Willapa Hills Band Preserves Our Heritage Through Music (excerpted from an April 6, 2010 Chinook Observer article by historian and author Sydney Stevens)
The music of the Willapa Hills Band will make you laugh, clap, cheer and maybe even shed a tear or two. There are six members of the group: Andrew Emlen, Sunrise and Jessica Fletcher, Fern Fey, Jennifer Hanigan and Kerrie McNally. Respectively they are a kayak guide, bed and breakfast owners, a retired teacher, an attorney, and a grandmother of eleven. They all live in Wahkiakum County and they all love to make music together.
Among them, they play nearly a dozen instruments including guitar, autoharp, banjo, mandolin, cello, Jew's harp, fiddle, piano, mandocello and percussion. All members of the group sing, meandering seamlessly from total-group harmonies to quirky solos and the rousing call-and-answer of sea shanties. Occasionally the audience is asked to join in; at other times, listeners do anyway - they just can't help themselves!
Their current program, “A Portrait of Place”, celebrates our Lower Columbia region - the people and events of our colorful history. Not only are the Willapa Hills' songs about subjects near and dear to local hearts, the music is home-grown, written by band members and by other composers of our area.
Kerrie McNally's song "Imperial" tells of octogenarian Roger Davis's memories about riding the mail boat, Imperial, when water travel was the only way to get to communities along the river. Andrew Emlen's "Between Cathlamet and Skamokawa" pokes fun at the age-old rivalry between those neighboring communities. Sunrise Fletcher’s “Shanghaied” recalls the days when a man could be captured in Astoria and involuntarily signed on to work a three-year voyage to Asia and back.
The current Willapa Hills program also includes songs by Seaview resident Mary Garvey and by Ray Raihala of the Brownsmead Flats. Each documents an aspect of our local way of life or tells a bit of our history. Sometimes the story is one which has not been told before. Garvey's "Oystershell Road," for instance, tells of the women who worked the tides in Willapa Bay while their men were off on the front lines during World War II.
The band is on the search for additional stories, especially from the "old-timers" of the area. The group is intent upon building a repertoire that is local in content and flavor and that speaks of our unique experience here at the Pacific's edge - folk music in the truest sense.
"It was Andrew's vision to put this group together as well as every show we have done," says Fern. "He is amazing!"
Jessica agrees. "Andrew is the driving force. It's his energy and vision that inspire us and keep us going."
According to Andrew, "We are, of course, part of the greater folk tradition, and we have borrowed from many genres for this show: gospel, blues, and classical as well as folk. One important influence on me is Joseph Stevenson of Astoria, who has directed many programs that combine history and folk music. I performed in his "Oregon Trail" show about 11 years ago in Astoria. The process was creative and fun. I wanted to do something similar when I moved from Astoria to Skamokawa 11 years ago.”
"Skamokawa had an annual music revue that allowed me to meet other musicians. My experience with Joseph gave me the confidence to recruit people who were interested in traditional folk music and get started. In 2003 I hand-picked five talented people for a performance we called 'Soggy Bottom Revival,' a benefit show for Friends of Skamokawa which played off the popularity of 'O Brother Where Art Thou' and included much of the same music. I enjoyed learning the history behind the songs, and included some of that history in the show. The show was a local hit."
"I had originally intended to audition new people to perform music on a new theme each year, but something else happened," Andrew laughs. "There was a certain magic when the six of us got together. Rather than mess with the chemistry, we became a band."
Most years, the busy lives of the band members mean a hiatus from May to September. "Andrew is on the river during those months," says Jessica. "And summer is our busiest season at the Inn at Lucky Mud. We just don't have time to rehearse or perform."
So, in the winter months, they get together to build a new show and perform during February and March.
Of the current show, Andrew says, "Putting together a collection of songs about this area has been a dream of mine for about four years ... so I asked the band if they were willing to work with my idea. I was excited when they all said “yes”. I hope we can continue to collect local stories to turn into songs. There are plenty of song-worthy people and events here that remain unsung."
Liner Notes for “Portrait of Place: Songs of the Columbia –Pacific Region”, by Andrew Emlen
1. Columbia Pacific, by Sunrise Fletcher. Jennifer lead vocals; Jessica, Fern & Kerrie backup vocals; Sunrise guitar; Andrew cello.
This is Sunrise’s tribute to our region. He recommends traveling the route in the third verse.
2. We Got Rain, by Ray Raihala. All on vocals, Kerrie guitar, Sunrise tenor banjo, Andrew cello, Fern rainstick, Jessica autoharp.
Ray, of the Brownsmead Flats, decided to start his songwriting career with the time-tested advice, “Write about what you know”. All of us here know something about rain.
Thanks Ray, for donating your song.
3. Oystershell Road, by Mary Garvey; arrangement by Willapa Hills. Fern, Kerrie, Jessica & Jennifer vocals (in order of entrance), Kerrie guitar, Andrew cello, Sunrise tenor banjo.
