construct a mystery story (and other stories as well,) read Barbara Gregorich’s Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.