The musical legacy of Frederick is as old as Frederick.
At the 13th annual History Symposium, Heritage Frederick will demonstrate just that. Five centuries of music will be celebrated. The event begins on Friday evening with a performance of colonial Maryland music by David Hildebrand before day-long activities on Saturday.
Saturday will see a musical timeline of historical music rooted in the Frederick area. Folk trio Tasker’s Chance will play music from the German hymns and instructional music songbooks of John Thomas Shley, a musician and school master who was one of Frederick’s first European settlers.
While sorting through Shley’s songbooks in preparation for Tasker’s Chance performance, Deborah Brower was surprised that much of the songs were familiar. “They were like pop tunes,” said Brower, guitarist and lead vocalist for Tasker’s Chance. “18th-century musicals would take folk melodies and sometimes set new words to them to move the plot along, and it sort of fossilizes these folk melodies in time.”
Brower added that teachers like Shley would use portions of folk melodies in their instructional compositions to teach students. She dug deeper into Shley’s songs, including the meandering journey of “Nancy Dawson,” a popular song based on the stage name of an 18th-century actress born Anne Newton.
“She only lived to be 37 years old,” Brower said. “She was an actress who happened to be able to take on a role at the last minute when one of the cast members of the Beggar’s Opera [in London] could no longer perform his little bit. So she came on and she danced to this hornpipe and I’m assuming since it [the role] was a he,” Brower explained, “she could have been dressed as a man.”
“In the end, they still thought of her as a prostitute. And when she died,” Brower added, “in 1767 … the rumor was that on her tombstone it said Nancy Dawson was a whore.”
This is some of the colorful, little-known history that forms the contextual background of symposium performances.
The Frederick Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players will also perform traditional songs from German composers like George Frederic Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach.
Paulela Burchill, a flutist in the Frederick Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players, shared that another style of 1700s music will be performed: “music that might have been played in Maryland taverns.” They’ll play some reels, jigs and Celtic music. For the Maryland tavern songs, Burchill plans to play a tin whistle, “a very simple brass instrument you blow on ... like a recorder but it’s just a piece of metal with holes in it.” It makes a high, piercing sound that cuts right through the music, Burchill said.
Mezzo soprano Tracie Luck will use her voice as an instrument on Saturday. Luck hopes her recital of African-American spirituals goes deeper than the music. “I pray that the spirit of God and my ancestors will lead and guide me to the right countenance and the right words to say what I want to express,” Luck said. What she wants to express is the complex stories and emotions of enslaved people. Her recital will include the compositions of her favorite spirituals like “Give me Jesus” by Harry T. Burleigh, “By and By” by Edward Boatner, and “He got the Whole World in His Hands” by Margaret Bonds.
“These are songs I’ve sung all my life,” Luck said. “As a singer, you go back to songs of your people and discover more about your culture. The more you dig, the more you find, and the better you can present your songs.”
In some of her digging, she found spirituals that were full of hope about a world without suffering. Others were coded with messages of escaping to freedom. “Wade in the Water,” she said, is about immersing oneself in water “to keep the scent of dogs off of you” while eluding slave catchers.
Luck views the spirituals she sings as more an excavation than a performance.
“It’s like archaeology,” Luck said. “It’s musical archaeology.”