ASBURY PARK, N.J. — The Smithsonian hears America singing, playing instruments and telling its history through music.
The Washington cultural institution’s New Harmonies program will feature this musical history with a traveling exhibit in five states — Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio and South Carolina. Communities in those states will host performances and other events in conjunction with the exhibit.
The program, which is part of the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street project, showcases some of America’s “richest stories,” says Carol Harsh, director of Main Street.
“There’s a lot of fine music in this country; you kind of take it for granted,” says South Carolina’s John Fowler, an Appalachian storyteller, musician and radio host. “New Harmonies is a great snapshot.”
Venues in the five states include libraries, historical societies and performance spaces in towns, rural areas and small cities, with the first programs scheduled for Asbury Park, N.J. The sites host the New Harmonies traveling exhibit while developing unique, local spinoffs and promoting already-well-established programs. “Connecting the national story with their own personal experience is pretty profound,” says Harsh.
Immerse yourself in “America’s soundtrack,” an intricate cross-pollination of genres.
The core New Harmonies exhibit explores sacred music — “Elvis Presley sang earliest in the church,” notes Harsh — as well as the secular: Cajun and Creole influenced Zydeco; Mexican American Tejano; Jewish Klezmer; and folk music (Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez) that sustained civil rights movements.
Try out instruments born from the innovations of poverty: a cigar box guitar; a Cajun rub board, strummed with a thimble or bottle opener.
Make a diddley bow. “The earliest ones were just two nails in the side of a house, with bailing wire stretched between them,” says Mississippi humanities official David Morgan.
Here are some highlights; check websites listed below for more details and updates.
This year’s New Harmonies traveling exhibit debuts March 12 at the Asbury Park Public Library (500 First Ave.), home of a Bruce Springsteen collection. But programs are already starting.
“It’s going to be like Woodstock all year,” songwriter and former Styx band member Glen Burtnik proclaimed at a recent Musical Heritage Year fundraiser. In keeping with a Smithsonian focus on the future, the bluegrass and rock show at the legendary Stone Pony music club (913 Ocean Ave.) included a 16-year-old, classically trained violinist, Taylor Hope.
The now-resurrected city’s vibrant music scene was an emotional and economic lifeline during an era of decline and despair. “Back when things were bad,” says Stone Pony General Manager Caroline O’Toole, the music provided “a glimmer of light.”
An important part of Asbury Park’s history is drawing people together for a good cause, and the city’s heritage year will kick off with a documentary and a concert series, Jan. 13-16, benefiting Light of Day, which raises money worldwide for Parkinson’s and related diseases.
“It’s like a big family, working together to make it happen,” says founder Bob Benjamin, a music executive.
At the centerpiece concert, Springsteen collaborators Alejandro Escovedo, Joe Grushecky and Jesse Malin will be among the headliners at the Paramount Theatre (1300 Ocean Ave.) Springsteen himself sometimes takes the stage.
Asbury Park’s storied past is intertwined with John Philip Sousa; Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton and Johnny Cash. During New Harmonies, teens will explore elders’ favorite musical moments.
Other New Jersey topics include music technology. An exhibit at the West Deptford Free Public Library (420 Crown Point Road) will focus on the RCA record company.
Think Minnesota’s mostly about polka music? Think again.
The state’s New Harmonies tour will accentuate “absent narratives” — musical, written and oral stories that haven’t always gotten mainstream attention: Mexican, Somali, Dakota, Ojibwe, Laotian.
“Increasingly, there are more voices in play in the culture, the meaning of this place,” says state humanities official Matthew Brandt. “They are part of the Minnesota story.”
Lots of people have heard of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater; this spotlight shines on “energized” smaller communities.
Minnesota gets rolling March 12 at the Austin Public Library (323 4th Ave. NE.) One project will relate how different cultures have used a local ballroom; a dance will bring them all together. Decades ago, the place was called the Terp and hosted big bands; now called El Parral, it’s mainly patronized by the local Latino community.
Evansville, Minn., plans open mic nights, and multi-language hymn singing led “by authentic Dakota, Norwegian, German, Swedish and English voices.”
The state’s tour winds up near the Canadian border in November and December, at the Roseau County Museum (121 Center St. East, Roseau.)
Bluegrass — and beyond — are on tap at Ohio’s eight host communities, starting March 14 at the Quaker Heritage Center (College and Douglas streets, Wilmington).
Ohio’s heritage also hails from Vietnam, India, Croatia and Serbia, according to humanities official Jack Shortlidge.
Performers will discuss their music, its origins and their own life experiences. After World War II, people brought along bluegrass when they moved from the Appalachian regions of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee to find work in Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton.
Scholars are writing essays for a “companion reader” that will be given out at host sites. Topics will include King Records in Cincinnati, the label that launched James Brown’s career.
After the Springfield exhibit (117 S. Fountain Ave.) winds down, nearby Dayton holds its Cityfolk Festival over the July Fourth weekend.
A gospel choir will sing during the Burton exhibit (Kent State University Geauga Campus, 14111 Claridon Troy Road, Burton.) That exhibit coincides with a Great Geauga County Fair Band concert.
Mississippi is hosting a New Harmonies encore; its first got rave reviews, says Morgan.
The blues, with African American roots, influenced jazz, rock and rockabilly; old-timers ran a glass bottle or pocket knife over the strings to play slide guitar. Local music also has French, Spanish, Creole and Jewish flavors.
The Mississippi tour opens April 9 at a renovated, Italian Renaissance-style train depot (downtown Hattiesburg). Its stay there dovetails with Roots Reunion, an annual program of gospel, bluegrass, blues and country.
Pass Christian, an area still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, will celebrate coastal music, including its Hispanic and Vietnamese communities.
In Amory, exhibit topics will range from Chickasaw drums to the song “Blue Suede Shoes.” The rockabilly classic was written — surprise! — not by Elvis, but by Carl Perkins, who performed there.
South Carolina organizers are lining up performances, instrument-making workshops, songwriting and singing contests. That two-year New Harmonies tour starts April 9 at the Gaffney Visitors Center (210 West Frederick St.)
“You can’t sit down in a laboratory and invent this music,” says Fowler, who plays banjo, guitar, harmonica, spoons, washboard and more. “It took generations and generations of hard times and hard luck, wars and so many other influences to give us fine music like Piedmont Blues or gospel or Gullah music.”
Gullah is “embedded with the experience of slavery, freedom, of generations of history,” says Fowler. “It’s part spiritual, part African, and even has native American influences.”
The state’s roots also include “low country gospel” and “smooth, danceable R&B” beach music.
Hunger for barbecue with your blues? Make a beeline Oct. 7-9 for Abbeville — home of the Piedmont Blues and Hash Bash. Like the music, the hash — a stew that accompanies pit-cooked barbecue — is considered a local delicacy.
Food history tells cultural stories, too. You can explore those in a different time and place — through another Museum on Main Street program called Key Ingredients.