For Brad Richardson, creating and staging the big “Music, Movement and Sound” exhibit that opened in January at the Clark County Historical Museum was a little like conducting a symphony orchestra, a vast and complex undertaking with myriad moving parts. The conductor pulls it all together and propels it forward but never makes a peep.
For this exhibit, Richardson said, he amassed many local voices, arranged them as cleverly and authentically as possible — and then stood back to let them sound.
“About 40 different partners worked with us on this,” he said, from tribal singers and drummers to descendants of settlers to today’s hardworking professional musicians, including composers and conductors, teachers and bandleaders, jazz cats and rock stars. They contributed everything from ideas, written text and videotaped interviews to historical artifacts and personal memorabilia.
“They lived the history. They did the hard work. We just get to tell their story,” Richardson said. “They’re the experts, we’re the platform.”
Wind and water
The sweep of history in “Music, Movement and Sound” begins at the beginning, “The Heartbeat of the Earth,” with poetic text by Tanna Engdahl, spiritual leader of the Cowlitz Tribe. Endahl writes that we “two-leggeds” learned the secrets of sound from the animals — the cry of the eagle and the beat of deer hooves as well as “the wind in the trees, the water lapping the shores and the tall grass whispering on the prairies” — and mimicked those in our chants and prayers.
If You Go
What: “Music, Movement and Sound: An Exploration of Clark County’s Musical Roots.”
Where: Clark County Historical Museum, 1511 Main St., Vancouver.
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Exhibit on display through 2022.
Admission: $5; $4 for seniors/students; $3 for children; $12 for families of four.
On the web: www.cchmuseum.org
Indigenous music is resurgent in Clark County now, the exhibit stresses, citing musical gatherings at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse in Ridgefield and the upcoming 20th anniversary powwow of the Cowlitz Tribe, an annual event that recently outgrew the Toledo High School gym and relocated to the Clark County Events Center.
Below that panel are musical instruments spanning indigenous history: working rattles, clappers, whistles and drums, loaned to the exhibit by Engdahl and Sam Robinson, vice chairman of the Chinook Nation. Don’t neglect to pull on the handy headphones and listen to a Cowlitz elk hunting song and a Grande Ronde/Chinook prayer song.
Soundtrack of history
Proceed clockwise around the gallery to follow the soundtrack of history across two centuries. The next display features the growth of church music and choirs, noting the first hymnals to arrive here in 1834 and Father Francois Blanchet’s appreciation of an 1838 yule celebration with choirs chanting in both French and “Chinook jargon.”
By 1900, church choirs were everywhere in Clark County, and church organs followed. St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Fourth Plain was, and remains, one of the most musical congregations, and Gen. George C. Marshall was a member of its choir while commander of the Vancouver Barracks.
Those barracks gave rise to marching bands and military music, another tradition that continues today with the Vancouver-based 204th Army Band. And here’s a really storied artifact: a violin brought here in the 1846 by educators Richard and Anne Covington. What’s so storied about it? The Covingtons’ VIP guest, barracks commander Ulysses S. Grant, sat on the violin and flattened it in 1848. It was repaired and now sits behind glass at the exhibit, where you can ponder the cracks in its surface and the presidential posterior that made them.
Moving right along, you’ll explore Vancouver’s unique role enriching the musical lives of sight-impaired people. The Washington State School for the Blind opened in 1913 and graduated several students who grew up to be famous musicians, including jazz singer Diane Schuur, a Tacoma native who recently told The Columbian that she remembers great times with peers at the school — like zooming around on roller skates while listening to jazz records.
The school taught the skill of piano tuning for years, but when that program was eliminated, teacher Emil B. Fries mortgaged his home to launch the vocational School of Piano Technology for the Blind, which grew to include piano repairs and sales. Vancouver’s unique “Piano Hospital” opened in 1949 and finally closed up shop in 2016. One of its graduates is Casey Harris, keyboard player in the hot band X-Ambassadors.
Next comes music as youth phenomenon: rock ‘n’ roll and radio stations. Stopping by Vancouver to DJ on station KVAN in the late 1950s, and recording his first single here on his way to singer-songwriter stardom, was Willie Nelson — who called himself “yer cotton-pickin’, snuff-dippin’, tobacco-chewin’, stump-jumpin’, gravy-soppin’, coffee-pot-dodgin’, dumplin’ eatin’, frog-giggin’ hillbilly from Hill Country, Texas.”
The exhibit’s welcome beacon is a shiny colonial-style jacket, complete with frills and tricorn hat, that once belonged to Portland band Paul Revere and the Raiders. The jacket was loaned by longtime Vancouver resident Roger Hart, who played a key background role in the development of rock ‘n’ roll. Hart was a Vancouver disc jockey who randomly connected with a young rocker named Paul Revere Dick in 1963, and hired his band to play downtown Vancouver’s teen Trapadero Club. Hart became the Raiders’ manager for a while, and he had them record the garage-rock classic “Louie, Louie” — though their tight, professional performance was outshined by the sloppier, noisier, weirder version by fellow Portland band the Kingsmen.
More exhibit panels explore Clark County’s dance halls and schools; the founding by Walter Cleland of a small classical ensemble that grew into the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra; and, ultimately, the working musicians who call Clark County home today — from Maestro Don Appert of the Clark College Orchestra to diverse performers like bluegrass harmonizers The Misty Mamas, Americana rockers The Pearls and jazz drummer Garry Hobbes.
Now that you’ve walked clockwise around the room, turn to the center to discover the exhibit’s real anchor: the first piano ever to reach the Pacific Northwest, in 1846. It was brought from England to Fort Vancouver by those Covingtons, Richard and Anne, and then to their homestead in Orchards. The Covington piano has been the property of the Clark County Historical Museum for years, Richardson said, but this is the first time it’s been put on display.
You can’t touch it, but you’re welcome to put your hands all over guitars, bongos and a little zither that have been set out for experimentation by anybody.
“There’s no shushing in here,” Richardson said. “People get loud in here. That’s the best thing.”
He hopes this exhibit gives rise to regular musical performances at the museum, he said.
“Music touches every part of our lives,” Richardson said. “Everyone will find something to connect with at this exhibit. Every aspect of our history has a musical component that’s important to it. That’s how universal music is.”