The University District’s Neptune Theatre will be infused with the sounds of South Seattle, literally, as locally-based roots music duo Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons mount its stage tonight. The blues and folk music pair will join students from Washington Middle School in exploring the history of the Emerald City through the playing of songs written throughout its various stages. The two worked closely with the Rainier Valley Historical Society to unearth songs with direct connection to the Rainier Valley. Seamons graciously took time from preparation for tonight’s show to answer questions about their Neptune gig.
South Seattle Emerald: You guys will be telling stories via song about the Rainier Valley in the U-District of all places. What about this performance was most appealing to you guys?
Joe Seamons: There are many exciting things about this performance for Ben and I, and it’s impossible to rank one above the other. So, in no particular order:
- It’s been a thrill to research the history of music in Seattle and learn how very diverse cultures were thrown together to create songs that helped define the city’s evolution. We always love learning new songs, especially when they are tied to stories about the place we live (see an example in question two).
- Playing music with our Rhapsody Project students is always a real joy. They learn things so fast, and the limitations of summer travel schedules has meant that we just have 3 or 4 students participating – as opposed to the 15 or 20 that we usually teach in tandem. So this has been a splendid opportunity to help a few of our most dedicated students in a more manageable musical setting.
- The opportunity to perform in a venue we’ve never experienced is also really exciting. We play everywhere from street corners to ferry boats to clubs, stages and festivals – but rarely is our kind of old-timey, down-home, gut-bucket music featured in an honest-to-god theater with lighting people, a sound crew and all the professional production types that go along with it. So, working with the Seattle Theater Group and folks at the Neptune is just a glorious prospect.
Emerald: You obviously did a great deal of research on the Rainier Valley area in writing the songs that will be played at the performance. While doing your digging, what did you come across about the area’s past history that most surprised you?
Seamons: The existence of an obscure song that combines English and Native American language was definitely a stunning surprise. The following is the chorus to a song that miners or fisherman might sing as they made their way back towards Seattle to visit an early house of allurements. “Illahee” is a native term for “place” and also the name of an early party spot located near Yesler’s sawmill.
There’ll be mowitch [venison]
And Klootchman by the way [native ladies]
When we arrive at Seattle Illahee
Row, boys, row! Let’s travel
To the place they call Seattle
That’s the place to have a spree!
Emerald: You’ll be joined on stage by middle schoolers from the area who you’ve instructed in the musical arts for the past few months. What does it mean to showcase your pupils alongside you?
Seamons: Passing these songs on to younger generations is an absolutely essential part of our tradition, and thus it adds tremendously to the whole experience to have some of our most promising and dedicated young students onstage with us. We have played with them a lot in the classroom, but generally make them go it alone with they perform. So, this will actually be one of the first times we’ve performed publicly with this batch of students, making the whole event extra special for everyone who’s involved.
Emerald: Million-dollar question. I live in the South End, what about your performance should make me brave rush hour traffic to drive to the U-District after a day’s labor?
Seamons: Nowhere else will you see a program of music like this – never mind that the show is free! We are drawing together songs and threads of stories that come from books, the Rainier Valley Historical Society and our work as folklorists to tell some of the funniest, most surprising and significant stories about our city you’ll encounter anywhere. Too often these incredible tales fall through the cracks. While being entertained, you will learn things about your city – and by extension, yourself – that you’d be hard pressed to stumble across no matter what your walk of life might be.
As a bonus, there is a great concert taking place later the same night at Tractor Tavern. So after we teach you about a little of the history of early jazz in Seattle, then we can all roll down and dance to New Orleans-style jazz late into the night! You should probably just take Friday off work to really do it right.
Rainier Valley Revival featuring Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons kicks off tonight at 7:00pm at the Neptune Theatre (1303 NE 45th St).
Feature Photo: Aris Vrakas