Reviving a tradition at Clayville
The Clayville Folk Music Festival comes to life Aug. 24
Close your eyes and drift back in time. There are no cars, no cellphones, no computers, no electric grid. Not a film in a theater or a movie on TV and not one single musical recording via iTunes, albums, eight-track or Mp3. Only through direct human involvement, right before your eyes and ears, can entertainment be discovered and enjoyed.
Now listen within that setting and hear fiddles and banjos, guitars and dulcimers, music made by human hands alone, voices singing songs passed down through the ages, mostly unaltered for hundreds of years, conveying history and tradition through story and song. This is music of the people, history and culture learned by listeners, delivered by artists, called folk music by some and a way of living by those involved.
When “the folks” gather this Saturday, Aug. 24, at the Clayville Historic Site, about 10 miles west of Springfield near the village of Pleasant Plains, this notion of performance as a way of presenting culture and tradition will spring to life at the Clayville Folk Festival. Twenty-five years ago, during the modern heyday of the Clayville site, a music festival was an annual event, well attended and nationally known and respected throughout the region as a fine folk festival indeed. I remember seeing the famed fiddler and songwriter John Hartford perform in the mid-eighties as a highlight of my concert-going experiences, ranking right up there with Led Zeppelin in 1977 and Talking Heads in 1983. The story of how the folk music revival came to be, along with my involvement, is all tied into the history of the area and of the Clayville site.
Early settlement by our European ancestors in central Illinois began in about 1820. The Broadwells, builders of the brick home at Clayville, were in the thick of it. Settlers attracted to the oasis of trees in the middle of the vast prairie around Richland Creek, a few miles east from what is now Pleasant Plains in western Sangamon County, came from all parts of the country. John and Betsy Broadwell landed here in 1819 and the rest of the Broadwells, led by family patriarch Moses, came down the Ohio River to St, Louis, then up to central Illinois all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio, by 1820. My Irwin clan came up from Cabarrus County in North Carolina around 1830.
Moses Broadwell earned his wealth from Ohio land speculations and promptly bought as much land as he could in this area, with reports claiming the Broadwells owned about 3,000 acres at one time. This was common practice in the newly opened lands for settlement in the early days of the U.S., as those with connections and capital bought up as many tracts as they could afford and resold them at a profit to new, incoming settlers. On a side note, Moses laid out and founded Sangamo Town, where young Abraham Lincoln outfitted his flatboat raft before heading for New Orleans with help from Charles Broadwell. The town, once a contender for the site of the state capital, slowly disappeared from the map after Springfield gained the seat.
The enterprising Broadwells soon established a working farm, tannery, wood mill and, with the building of their house, currently recognized as one of the oldest brick dwellings in the area, made a lasting impression on the region. The house and grounds, well situated on the road to Beardstown from Springfield, soon became a destination for travelers. By 1824 the Broadwell house became an inn and tavern, used as a stagecoach stop and gathering place for travelers heading to and from the Illinois River port of Beardstown and the growing capital city of Springfield. No documentation exists of music performances on the grounds of Clayville – named after Henry Clay, the great American statesman and hero of the young, aspiring Whig, Abe Lincoln – but it would be easy enough to imagine many a night was spent sitting around the fire listening to the strains of a fiddle, the most common instrument of the time, sawing away on a familiar tune.
There are no cited sightings of Abraham Lincoln at Clayville, but it would be hard to believe the working lawyer and prairie traveler didn’t stop by the tavern to water his horse, grab a bite to eat or spend some time swapping stories with the locals. If nothing else the buildings are good examples of what the world looked like as Lincoln worked the court circuit.
When transportation modes changed with the advent of the railroads, the Broadwell Inn declined and the family sold the property. Here we jump nearly a hundred years to the 1930s, when a civic- and historic-minded Dr. Fink purchased the land and listed the house in the Historic American Buildings Registry. Clayville’s next landmark came in 1961 when Dr. Emmett and Mary Pearson purchased the grounds and expanded the site with the addition of several outbuildings. Doc Pearson, prominent as historical collector (see his donated collection of medical items in the Southern Illinois University building near Memorial Medical Center), worked to restore the grounds and buildings and created the Clayville that those of us who attended those wonderful festivals for years, well remember. I recall my Grandma Hodgen allowing Doc to put up a Clayville advertisement on our hill just east of Prairie Creek before the Petersburg turnoff. The painted wooden sign stood there for many years.
