Minneapolis resident and UW-Eau Claire history professor Daniel Ott didn’t know the flood gates he was about to open when he went to university archivist Greg Kocken in the fall of 2016 with an idea for an oral history project for his students.
Kocken suggested Ott look into something about music in the area. It immediately snowballed, with students collecting oral histories from musicians, and Ott partnered with Blugold Radio to turn those into the Sounds of Eau Claire podcast.
“I lucked into a really great project in a really great community that’s gung-ho about the work we’re doing and in that regard it’s truly the easiest project I’ve worked on,” Ott said. “While I do a lot of the footwork, people are energetic and willing to participate and collaborate in ways I haven’t seen doing this work in Minneapolis and Chicago.”
This semester, thanks to about $22,000 in grant funding Ott applied for, his students are taking the project one step further and putting it into the hands of the community.
Ott’s ambitious idea continues with a Sounds of Eau Claire History Harvest from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Chippewa Valley Museum. Community members from throughout the Chippewa Valley are encouraged to bring in their stories, memories, artifacts, posters, papers, pictures and other objects for Ott, Chippewa Valley Museum workers and UW-Eau Claire public history students to collect and digitize.
“We have in Eau Claire a recent musical moment, which the community has rallied behind commercially and also at the political level where the city manager says creating a livable space is part of our goal as a city,” Ott said. “(Our goal is) getting beyond that story about festivals, about venues, to understand how music works in people’s lives, musical traditions in homes and among community groups that they value beyond making money.”
Digitization stations will be set up at the museum for students to collect objects as well as oral histories. There will also be live music by local musicians Bob and Bernie Cynor and Nick Seeger. Throughout the day there will be a presentation by UW-Madison folklorist James Leary, a panel discussion with several community members and a presentation by UW-Eau Claire’s Music Department chair Gretchen Peters. A complete schedule can be found at cvmuseum.com.
By May, Ott hopes to have an online collection published with digital exhibits of all of the artifacts collected, oral histories in some cases of those artifacts’ meaning to the family and interpretation of those artifacts by his history students.
A lot to collect
With the enthusiasm the project has already generated, Chippewa Valley Museum director Carrie Ronnander said they are expecting a lot of people for Saturday’s event.
They also have no idea what to expect in terms of the artifacts that are brought in, but that’s part of the excitement.
“I’m really looking forward to see what comes out of the woodwork,” Ronnander said. “It could be kind of crazy, but that’s what we’re hoping for is something that’s just barely manageable.”
Can they collect an entire history in just five hours? Ott said they don’t expect to. He’s already planned a follow-up event on April 14 at UW-Eau Claire’s archives in McIntyre Library. People can set up individual appointments with students to have their objects and stories digitized.
History student Cari Dowden said she is excited for Saturday because Ott has informed them of the expected turnout. She’ll be part of a two-person team who will be collecting oral histories at the history harvest.
“I’m just looking forward to seeing the crowds,” she said.
She added she has learned a lot about her current residence by being a part of this project. Dowden, who is from Sussex, said interviewing subjects for the oral history project was eye opening.
“I never knew how much music is actually here, or how integral it is to our culture,” Dowden said. “Now that I live here full-time I go to all these events like the Music in the Park in the summer. It’s nice to be part of a community that’s so invested in the arts and music.”
She said it is also cool to work on a class project that she can see has a direct impact on the community.
With the Pablo Center at the Confluence soon to be completed, she said this has helped her feel like she is part of the team “making it all happen.”
“While UW-Eau Claire has an impact on the local music in this community, this project extends outside of that,” Dowden said. “The fact the city has realized how important this could be to our economy, with the building of the Confluence Project ... it kind of feels like I’m part of the team hyping everybody up for that.”
It’s hard to quantify what impact music has had on the city and in what way, but she’s hoping the Sounds of Eau Claire History Harvest will bring out hundreds of stories.
