Have you seen New-York Historical’s current exhibition Hudson Rising? Come to the Museum on Saturday or Sunday to learn about the environmental history of “the most interesting river in America.” And then don’t miss our special Living History program this weekend only, Hudson River History Songs.
In her special appearance, historical balladeer Linda Russell will celebrate the Hudson’s history by performing music and songs from multiple eras in the past. What can you expect at this weekend’s programs? There’s no one better to ask than Linda herself! Read on to learn about how Linda brings the past to the present and what you’ll see, hear, or even sing along to this weekend.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What does Living History mean to you?
Linda Russell: I explore history through song. In the music of the past, we see the emotions of the past. The songs tell us of people’s feelings about love, war, technology, and all sorts of issues in their lives. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the days of the Erie Canal, the Suffrage movement—all are well-documented in the music of the day. Living History to me means bringing the past vibrantly to life with dance tunes, marches, laments, love ballads, work songs, and humorous ditties.
DCHM: How did you become a Living Historian?
LR: When I was a child in Wisconsin, I loved dreaming about the people who came before me. What were their lives like? What did they dream about? When I was 14, I was given a guitar and I was immediately drawn to the old songs, because they were a highway to the past.
My Dad was a historian and photographer with a large collection of photographs of the heyday of lumbering in Wisconsin. We traveled around to small towns with a program in which my Dad would show slides of the lives and work of the lumberjacks, and I would accompany with their songs. So, I saw at an early age how effective music was in making history come to life.
When I came to New York City, I needed a job and happened in to Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street. They talked to me about the possibility of using music to interpret history, and I became the first folk singer on the government payroll, singing the songs of George Washington’s inauguration and the Federal Era to schoolchildren, tourists, and Wall Streeters on their lunch hours! I served as balladeer for the National Park Service for 16 years.
DCHM: What can families look forward to this weekend?
LR: This weekend, I’ll be presenting songs of the history of the Hudson River valley. There’ll be songs of pirates, Erie Canal boatmen, Revolutionary War soldiers, steamboats, farmers, and bluestone quarrymen, and of course, environmental anthems by Pete Seeger and others who helped turn the fate of the Hudson into an environmental success story. I’ll be performing the tunes accompanied by hammered and mountain dulcimers, guitar, pennywhistle, and limberjack.
DCHM: How did you learn about the people you portray? Do you have any tips for history detectives?
LR: As a child, I loved reading books like Caddie Woodlawn, the story of a pioneer girl in 19th century Wisconsin, and Little Women. When I began to discover the songs of the past, my favorite books became the music collections of John and Alan Lomax. They not only gathered songs from all sorts of people from all walks of life, but also included the stories behind the songs. They showed you that the music had a place in people’s lives. It helped me to understand history in a whole new way.
I would encourage young people to read historical novels, which can help you enter history in imaginative ways. And pay attention to the lyrics of folk songs such as “The Erie Canal” and “Yankee Doodle.” Listening—and then finding out the background story of the words—will open up a new avenue in your exploration of history.
See more of our Living History events here
Written by J.M. Wasko, Living Historian Supervisor