I’ve spoken with so many people who recall a fun and memorable time seeing the old ways of doing things recreated during the spring and fall festivals. My parents, and especially my dad, were really into square dancing and we loaded up the van and traveled to Tallula, Yatesville, Baylor or Jacksonville almost every Saturday night in my grade school days for a good time. Dancing at the Clayville biennial festivals was a highlight of our square dance experience. I do remember getting duded up in a plaid cowboy shirt and jeans, then dancing ourselves silly at the festivals to a band and a caller. The attendance at these events was phenomenal. I bet you could ask the person sitting next to you now, and if they lived around here then, would likely regale you with stories of the days of Clayville festivals.
In 1972 the Pearsons donated the property to the newly created Sangamon State University and the site became the Clayville Rural Life Center and continued with festivals and events, organizing folk crafts guilds and continuing with live music and rural life demonstrations. Private owners bought the property from SSU in 1992 and allowed the buildings and grounds to deteriorate without proper maintenance. By 2007 Clayville was nearly unrecognizable through sheer negligence. Signs of vagrants, human and animal, living in the buildings, combined with broken windows, damaged roofs and nature going its course, put the historic and venerable site teetering at the point of no return.
Fortunately through the fundraising and volunteer efforts of the Pleasant Plains Historical Society, headed by Pleasant Plains resident and mayor Jim Verkuilen, the site was purchased in May of 2010 by the nonprofit organization. Since then dozens of volunteers have cleaned up the grounds and buildings, hosted many events, including the favored spring and fall festivals, theater presentations, a haunted house, organizational dinner meetings and classic car shows. The upper porches were reinstalled on the Broadwell Inn for the first time in decades. The historic site not only looked good again, but instilled in the community a sense of partnership and pride. One could say the place looks better that it did when the Broadwells were in residence.
Dan Usherwood, current president of the historical society, watched the process with a keen sense of understanding as to what the place means to the residents of the area. He not only guides the volunteers and the events, but also listens to what people in the area say they would like to see at Clayville.
“Ever since I’ve been here and after we got the spring and fall festivals established, people have asked for two things – get a dinner theater thing going and a folk music festival,” he said. “And we’re working on getting both done.”
When I played a fundraiser in June of 2012 at Clayville, Dan and I discovered our mutual desire to revive the Clayville Folk Festival. We made plans and held the first folk music festival at Clayville in 25 years on Oct. 6, 2012. The lineup included Micah Walk, Ben and Kari Bedford, Chico Schwall, Coondog and Parr, Samba Llamas and several other artists, all nearly volunteering their time to see the event happen. The weather, less than desirable, came in with temperatures around the low 40s with a keen biting wind driving in from the northwest. Performers used the ancient folk method of blowing on the hands between songs to accomplish the task of playing a stringed instrument. The chilled audience put up a valiant effort but the wind and weather won. We finally moved the last acts indoors when the setting sun took what warmth there was away. The disappointing day ended on a wonderful note as we played inside The Batterton Cabin with the fireplace blazing and songs wailing in a very traditional-like atmosphere, as unplanned as it was. Even a folk festival needs to make some money to pay for costs and our first attempt failed miserably on that level. Our greatest mistake was not hosting the festival on Dec. 1. The temperature that day was in the 70s and perfect for outdoor singing and playing.
For 2013 the decision was made to hold the Clayville Folk Music Festival on Aug. 24 in hopes of warmer weather and friendlier winds. We connected with local artists and made a good lineup of players, including a balanced gender bill of 10 women and 9 men. Motherlode, a string band trio of women immersed in all kinds of music and based in Charleston, Ill., end the show, starting around 9 p.m. Gaye Harrison, fiddler and mandolinist of the group, intends to feature several fiddle tunes collected in Illinois by musicologist and musician Garry Harrison. Lowder and Manning, a Petersburg duo of guitars and voices, play original acoustic music and Gloria Attoun comes up from the St. Louis area to perform original and traditional songs on mandolin, banjo and guitar.
This year we paired singer-songwriters together, with me joining Gloria, Jeff Davidsmeyer of Jacksonville together with Ken Carlyle, formerly of Rushville and the Cadillac Cowboys, and Pete Sander plays with Amy Benton to do the famous Nashville-style songwriter swap. Mulligan Munro features guitar, banjo, bass and fiddle doing an Irish and American song assortment from Carter Family classics to Celtic folk standards. Jason Eklund drives up from Nashville to show us why he’s respected as one of America’s finest and truest songwriters and why the late, great Townes Van Zandt, Texas songwriter legend, called him “the real thing.” Opening the show we have the debut of the Blooming Heathers, featuring Lori McKenzie, Theresa O’Hare and Megan Turner, the girls of The Emerald Underground, out on their own singing and playing.
