Costume Headshot

Interview: Sioux Falls, SD

August 4, 2004
By Robert Morast – Argus Leader

Artist brings sounds of 1803 alive


With this summer’s bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery journey into the American west, all things “L&C” are suddenly in vogue. Which makes Mary Green Vickrey the present-past pop star of the moment.

A Vermillion musician not afraid to pick banjo or sing a cappella, Vickrey performs the songs of Lewis and Clark – or at least the songs she thinks they might have enjoyed.

There is no factual evidence pointing to particular tunes sung or hummed as the corps paddled up the Missouri and beyond. But Vickrey says there is documentation that corps member Pierre Cruzatte played his fiddle for the crew. And after two years of research, Vickrey is confident she has pinned down the music of the moment circa 1803.

“I think ‘Chester’ would have been one of them. It was written for the continental Army,” she says. “Probably some version of ‘Yankee Doodle.’ ‘Barb'ra Allen,” I think that’s probably the most well-known song out of British folk music. That would have been a song they would know.

“They might have sung the chorus to ’Hail Columbia.’ I doubt if they would have sung the verses.” Why? “There are a lot of them,” Vickrey says with a laugh.

Part historian and part cultural scavenger, Vickrey rummages through old documents searching for sonic treasures she can add to her repertoire of her “Greatest Hits of 1803” and “Songs Lewis and Clark Might Have Sung” shows.

In traditional couture that includes a French linen dress, bonnet and wool jacket, Vickrey’s one-woman show operates like a jukebox filled with long, folky, octave-jumping songs from 200 years ago.

To find most of her songs, Vickrey had to rummage through “Early American Imprints,’ a microfiche collection that chronicles everything published in America through the year 1820. “It’s like a treasure hunt,“ she says.

Nonetheless, some of the buried treasures sound familiar because the root melodies of a number of these tunes still cycle around our society. For instance, “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Vickrey says the melody from our nation’s anthem was taken from on an old English drinking tune, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” “It’s a story. It’s asking the gods and goddesses to bless their society,” Vickrey says.

With today’s copyright laws in mind, it may seem strange to “borrow” the chief melody from another song. But Vickrey says that was the common practice in the early 19th century. “The melody and lyrics were really separate,” she says.

Often, Vickrey will find the sheet music to a traditional song without any lyrics. Or, she’ll find the lyrics to a song without the music. “A good singer would know a lot of songs and a lot of words, and part of his dexterity was mixing it up,” Vickrey says. “I haven’t done that because I’m trying to sing things that were printed and recreate that.”

Other distinctions about music from 1803: the songs are longer than their contemporary peers. And, the common songs of that day are much more difficult to sing.

“A lot of the songs that were popular around 1800 actually came from the British stage. They were written for professional singers. So the melody of ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ which we think of as a hard song to sing, is pretty typical of the era,” Vickrey says. “They liked octave jumps, a pretty wide range.” As for length, these songs – some with 10 verses – were standard length for the pre-recording era.

Andre Larson, director of the National Music Museum in Vermillion, says songs became shorter once recording equipment was invented. “Three minutes was the max you had on a cylinder recording,” Larson says. “That means you can’t sit and sing 10 stanzas.”

Larson doesn’t think the songs of our past will fade into oblivion. “A lot of this stuff is pretty timeless,” he says. “Its roots are part of our heritage that will probably be around forever.”

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