During World War II, the Willapa Bay region was emptied of men, and it was left to the women to run the oyster business. Work had to be done at low tide, regardless of the time of day or night. Women more than a mile out on the tide flats on a rainy winter night had to black out their lanterns during air raid warnings, putting them at risk of going astray, getting stuck in the mud and drowning as the tide rushed back in. Women on shore got in their cars and kept honking their horns to guide the oyster workers back home. That is the source of the song’s line, “The neighbors would honk us all home in the rain”. Thank you, Mary, for donating three of your songs for this CD.
4. Between Cathlamet and Skamokawa, by Andrew Emlen. Andrew & Jennifer vocals, Andrew guitar, Sunrise lead guitar fills.
5. Stella, by Mary Garvey; arrangement by Willapa Hills. Jessica vocals, Sunrise tenor banjo, Andrew jew’s harp, Fern washboard.
6. Finnish Waltz. Traditional; arrangement by Willapa Hills. Andrew cello; Jessica autoharp; Sunrise tenor banjo; Kerrie guitar; Jessica, Fern, Jennifer & Kerrie vocals.
As the Finnish are one of the major immigrant groups to this area, we chose this as a representative tune from the time when they began arriving in the 1870’s. The haunting quality of Finnish folk music reveals its Russian and Karelian influences.
7. Ghosts of Alger Creek, by Kerrie McNally. Kerrie lead vocals and guitar, Andrew cello, Fern, Jennifer and Jessica backup vocals.
Kerrie likes to spend her time wandering the woods above her home in Middle Valley. This song is her account of the abandoned logging camps that can be found along the old logging railroad grades.
8. Tie It Up and Let It Rot, by Mary Garvey; autoharp accompaniment by Jessica Fletcher. Fern vocals, Jessica autoharp.
Mary was inspired to write this song when she saw a derelict fishing boat while taking the ferry to Puget Island.
9. Swedish Walking Tune, traditional; arrangement by Willapa Hills. Andrew mandocello and cello, Jessica autoharp, Sunrise tenor banjo.
Another traditional tune to honor one of our major immigrant groups.
10. Shanghaied in Astoria, by Sunrise Fletcher. Sunrise vocals, Fern piano.
During the California gold rush, ships would pull into San Francisco and lose their crews to the gold fields. Thus began the practice of shanghaiing, in which unsuspecting men were given an opium-laced cigar or a doctored drink and woke up aboard a sailing vessel to which they had “signed” for a three-year stint to the Far East. Until the Seaman’s Act of 1910, Astoria became one of the Pacific coast’s major ports from which men were shanghaied. This song is Sunrise’s take on this subject.
11. Miller Sands, lyrics by J. J. Corcoran, 1880’s. Melody traditional, “Squid Jigging Grounds”. Sunrise tenor banjo, Andrew mandocello, all on vocals.
This song was written about a mid-1880’s conflict between two groups vying over the Miller Sands salmon seining grounds. It began with the two parties “corking” each other, or setting the net immediately downstream of a rival to prevent any fish from entering the rival’s net. As tempers flared, the men began arming themselves. At one point one of the vessels was outfitted as a gun boat. When the nearest law enforcement official in Astoria was asked what he would do if there were bloodshed, he replied that he supposed he would let them fight it out and would “happily hang the survivors”. Miller Sands, once a tidal sand bar, has now become a permanent island thanks to the deposition of dredge spoils, and is an important waterfowl nesting area in the Lewis & Clark National Wildlife Refuge. The silhouette of Miller Sands can be seen in the background of the photo on the back side of the CD. I took the photo at the site of the old Altoona cannery.
12. Beloved Valley, lyrics by Anonymous; the music is adapted from Frans Liszt’s Theme from Liebesträume No. 3, arrangement by Andrew Emlen. All, a capella.
My family hosted a party in which everyone was to bring something home-grown or home-made. A neighbor who couldn’t come sent this poem she wrote about our valley instead. I put it to music for her, adapting Liszt’s beautiful theme for piano popularly known as “A Dream of Love”. Thanks, Claire, for playing that piece for me and putting it forever in my head.
13. Imperial, by Kerrie McNally. Kerrie lead vocal and guitar, Andrew guitar, Sunrise lead guitar, Andrew & Jennifer backup vocals.
When I first suggested that Willapa Hills put together a show of local songs, I expressed the hope that we could interview long-time residents and turn their stories into songs. Kerrie was the first of us to actually do it. This song is based on her interview with Roger Davis, about his memories of riding the mail boat back in the days when it was the best way to get around.
14. Beach of Heaven, based on the traditional spiritual “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody”, esp. the 1960 version by The Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir; local lyrics by Andrew Emlen. Title thanks to Irene Martin, whose history of Wahkiakum County is titled Beach of Heaven. Her book, in turn, takes its title from a poem written in 1873 by Mathilda Nelsson on the occasion of her friend Chirstina Berg marrying John Strom and leaving the famines of Sweden for a new life in Skamokawa. The poem ends as follows:
“May… you be safe all the way to the beach of heaven.”
The open question is whether that refers to the ends of their lives… or to the Columbia. We interpret it as the latter.