Please welcome our guest blogger, Daniel Slosberg, who has graciously written about his musical and historical journey to play the part of Pierre Cruzatte, Lewis & Clark’s much-esteemed one-eyed fiddler and boatman. In yesterday’s post, Dan described how a chance encounter transformed him from a man with no interest in history to developing a show about Cruzatte. Today, Cruzatte and Dan’s journey continues.
While on a field trip to the Knife River Indian Villages, I met Gary Moulton and of course told him about my project and about what a help his edition of the journals had been. “If you’re interested in the music of the expedition,” he said, “then you have to talk to Bob Hunt.” Robert Hunt had written my favorite music-oriented WPO article, “Merry to the Fiddle: The Musical Amusement of the Lewis and Clark Party,” (WPO, November 1988). If I had to point out one moment when I began to think that becoming Pierre Cruzatte could really happen, that would have to be the moment I came across Bob Hunt’s article. He was one of my biggest Lewis & Clark heroes; but I’d never imagined that I’d get to meet him. Yet there he was, as Dr. Moulton pointed out, wandering by one of the Knife River lodges.
In “Merry to the Fiddle,” Bob Hun postulates that one of the tunes expedition members might have played is “Fisher’s Hornpipe.” None of the Lewis & Clark journal-keepers mention tune names, so we’re left to make educated guesses about what tunes Cruzatte played, as Hunt had done in the article. As a result, “Fisher’s Hornpipe” became the foundation of my version of Cruzatte’s repertoire. I play a Metis version of it during every program. And when, on the final evening of the Bismarck meeting, I got to play the fiddle after Cindy Orlando’s induction as the new LCTHF president, I played “Fisher’s Hornpipe.” So there I was at my first LCTHF annual
meeting, playing the fiddle for the whole group at the final gathering. I couldn’t have had a better Pierre Cruzatte launching party.
Earlier in the meeting, I had met Janice Elvidge, a ranger at Fort Clatsop at the time. I of course told her about my Cruzatte ambitions. A member of the Living History section of the National Association of Interpretation, she said that I ought to sign up for the section’s meeting in St. Louis the following April.
I checked out the schedule, and it turned out that the organizers had arranged for a field trip to the Lewis & Clark Center (what eventually became the Lewis & Clark Boat House and Nature Center). Cruzatte enlisted with the expedition on May 16, 1804, while the explorers spent a few days in St. Charles, so that’s as close to a home town for Cruzatte that we’re going to get. I called Mimi Jackson of the Center and asked if I could play some tunes as Cruzatte during the field trip. She agreed not only to that, but said that, if I wanted to, I could speak as Cruzatte as well. Which I did, learning an important lesson as a result (see below the bit about accents).
While fiddling outside the center, I met Nan Harms, who at the time booked programs for the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (NHOTIC) in Baker City, Oregon. Nan liked Cruzatte’s music and spirit so much that she asked if I could come up and do a program at the center. “I don’t really have a program,” I told her. “Well,” she said, “call me when you do.”
I had been working on a script, but I’m a very, very, very slow writer. I was two years and at least 40 drafts into the project. Without a deadline, I probably could have gone another two years without finishing. I realized that this was my chance to impose a deadline, so I called Nan and asked her when she wanted me. “How about July?” she asked. So July it was.
Meanwhile, I was contacting others who I thought could help with the program. Since that first moment in St. Charles when I opened my mouth as Cruzatte and out came my California drawl, I knew that I needed an accent. Around that time, an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times describing two presidential impersonators from different parts of the country. One impersonated George W. Bush, the other Bill Clinton. Both swore by a dialect coach who happened to live just up the freeway from me in Northridge, CA. She turned out to be a Lewis & Clark aficionado herself. After a few sessions with her, and with the help of “Canajun, Eh?,” a recording of Canadian accents she happened to own, Cruzatte had found his voice.
Many other people helped with putting the program together. As a matter of fact, whenever I take the stage as Cruzatte, I feel the presence of a whole crowd of people up there with me. To name just a few: fiddlers Gary Francisco (a.k.a. Farley the Fiddler) and Donna Hebert helped me learn how to clog and fiddle at the same time; percussionist John Bergamo helped me with the jew’s harp; another percussionist, Aaron Plunkett, helped me with the bones. I took acting lessons from Dianne Hull; whenever Pierre Cruzatte takes aim at what turns out to be Captain Lewis’s backside, he (i.e. me) is really seeing an elk thanks to Diane.
Speaking of folks who helped, I can’t forget to mention my family, particularly my wife. Deborah supported me through the whole process, from early on when I left my job to work on the program full-time; then, later, when I spent weeks on the road performing the show, leaving her to care for our four kids. Those kids also helped with the show. When I needed live bodies for a test audience — after having performed the program many times for stuffed animals and for stick figures that I chalked on the inside of the garage door — they provided that audience –for a fee. I had to pay each of them a buck or two to keep them in their seats.
With all these preparations, with the years I took to write the show, you’d think that the first programs would have been pretty good. But they were quite the opposite. They weren’t chronological — I’d reenact the accident somewhere in the middle, once even choosing a member of the audience to be Lewis, whence I quickly learned that it’s hard to get an audience member to reliably grab his rear end, jump up and down and scream; I had no map, so audience members couldn’t follow along geographically unless they had a good map in their head; and I sang all the songs a capella — though I have a decent voice, it’s not good enough to carry all the songs by itself. I’m amazed anyone sat through those early shows.
