TRAVERSE CITY — Shianne Knoch studied pictures of traditional instruments in an American folk music book, then drew a border illustration of small guitars, mandolins, fiddles and banjos.
The illustration is part of a concert production by students in SEEDS After School and was inspired by 20th-century folk music collector Alan Lomax and his 1938 field recordings of Michigan folk music.
“The Quest – A Celebration of Community” debuts May 9 at the City Opera House. It features about 14 songs — some Lomax originals, others rewritten and rearranged by the students in the historical context of their own communities — with visual accompaniment including puppets, a slide show and painted, drawn and hand-dyed scenery. Other student artwork will help set the stage.
“They’ve been rehearsing for months, learning the traditional songs and writing their own in that Lomax vein,” said Bill Watson, director of youth programs for SEEDS, which provides after-school programming for 13 schools in northwest Michigan. “And at the same time our staff in the schools have been doing classes on local history, the kids have gone to local historical museums, talked to elders in the community, even explored the traditional culture and food of the community.”
The result is a program that combines traditional folk instruments, lyrics and tunes with modern-day touches like rap verses, electric guitars and songs about inclusion.
“They’re listening to Lomax songs but they’re putting their own spin on it,” Watson said, adding that research materials include boxed sets of Lomax recordings. “We wanted them to learn about the traditions and the music and learn about this guy that went around making field recordings, and at the same time develop their own voice, create their own songs from history and their communities.”
The Quest project involves about 50 middle and high school students from Benzie Central, Brethren, Forest Area, Frankfort, Kalkaska, Manistee and Suttons Bay Schools. Each SEEDS After School group worked on their own piece of the production with the help of musician-instructors like Seth Bernard and Josh Davis from Earthwork Music Collective and artist-instructors from Blackbird Arts.