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History project showcases icons of local music scene

| Judy Berthiaume

While Eau Claire’s reputation as a music hot spot is growing thanks to Justin Vernon’s success on the world’s stage, the music and arts scene in the Chippewa Valley actually has been thriving for decades.

Now a team of UW-Eau Claire public history students is working to share the stories of the artists, producers, publicists and others who are longtime contributors to the city’s eclectic music scene.

Students working with the “Sounds of Eau Claire” project research and interview a variety of personalities who have made significant contributions to the local arts.

Already, they have completed nearly a dozen of the hourlong oral history interviews. The interviews are the basis for podcasts, which air on Blugold Radio.

“The goal of the ‘Sounds of Eau Claire’ oral history project is to preserve and share a broader and deeper history of Eau Claire music for residents and visitors,” Dr. Daniel Ott, a visiting assistant professor of history at UW-Eau Claire, says of the ongoing project. “The project helps to do that by exposing listeners to stories about musical individuals in the region who each have different stories and understandings of Eau Claire's rich musical landscape.”

A collaborative and ongoing project, “Sounds of Eau Claire” involves multiple groups and organizations, including Blugold Radio, McIntyre Library, faculty and students from UW-Eau Claire’s history department, the Chippewa Valley Museum and narrators from the community.

Given the impact the arts are having on Eau Claire’s growth and economy, focusing a public history project on the local music world is of interest to the students as well as the community, Ott says.

“Public history is focused on doing research with the community, that is relevant to the community and that is available to the community,” Ott says. “As a topic, the Eau Claire music scene made perfect sense. Additionally, local music seemed like an easy topic to get students excited about and an ideal way for them to learn the craft of oral history through interviewing real people.”

Elizabeth Schmidt is one of the students excited for the opportunity to share the stories of local icons while also building her skills as a historian.

A junior public history major from Lake City, Minnesota, Schmidt’s team is sharing the story of Robert Baca, an accomplished jazz musician who leads UW-Eau Claire’s jazz program.

To prepare for the interview, they researched Baca’s contributions as a musician and as a faculty member, Schmidt says. Their goal, she says, was to ask questions and encouraged him to tell his own stories rather than them telling the stories for him.

Their preparation paid off, she says.

“He had wonderful stories about his work with icons such as Frank Sinatra as well as his role in the revitalization of the university’s jazz program,” Schmidt says. “He also has been key to the success of the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, which helped spark the musical renaissance that Eau Claire is in.

“His stories are fascinating and created a wonderful narrative for us.”

After completing the on-air interview, Schmidt and her partner created a podcast script based on their interview with Baca.

“We decided to focus the podcast on his work as a professor and what makes the jazz studies program special, which is an obvious passion for him,” Schmidt says.

Blugold Radio jumped at the chance to be a partner in the project because it aligns with the station’s commitment to elevating the talents of local musicians, says Scott Morfitt, station manager.

“Every day Blugold Radio plays a wide variety of local musicians, and it’s at the core of our mission to connect listeners with this music community,” Morfitt says. “We are excited to be part of it.”

The original “Sounds of Eau Claire” interviews air at 10:30 a.m. Sundays. Starting in September, the interviews will air a second time during the station’s afternoon drive time. Links to the podcasts are on Blugold Radio’s website.

“We’ll air as many as the students produce,” Morfitt says. “We really want this musical history to be as broad and diverse as possible.”

Ott agrees, noting that the students will touch on as many parts of the Eau Claire music landscape as possible.

Indie, jazz, country, blues, folk, punk, rock, big band and others all will be among the genres featured, he says, noting that interviews will feature musicians as well as the off-stage talent that supports their work.

The first interview in the series to air — featuring Howard “Guitar" Luedtke, a staple of the local blues scene — is his favorite so far, says Eli Klatt, a junior integrated strategic communication major at UW-Eau Claire who helps to edit and process the recordings and serves as the host of the podcasts.

A local legend, Luedtke, a blues musician from Chippewa Falls, has been part of the local blues scene for decades. In his podcast, he reflects on the changes he’s seen in the Eau Claire music scene during his long career.

“He has been a part of the Chippewa Valley blues scene for years and has seen all of the changes the whole scene has gone through,” Klatt says of his interest in Luedtke’s story. “I also thought it was awesome that BB King has played a show in Eau Claire. Plus, Luedtke hands down has the best interview voice.”

Being part of the oral history project has him thinking about the local arts scene in new ways, Klatt says.

“Being a transplant to Eau Claire, I always knew the area had a rich musical history, but never knew the history about the bands and the venues that put Eau Claire on the map as the ‘music capital of the north,’” Klatt says. “Through producing this podcast, I gained an understanding of the musical landscape that I hope can be shared for years to come.”

The people featured and their stories all are unique, so each segment is special, Morfitt says.

While some of those featured, like Luedtke, are musicians, others play important “behind-the-scenes” kinds of roles.

For example, one segment features Evan Middlesworth, owner of Pine Hollow Studios in Eau Claire, which has recorded projects by many Eau Claire musicians.

“Every piece of content on is my favorite,” Morfitt says. “However, when Jason Anderson talked about experiencing the music scene through the eyes of his niece that was quite a special moment.”

Students work in teams of two to research their subject and conduct the on-air interviews. They also work with Klatt to create the podcasts.

The entire project is proving to be a win for the students, the artists and the community, Ott says.

“From my perspective, the project has been very rewarding and fun, both as an educator and as a collaborator,” Ott says. “Narrators want to be interviewed, and are happy to share their stories and ideas. They are excited to have their stories preserved and shared. Organizations are thrilled to collaborate and do so readily.

“Students are excited to learn, to apply themselves beyond the classroom and to do something substantial. They enjoy the process of doing real work that has real, concrete deliverables — well-researched interviews with real people that are now preserved in the archives, and co-producing professional quality podcasts. They really liked collaborating with professionals and feeling like their coursework mattered.”

Schmidt says she was thrilled that she could take what she learned from the “Sounds of Eau Claire” oral history project to use during a summer internship at a church in Red Wing, Minnesota.

“Only two months after I finished ‘Sounds of Eau Claire,’ I was able to use what I had learned,” says Schmidt, who plans to go onto graduate school to prepare for a professional career in public history.

While she values the hands-on learning opportunity, Schmidt says it was even more meaningful to know she was part of something that benefits an entire community.

“These projects not only benefit the students, but also the community members who get to learn about a new perspective of their town,” Schmidt says. “It also preserves the stories of the interviewee, who might not have very many opportunities to tell their stories. It is important to document these stories for our present and future communities before they are lost.”

The project will continue in fall 2017, this time with Dr. John Mann, professor of history, teaching the class.

“Hopefully after that, we will create a digital exhibit and collection of community stories and artifacts associated with music in the region as well,” says Ott, noting that the Chippewa Valley Museum is interested in the podcasts for use in a future exhibit. “Given the amount of interest we have and the amount of ground we have to cover, we hope to keep the project going for a couple of years.”

Photo caption: Robert Baca, UW-Eau Claire professor of music and director of jazz studies, is one of the icons of the Chippewa Valley music scene featured in Blugold Radio podcasts produced by UW-Eau Claire students through the "Sounds of Eau Claire" history project.