Prepare for an evening of somber event ballads, stage songs, hilarious parodies, and even operas. The singer will share anecdotes about interesting Idaho individuals, places and events. He also will discuss the techniques he used as a “songcatcher”, to collect, preserve and interpret songs based on Idaho’s heritage. Gary Eller says, “I am very familiar with Garden Valley but have never done a program there. I am looking forward to the event.”
Eller comes here with a diverse background. Most notably, or unexpectedly, he had a career of thirty years in nuclear science and engineering at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in northern New Mexico.
When he retired in 2004 and moved to Pickles Butte, Idaho, it appears the historical song bug gave him a serious case of tracing musical folklore traditions. Meanwhile, he picked up a First Place award at the 2005 Horseshoe Bend banjo contest, with two original compositions, and a Second Place, in 2006. He also plays guitar and bass.
The musician has played with many different musical groups, including Atomic Grass and Crossroads. He currently performs old-time swing, country, and Idaho music in the duet, Frozen Dogs (with Rue Frisbee, who plays fiddle, guitar and mandolin); bluegrass in Chicken Dinner Road; and early Idaho songs for the Idaho Humanities Council Speakers Bureau.
His Idaho Songs Project began in 2007, with a grant from IHC, to collect historically-based songs of the Snake and Salmon River regions. For this, he’s compiled about two-hundred Idaho-related songs that predate the coming of radio in the state, around 1923. He found forgotten songs in special university library collections and archives of tiny museums and says he also wanted songs that captured what it was like to live, work and die here—songs that didn’t get written down or recorded.
His Idaho Songbag CD was released by IHC, and contains more than two-dozen songs from the mid-nineteenth century, to the present. It features songs about mining, murder, labor disputes, politics, protests and cowboy laments
Of the Songbag, Executive Director of the Idaho Humanities Council, Rick Ardinger, says, “It’s a work of historical preservation in the tradition of Alan Lomax, to gather together this sampler of music unique to Idaho.” More than 1,000 of these songs have been gathered in a compilation of polished studio recordings, wax cylinder, reel-to-reels, and cassettes.
Eller says the CD is not about Idaho’s best-known musicians: “That’s not really its purpose. Most featured on The Idaho Songbag are not professional musicians.” Two exceptions are recordings by Pete Seeger and Pinto Bennett. Idaho City’s Beth Wilson sings a song that was first put in the Idaho World news in the 1880s. Another Idaho City musician, John Thomsen, sings his song on nuclear potatoes, which we had the pleasure of hearing him sing in the Crouch Community Hall some years back.
Let’s hope Eller includes a catchy autobiographical tune he came up with, written by an inmate of the old Idaho Penitentiary in the 1950s, and Frank Church’s 1956 Senate campaign song.
Other programs he does for the IHC Speakers Bureau include High Tone Music of Early Idaho and Bad Asses and Disasters of Early Idaho—Songs that should have been written but weren’t. He describes an example of a bad ass song: “Cherokee Bob, about the famous gunslinger, gambler, saloon operator and ne'er do well who got his just desserts on the main street of Florence, Idaho, on New Years Day, 1863. It is said that Brett Harte used Cherokee Bob to create the icon of the slick western gunslinging gambler who was written about in numerous western novels and used in countless western movies and TV shows.”
Eller says, “I am always looking for songs written before 1923 about specific Idaho people, places and events. It is possible that some of your readers have hand-written poems or lyrics from their early Idaho ancestors that pertain to this subject. So please mention the quest in your article.” So be it.
There is no charge for the program. Join Gary Eller after the program for refreshments and a jam session. Plan on playing or singing or just having a good time.