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History harvest aims to digitize stories, artifacts relating to Eau Claire's music history

| Judy Berthiaume

Ask about Eau Claire’s music scene and you will hear about indie rock stars, country music festivals and UW-Eau Claire’s nationally acclaimed jazz program.

Polka music, cover bands, Ojibwe and Hmong music, hip-hop, house shows or church music? Not so much.

That may soon change thanks to a group of UW-Eau Claire public history students and faculty who are trying to pull the many overlooked yet important pieces of Eau Claire’s musical history into the conversation.

“We want to create a deeper and more inclusive look at the history of the local music scene,” Dr. Daniel Ott, a lecturer in UW-Eau Claire’s history department, says of a faculty-student public history project he is leading. “Despite the city’s commitment to music, the popular understanding of local musical history still is shallow.”

Ott and his campus and community partners hope to deepen that understanding by asking community members to share — and digitize — their personal and family stories, artifacts, photographs, documents or other treasures that touch on Eau Claire’s music history.

The Blugold public history team will gather stories and artifacts this spring during the “Sounds of Eau Claire History Harvest” event March 3 at the Chippewa Valley Museum.

“The history harvest will be a public program and digitization event,” says Ott. “Current and former community members are encouraged to add to Eau Claire’s musical history by contributing objects, documents, photographs and oral histories to a digital collection.

Three digitization stations, staffed by trained UW-Eau Claire public history students, will be set up during the event to help community members convert their stories and artifacts to a digital format.

In addition, the March 3 event will include live local multicultural music, lectures by a folklorist and music historian, and a panel discussion with diverse and local cultural-music leaders.

The stories and artifacts gathered during the history harvest event will help historians create online exhibits and collections, which will provide a more complete history of music in Eau Claire.

Two additional public programs will take place in fall of 2018 to share the projects’ findings and multimedia outcomes.

“This entire project will be a fantastic way for the community to learn about local music, discover the richness of the soundscape and to see each other within it,” Ott says.

The history harvest is an extension of the university’s “Sounds of Eau Claire” program, a year-old initiative that involves public history students researching and interviewing a variety of personalities who have contributed to the local music.

Last spring, UW-Eau Claire public history students began sharing the stories of the artists, producers, publicists and others who are longtime contributors to the city’s eclectic music scene.

“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,” Ott says. “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.”

The interviews, which air on Blugold Radio, are used to create podcasts. Ten interviews and podcasts already are completed.

The spring history harvest will create new opportunities for students to add to the “Sounds of Eau Claire” collection, Ott says.

The “Sounds of Eau Claire History Harvest” is funded in part by a $10,000 major grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council and $12,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities Common Heritage program.

Grant dollars will support the project in multiple ways, with a shared goal of preserving and sharing the city’s musical past, Ott says.

“The city’s musical landscape is the product of old and new traditions, and layers of musical experimentation,” Ott says. “This project will preserve and disseminate a deeper and more inclusive history of local music, as well as encourage more community members to recognize themselves and each other within the city’s history.”

Shining a light on the diverse music that has played a part in the city’s history is especially important as Eau Claire’s residents and leaders continue their work to reinvent the city as a cultural destination built on a thriving musical landscape.

Already, the music history of Eau Claire is of interest to local people and those traveling to the area for festivals and other music events, Ott says.

“As part of the musical renaissance, residents are hungry for better music history,” Ott says. “Longtime residents and newcomers have embraced the city’s emerging identity and want more opportunities to explore and understand the roots of its music history.”

Providing more history about how Eau Claire has arrived at this moment will give visitors an enhanced sense of Eau Claire’s uniqueness as a place, Ott says of the value of the history harvest project.

“Public history is focused on doing research with the community that is relevant to the community and available to the community,” Ott says. “As a topic, the Eau Claire music scene makes perfect sense.

“Community members with an interest in music or who have stories and objects to share are what is going to make the history harvest a success. We are counting on the community to collaborate with us and attend the events.”

The project is a partnership among the UW-Eau Claire public history faculty and students, UW-Eau Claire’s McIntyre Library, the Chippewa Valley Museum and Blugold Radio.

The Sounds of Eau Claire History Harvest is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the NEH Common Heritage program. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.