Culture Club: Hook a (Station) Wagon to the Stars



Fifty years ago in June, a providential event transformed my life and led to the birth of the Northern Sky Theatre. And that started a passion for songwriting that blossomed into a book coming out this summer.

In June 1972, I had just finished my second year at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. I lived in a damp, unfinished basement near the East River. I didn’t have a car. To take a weekend break from a paint job in the hot sun, I hitchhiked to Peninsula State Park to camp with a friend and her family.

South of Fish Creek I took a ride with a long haired musician named Mike Raye driving a rickety station wagon. He was part of a new troupe sponsored by UW-GB called Heritage Ensemble. They were giving a show that night in the park called Song of the Inland Seas. He suggested I check it out.

I suspected watching a show put on by college students in a state park would be like watching the paint peel off the house I was scraping. But I held my tongue. After dinner, my friend and I decided to take a walk to the amphitheater to investigate. I mean, how bad could that be? But the show turned out to cost 50 cents, a small fortune for a guy surviving on canned Progresso pea soup. My friend and I waited for it to start, then we slipped into the woods to watch.

I was dazzled. Dressed in flowery 19and century costumes and playing guitar and electric bass, the band sang authentic folksongs of Great Lakes sailors, Wisconsin lumberjacks and UP miners interspersed with stories and period humor . I had no idea that our area even produced folk songs – I thought folk music was House on the beach. The performance was catchy, evocative, even profound.

That fall, at UW-GB, I saw a poster advertising auditions for the troupe. To my amazement, I was accepted. Soon our trio was performing lumberjack songs at Kiwanis Club Fried Chicken Dinners.

The following summer, I joined the Troupe de la Péninsule. For me, the Heritage Pack was a match made in the stars. I loved the American history and the Broadway-style arrangements of the troupe. Playing by moonlight in a forest for enthusiastic campers was fun. And the whole philosophy was collaborative. If we wanted to add instrumentation or harmony or even a song we had discovered, the ensemble’s founder, Dave Peterson, was always welcoming.

After graduation, I figured out how to return to Wisconsin during the summers of my PhD program in Pennsylvania. When I was hired to teach clinical psychology at Berkeley, I insisted that they let me go a few weeks early to do the set. And when Dave retired in 1990, he offered the theater to me and another longtime member of the ensemble, Gerald Pelrine.

Gerald Pelrine, Doc Heide and Tim McNurlen of My eyes have seen the glory in 1984.

At this point, I had been writing an ensemble show every year since 1984. It involved matching historical tales with folk songs that illustrated them. But when no song was available for a certain theme, I wrote it myself. In a few years I had accumulated enough to form the basis of a CD, Lessons I learned from the moon.

Fred Alley, my friend and member of the ensemble, moved to California in 1990 to produce it and add his shimmering vocals. After a year of resistance, Fred succumbed to the pleas of Gerald and I and boarded our new American Folklore Theater (renamed Northern Sky in 2015).

Gerald left the theater soon after. Fred invited a friend named Jeff Herbst (now our longtime art director), and things went uphill from there.

In the years that followed, I ended up with 54 songs that will be included in a book to be released this summer. Title Tangled in wonder, it includes melodies, chords, lyrics and reflections on each song. About ten songs come from Ensemble or AFT broadcasts; the rest is just stuff I’ve written.

We plan to release the book at Doc’s 70and Birthday party, a concert at the Door Community Auditorium on July 24. I will be joined by friends from the Ensemble and Northern Sky who will sing a selection of these songs. At press time they include Lee Becker, Amy Chaffee, Hans Christian, Deb Fett, Laurie Flanigan-Hegge, Lacrisa Grandberry, Jeff Herbst, Jimmy Kaplan, Dan Klarer, Steve Koehler, Craig Konowalski, Eric Lewis, Karen Mal, Tim McNurlen, Paul Sowinski, Paul Taylor, James Valcq and Matt Zembrowski.

Turns out a hitchhiking trip 50 years ago took us all a long way.

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