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Artist in Residence — Painting a Picture of the Oregon Trail in Words and Song

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Oregon Trail Folk Songs

Donna Gunn plays one of the songs that could have been heard among wagon trains traveling west along the Oregon Trail. More than 300 students and staff at Grandview Elementary School packed the gym Monday to hear about “Music on the Trail” during an all-school assembly. Hosted by Alliance Arts Council, Gunn is this year’s artist in residence. She is also visiting St. Agnes Academy and the Immanuel Lutheran School this week and working with fourth grade students who will be part of her public performance at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, at the Performing Arts Center.

“Think of something adventuresome, think of something you’d like to try,” Donna Gunn challenged children filling the Grandview School gym Monday morning.

Gunn is visiting Alliance schools this week as an artist in residence. The Alliance Arts Council has worked in conjunction with the Nebraska Arts Council and local sponsors for many years to include students, fourth grade classes in particular, in their yearly schedule. Residency students at Grandview, St. Agnes Academy and the Immanuel Lutheran School will work with Gunn in class then take part in her public performance, 7 p.m. Friday at the Performing Arts Center.

The all-school assembly at Grandview was the first on the schedule of school visits. Gunn assumed the mantle of “trail boss” as she began the program, taking students back to the 1860s on the Oregon Trail. Over the next hour she expanded on the route reading excerpts from diaries and playing music on the piano heard 150 years ago on wagon trains heading west.

Walking days on end through prairies and mountains may have been an exciting adventure, especially at first, for children of pioneers though hardship also came with the journey. Dunn noted one in 10 gave up and 20,000 people died. She passed out a few aprons and neckerchiefs like those worn then describing how the accessories were used, such as protection from dust storms.

The first big wagon train to cross the Rockies resembled a village stretching for miles. Dunn said there were 1,000 people and 4,000 cattle. Before reaching the mountains they crossed the Missouri River then the Platte eight times. For 35 cents those taking the mid 19th Century path could buy “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California.” She read a quote from a man who packed fresh eggs in corn meal and churned butter from their cows every day. On the screen Dunn showed photos of actual items brought on the trail, courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society.

Music was the travelers’ greatest pleasure, Dunn said. She told students that, of course, a piano was not an option and asked what smaller instrument they would have taken along. Answers ranged from a ukulele to maracas or perhaps a recorder.

Dunn played folk songs from the Oregon Trail era putting each in context. Hands clapped and students sang along to “Shenandoah,” “Skip to My Lou,” “Saturday Night Waltz” and “Hoe Down.” She said “Cindy” is about a boy wishing he were an apple as he thinks about meeting a girl. Dunn told the audience that people also married on the trail before playing a fitting song, “Froggy Went a-Courtin’.” Other songs helped calm restless cattle herds at night.

Some of the music originated decades before settlers embarked for Oregon and other points west. Dunn highlighted composers and their relationship and inspiration for music she played. She talked about music in the African American tradition. Dunn said R. Nathaniel Dett wrote songs inspired by his grandma’s experience on the Oregon Trail 50 years before and played “Juba Dance,” an old Ethiopian song. American composer Aaron Copland wrote songs set in the West during the 20th Century. Dunn played a portion of the composer’s well-known “Rodeo,” which Copland wrote for piano then orchestra.

Students were able to relate to diary accounts written by youth near their age. An eight-year-old traveler wrote about a river crossing calling the last wagon “the little red wagon.” Fourteen-year-old Jerome Dixon told of the monotony experienced at times. Traveling to Oregon usually took seven or eight months. Families woke at 4 a.m. to be on the trail again by 6 o’clock.

Dunn said the last 60 miles was the hardest part. She read from a diary where the author spent the night of Oct. 16, 1847, in snow and rain and reached their new home eight months and 16 days after setting out.

During her final song of the program, Dunn asked students to relax and close their eyes and think of life on the trail. “You may even see a prairie dog,” she said. She closed with photos of a man who first traveled the Oregon Trail when he was 14 years old and returned at 22 to help others complete the trip. He traversed the route again in his old age — at 85 by car and a portion in a bi-plane at 94.

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