It must have been the music that kept people in their seats during those first programs. Without the fiddle tunes, Cruzatte would have been lost. Almost as soon as had learned about Cruzatte’s existence, I began hunting for tunes and songs that he might have played, i.e. pieces in musicians repertoires by 1800. I focused on tunes played by the Metis, who have their own unique versions of tunes, often with an extra few beats here and there. I found a number of great recordings but want to mention three sources in particular. From Anne Lederman’s priceless “Old Native and Metis Fiddling in Western Manitoba,” I got two of the tunes Cruzatte plays in the program. The “Red River Jig,” the tune with which Cruzatte ends every show, comes from another great album, Folkways’ “Plains Chippewa/Metis Music from Turtle Mountain“. Michael Loukinen’s “Medicine Fiddle,”a documentary film about the “fiddling and dancing traditions of Native and Metis families on both sides of the U.S. and Canadian border” also proved invaluable. If you love the fiddle even the tiniest bit, you have to see this film.
During the early period of Cruzatte programs, I thankfully suffered a kind of constructive ignorance. As I mentioned before, early versions were a bit rough. But I thought they were great. I videotaped the program and sent off a copy to the Orange County Performing Arts Center (OCPAC) to try to get the program onto their roster of educational arts performances. They responded with a very kind letter: “your program has potential, but you need to work on the theatrical aspects of the show.” Still blissfully ignorant, I called OCPAC and asked what they meant by “theatrical aspects.” Rather than list everything that meant for my program, they told me that I should call actor/storyteller Carl Weintraub, who OCPAC often worked with when developing new shows.
I performed the Cruzatte program for him in front of a middle school audience, after which he gave me a two-page list of things I needed to do to make the program work. And Carl’s ideas DID make the program work. Every piece of advice he gave me was right on the money. For example, he told me that I had to have a map to show the audience the progress of the expedition. “But I don’t have an historically accurate map, and I don’t know how I’d get one,” I complained. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You have to have one.” To fill out the sound on the songs, Carl told me that I had to sing and play the fiddle at the same time. “But I can’t do that,” I whined.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You have to do it.” He told me that the program had to move chronologically and end with the accident. He suggested that, early on in the program, I tease the audience with allusions to the accident. He suggested that I make the description of Charbonneau’s recipe for boudin blank as yucky as possible, all the better to keep audiences of
young kids as rapt as possible.
If you’ve seen my program, you’ll recognize Carl’s ideas as integral parts of the show. Without those ideas, I’d still be a rambling Cruzatte, albeit one who plays a mean fiddle.
I continued making small changes over the next few years, especially when audience members suggested ways to improve the program — a visiting grade-school teacher from France told me the proper way to pronounce “guimbarde” (French for jew’s harp) and the French way to count to three on my fingers (i.e. starting with the thumb rather than the index finger); Luke from Tacoma (whose last name I can’t recall) recommended that, when reenacting the scene in which Charbonneau drops the rudder of one of the pirogues, I act as if the strong winds buffet me around the stage; and Dr. Moulton chipped in when he mentioned to me that I could get more than the one tone I had been playing on the sounden horn. He was right, of course; now I can get three and a half, which makes the sounden horn much more interesting for everybody.
Since July of 2000 and those first baby steps along the trail, I’ve been lucky enough to appear as Pierre Cruzatte to wonderful, appreciative audiences across the U.S. — from the University of Virginia to the University of Oregon, from New Orleans, Louisiana, to New Town, North Dakota, and to hundreds of places in between. Being Pierre was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I feel incredibly blessed have lived in the right place and the right time to have done it. Life has slowed down for Cruzatte since the end of the bicentennial, but he still appears now and
then, mainly at schools in the L.A. area. Now that his heyday is over — at least until the tricentennial — I’m looking for other five foot four, one-eyed fiddling boatmen to portray. As you might imagine, they are pretty hard to find.
Don’t worry, though. While I wait for a new boatman to paddle by, I’m not just hanging around treading water. Because finding the right word for Cruzatte to use for “butt” (i.e. one that made sense for the character, that was easy to understand, and that would be appropriate for elementary school use) proved to be one of the most interesting conundrums in writing the Cruzatte show, I’ve begun a series of poems using different words for derriere. Ideally, I’ll eventually have a backside synonym and associated verse beginning with each letter of the alphabet, a kind of alpha-butt. I tentatively call it Aft, Bumper, Can.
Also, I’ve put together a new program about Dr. William Beanes, a Maryland doctor who the British imprisoned aboard a ship during the War of 1812. His good friend, a lawyer named Francis Scott Key, sailed out into the Chesapeake Bay to negotiate for his release. Key eventually brought home not only his friend, but also a poem that he called “The Defense of Fort McHenry” and which a publisher subsequently renamed “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Dr. Beanes may not be the fiddling boatman I was searching for, but he does continue in the tradition of relatively unknown historical figures who play important roles in U.S. history. I haven’t abandoned hope yet, though. So, if you come across any other interesting fiddlers, please let me know. And if you know any synonyms for “derriere” which begin with I, Q, X, Y, or Z, contact me immediately.
A note from Frances: Again, thank you so much, Dan, for your great insights into music, history, and creativity. Many people think that a creative endeavor just kind of “happens.” It’s hard work that brings it all together!