Byline: Rachel Baruch Yackley
Folk musician Lee Murdock is always learning, or teaching.
The Kaneville resident, who is known as "North America's Great Lakes Balladeer," was interviewed over the phone while he was in Milwaukee working on a long-distance learning project.
Murdock spent the day singing his song "The Christmas Ship," while students, who were participating via video conferencing, created windowframe story boards to retell the story.
"The Christmas Ship" is probably one of Murdock's most renowned songs. Combining Murdock's two passions of music and history, the song focuses on the story of the Rouse Simmons, a schooner built in Milwaukee that used to bring lumber from Michigan and Wisconsin to Chicago.
Part of this ship's cargo included Christmas trees, which Chicagoans were able to purchase directly from the captain, Herman Schuenemann, until the schooner sunk in Lake Michigan on Nov. 12, 1912.
Murdock, who says he's "learning new things every day," recently released his 13th CD, in format of a gift book, "Christmas Goes to Sea."
What's the state of folk music these days, and where do you fit in?
It's very, very interesting, and based on what your definition of folk music is.
When folk music became popular in the late '50s and early '60s, musicians were adapting folk music for the stage. Now, by most people's definition, folk music is holding its own. I say that because I think when folk music becomes real popular, it's no longer folk music.
If you go for the National Endowment of the Arts definition of folk music, it's about culture, drawn from the community and done for musical expression. To me, rap music falls into that category - it comes out of the community and it's done for self-expression. But when people think of folk music, they don't think of rap.
Folk music is personal music; music people really, really embrace, and commit to memory. It's that active involvement that defines folk music. Even if you can't sing, you get a whole lot of people together, and it sounds great. That's the beauty of community and of folk music. My role is as a facilitator and historian.
When I started I played ragtime, blues, folk, all sorts of things. In some ways, that was my schooling.
Then I found songs collected by sailors on the Great Lakes; there was no one else doing that out there. That's when I found my calling. And I'm learning new things every day.
A lot of different people - musicians, visual artists, museums - participated in the making of "Christmas Goes to Sea." How did that all happen?
I wrote a song many years ago called "The Christmas Ship," an almost-Homeric story of Christmas trees being brought to Chicago, as an afterthought, because schooners were hauling in lumber. All over the Great Lakes, it developed into a lucrative trade.
It's a multigenerational story - something consistent you can count on year after year. I decided to do an event to commemorate the loss of the vessel, the Rouse Simmons, (the Christmas tree schooner featured in the song). I set up a program, all through songs, to explain what sailors had gone through.
This year is the 15th (annual Hometown Concert), I think. My desire is to give people something other than the Christmas fare. That's what really drove me to find this material (for the new book and CD) and people who work in this trade.
Gradually, things came together three years ago. That's when Joann (his wife) and I thought of doing a CD, but not only a CD - also an art book. It came together, and we're very, very excited about it.
Last year you came out with the book, "Lake Rhymes: Folk Songs of the Great Lakes Region." With your newest book, "Christmas Goes to Sea," you've now created two books of your own, as well as contributed to the book, "Windjammers: Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors. …