In an added segment we are honoring a past player at Clayville with a tribute to the late Don Buedel, an extraordinary fiddler and old-time musician who passed away June 6. Don played many a Clayville festival, sometimes at the specific music events and many times during the spring and fall festivals. He was a good friend of mine and he asked me to back him on guitar at a 1991 festival and he played on my Roots in the Earth record in 1993. I recently spoke with Don’s wife, Lori, who performed on accompaniment guitar with him at Clayville this past spring. We talked about his love of the old music and how he would look at a spot on the ceiling far away as he fiddled for a tune, and we talked about his dedication to Clayville and his reasons for a lifetime of playing traditional folk music.
“Don knew and understood the value of passing the music along and was always willing to share and show others,” she said. “It was important to him to continue the music. His great joy was preserving and playing the old tunes.”
In a State Journal-Register interview, Don claimed one of his favorite pastimes was dressing up in period clothing and playing the old music at get togethers like Clayville. I could not think of a better way to not only honor Don and Clayville, but to uphold the grand tradition of folk music and the underlying reasons for reviving the Clayville folk festival than spending some time playing the music he loved and passing it on to other folks. We will do this with a memorial performance by fellow folk musicians, Don’s son Clay Buedel and Don’s friend Steve Staley, at 2 p.m. Anyone caring to share memories or songs are invited to join us at this time to commemorate the life and music of Don Buedel and his time at Clayville.
The definition of folk music can be tricky. Some claim it can only be traditional songs passed down through ages and some say it can be original acoustic music that was written yesterday done in folk style. The real point must be in between, since someone somewhere had to write “Barbara Allen” and that song written yesterday just might make it into the canon of folk music in a few hundred years. To me the beauty and the treasure of folk music and other areas of folklore comes in the depth of artistry that gives us a way of looking at our society, learning of past experiences and creating a future reference, connecting generations to each other through traditions and imagination.
It’s easy to say in these modern times those connections are becoming severed by a barrage of new contraptions, with the old ways being lost in time, buried by the latest and greatest as society grabs hold of a new thing only to cast it away as soon as another comes along. Whether we like it or not the past is with us, driving, tugging, pushing and shaping our present and future reactions sometimes unconsciously and other times like a mad bull. By recognizing that fact, the past becomes our lifeline to the future, our guide and mentor, showing us how it was done and how it can be done or how it shouldn’t be.
This is the legacy of the Broadwells, the Finks, the Pearsons and the many past and current supporters of the Clayville site, a place that connects our past and future through the present. Through music we gain knowledge and experience in a very pleasurable fashion while enjoying a simple fiddle line, a plaintive melody, a contemporary tune or a song from across the ages. As Don Buedel was known to say, “Without the people there would be no music.”
Contact Tom Irwin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SCHEDULE: 2pm to 10pm
2:00 - Tribute to Don Buedel (Clay Buedel, Steve Staley, Bill Furry)
2:30 - Blooming Heathers (Theresa O’Hare, Megan Turner, Lori McKenzie)
3:00 - Jeff Davidsmeyer (www.jeffdavidsmeyer.com) and Ken Carlyle
4:00 - Jason Eklund (www.jasoneklund.com)
5:00 - Amy Benton (www.amybenton.com) and Pete Sander (facebook.com/pete.sander.1)
6:00 - Mulligan Munro (www.mulliganmunro.com)
7:00 - Gloria Attoun (www.gloriaattoun.com) and Tom Irwin (www.tomirwinmusic.com)
8:00 - Lowder & Manning (www.lowderandmanning.com)
9:00 - Motherlode (Gaye Harrison, Althea Pendergast, Wendy Meyer)
$5/person. $20/family. Pay at the gate.
Concessions. BYO seating, food, beverages.
Dan Usherwood: email@example.com
Tom Irwin: firstname.lastname@example.org - 217-725-6179
Clayville Historic Site: www.clayville.org
Music at Clayville on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ClayvilleMusictFestival
Located one mile east of Pleasant Plains and about 10 miles west of Springfield on State Route 125. Head west on Jefferson Street/State Route 97 until reaching Route 125 at the Petersburg junction stoplight. Continue west on Route 125 for another 5 miles. Clayville is on your left, on the south side of the road. Parking is west of the buildings.