Local musician Jerrika Christianson (Jerrika Mighelle) entered Eau Claire’s music scene with her band of sisters, QuinnElizabeth, in 2004. She’s recently struck out as a solo artist, and said it is interesting to reflect on how the music scene has changed since her journey began.
She credits Acoustic Cafe to the success of her band and many others, saying it is one of the places she thinks should be identified at the history harvest.
“This place has been great for people to begin whatever journey they’re going to take on music,” she said.
Christianson was one of the subjects interviewed for Ott’s class’s Sounds of Eau Claire podcast, and when she heard they were continuing with a project to collect the area’s history, she was immediately intrigued.
With the city’s current heavy investment in the arts, she said it makes it even more vital to have a record of its past.
“If Eau Claire wants to be this music town, we need to create a history that becomes a foundation, a root, something we can see that we have built, and that we can build upon,” Christianson said.
Some people have called Eau Claire the “music capital of the north” with its recent surge of musicians and emphasis on arts. It sure has a lot of things going for it, but Christianson said it’s “not quite” there yet.
“I feel like that’s a goal to reach but we’re not there,” she said.
One next step, she thinks, is finding ways for musicians to collaborate and work together to build their base. While the city has many musicians, she said very few make enough money to live off their passion.
Still, if there’s a city that can make that goal a reality, she thinks it’s Eau Claire.
So does Ivar Lunde, a retired UW-Eau Claire professor and owner of Skyline Studios, who has been in the city for almost 50 years. He has worked most closely with the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra and the youth orchestra.
He thinks part of the changing focus on music and art has to do with the younger generation. He said UW-Eau Claire graduates are not only staying in the city but also investing in it.
What about Eau Claire makes it such an arts-centered city? Was it always this way?
Locals who have been in the area for a while have differing opinions on that subject.
The biggest change Lunde has seen is the “amount of money poured into” the summer music festivals. During the fall, winter and spring, he doesn’t think the music scene, at least classically, has changed much.
“We have a lot of community ensembles that have been around for a long time, whether they are orchestral, instrumental or choral,” he said. “That is exceptional to have all these community groups that provide entertainment.”
What has changed, he thinks, is the partnership that has formed between the city and the university, leading to things such as the Pablo Center at the Confluence and the recently-completed Aspenson Mogensen Hall and Haymarket Landing, both of which house university students as well as retail.
He remembers when UW-Eau Claire music professor Leonard Haas tried to form a similar partnership with the city.
“Haas told me he had tried early to have a collaborative effort with the community and university, but it failed at that time,” Lunde said. “I guess the community wasn’t really ready for it.”
Another person with direct impact on the city’s arts scene is Larry Barr, who opened Fanny Hill as a bar bringing in regional acts in 1969, turned it into a disco in 1975 and then into Fanny Hill Dinner Theater in the 1980s.
Barr also brought in some of the first music festivals to Eau Claire, starting with the rock festival Shake, Rattle and Roll in 1987, the same year Country Fest began in Cadott. Barr also started Country Jam USA in 1990 in Eau Claire.
From Bill Nolte drawing large acts into The Joynt on Water Street to local musicians playing near nightly in various clubs and taverns, Barr said the music scene in Eau Claire continues to grow.
He can’t predict the future, but based on the past he has seen, he thinks Ott and his history students are on the right track collecting the city’s music history now.
“Since I’ve been in town the history that was talked about is logging — what’s the next generation going to be talking about?” Barr said. “It could be the music scene. It’ll have to broaden out from Eau Claire, maybe pull in Menomonie ... to La Crosse. That’s a lot of major talent coming in to a 100-mile radius.”
Ott isn’t sure exactly what will come out of the Sounds of Eau Claire History Harvest. But for him it isn’t so much about the music festivals and the national acts.
He’s hoping the project, among other things, brings out every day citizens’ relationships with music.
“If we can wind up having this project capture not only stories people know about, like big-name bands coming through The Joynt, but also capture deeper family and personal histories about participating in community orchestra, what that means to people’s lives, I would consider that a success,” Ott said. “A depth and breadth to understanding local music culture that goes beyond the headlines.”
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