Liner Notes: Shawnee, Ohio (forthcoming)
Below is a short essay on Shawnee, Ohio. It was conceived as a preface to a book of archival photographs, fragments of musical notation, and my own ethnographic writings on being in Shawnee.
Shawnee, Ohio is a portrait of a town, both real and imagined.
Shawnee is located in rural southeastern Appalachian Ohio. It is one town among many that quickly emerged around coal mining in the nineteenth century. The towns are now collectively referred to as the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds,” a phrase coined by historian Ivan Tribe. For two centuries, this region has been immersed in extraction industries, from coal, oil, and gas to timber, iron ore, and clay. Located in the Wayne National Forest, the area is bound together by a common heritage of booms and busts, environmental destruction and recovery, and the formation of early labor unions. After nearly a century of economic and population decline, another boom and bust cycle is playing out with the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Despite facing an uncertain future, the communities that live in the Little Cities continue to work for environmental, economic, and cultural enrichment.
I first came to Shawnee in 2010. My father grew up in nearby Junction City, and we went there often as a family, but I had never been to Shawnee before. My mother’s ancestors arrived in Shawnee on August 4, 1872. They were part of a large migration of Welsh coal miners to the region. Sometime after graduating from high school in 1925, my grandfather Mordecai Williams moved away. The whole family moved. By the time I was born in 1973, my grandfather had already been dead six years.
I began visiting Shawnee and neighboring towns regularly. I got to know some of the people that lived and worked there. Since I am an outsider, I relied on these relationships, and am deeply indebted to those who talked with me. I did research in the Shawnee archive. I also made sound recordings of my own. I didn’t at first know what I was looking for, or what to listen to. Over the next six years, I continued to return. Slowly, past and present got mixed up, bled into one another. Two stories emerged: one of the region, and one of my family ties to it.
Shawnee, Ohio gets its material from these visits. While working in the archive, I asked a local historian if there were any sound recordings. Rummaging through a closet in his office, he produced a box of about forty cassette tapes. They were mostly recorded by him in the 1980s and 90. The tapes contain oral histories of a generation of people now gone.
On these tapes I hear memory, laughter, embarrassment, music, forgetting, sorrow, friendship. I hear about everyday events––births, relationships, work, deaths––directly and without mediation. The people speak in their own voices, unrehearsed. They are not famous or wealthy. Their agenda is to share, to remember, to learn, and to find ways to move forward. The recordings were made in the same buildings and towns where their stories take place.
I added my own recordings to the material. I recorded in the street, in the forest, and inside buildings. I recorded conversations, local instruments, birds, spring frogs, wind in the trees. I used the recorder as a excuse to stay longer, to listen carefully, to slow down.
Many events in the past––especially those that took place in the nineteenth century or are connected to my grandfather––were not recorded. So I looked and listened for clues elsewhere: photos, yearbooks, maps, musical scores, letters. Programs from a music contest and a graduation list pieces performed during the events. Along with songs from the Knights of Labor, this music became another part of the material for the project.
Because there are so few early regional recordings, I turned to those made by Anne Grimes in the 1950s. Grimes recorded all over Ohio, and was equally well known as a singer and dulcimer player. Her detailed notes revealed a handful of recordings from the Little Cities, from towns such as Nelsonville, Murray City, Glouster, and Gore. While they are not directly from Shawnee, the recordings fit in with the spirit and tenor of the region. They include murder ballads, labor songs, and hymns. They uncover a rich and complex musical past that is often overlooked.
In all of the recordings––from Shawnee and elsewhere––I pay attention to what the people are saying and singing, and how they are doing it. Each voice has its own melodic quality. I listen to their cadence of thoughts, and to rhythms of memory unfolding and receding. The regional accents, the language, and every “uh” and “umm” influence what sounds I put around them, and with them.
The album and book are centered around eleven portraits. They are as follows: Jim Bath describes the town of Shawnee, building by building. An unknown boy records an interview with his grandmother; we only hear questions and not the answers. Amanda Hook sings “Terrill,” a local murder ballad that takes place in the town of Gore, not far from Shawnee. Lucy talks of being a musician and teacher, playing in bands on the radio and for miner safety meetings. Judd Matheney speaks of his family, childhood, and work as a miner and inspector. Sigmund Kozma was the last living survivor of the Millfield Mine disaster of 1930, where 82 miners died in the mines. Reuben Allen sings of the mine fires of New Straitsville, fires that continue to burn today. Ina Simmons sings another local murder ballad, which may be related to the Terrill murder at Gore. Jack Wright sings a modified, unaccompanied version of “Which Side Are You On?” to protest fracking in the Wayne National Forest. John Winnenberg makes a recording of a community gathering in Rendville, Ohio, where an unknown saxophone player entertains the crowd. Neva Randolph sings of hope and change, which points to the hopes of people in the region today to thrive economically, protect their environment, and live sustainably into the future.
In words and song, these people recount their lives, work, loves, and deeds. They include women and men, and are across generations. I visit Shawnee, too, and I imagine my grandfather’s life as a young man there. At the same time, I thought of other subjects that never really go away: mining and extraction, buildings, disasters, fires, environment, parades, protest, and hope. They are buried, flowing underground, ever present in the minds of those that live here. They are tangled with with the portraits––in music, voice, photos, and writing––and can’t be easily or meaningfully separated.
In a brief essay from 1975, author, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry wrote that he used to think there was a division between culture and place. He thought art could be detached and removed from environmental damage, that art was somehow perfect in an imperfect world. After inadvertently damaging his own property, he recognized that the complex relationships between power, culture, and place are in fact deeply entwined. Berry acknowledged, “It used to be that I could think of art as a refuge from such troubles. ...Art was what was truly permanent, therefore what truly mattered. ...I am no longer able to think that way. That is because I now live in my subject. My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place.”
I continue to think about Berry’s words and deeds. When he concludes that “an art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars,” he is speaking from experience. Art stemming from and reflecting place will be all too human: flawed, fragmented, and incomplete. Sometimes this art will not end up the way it was intended to be. But it will also be rich with knowledge and potential. I feel compelled to “live in my subject,” to add my voice in solidarity to those working as stewards to their own place. I also feel encouraged to create something that moves toward protecting the places my families are connected to, despite their past damage.
- Brian Harnetty