Concert preview: Brian Harnetty mines southeast Ohio's past for 'Shawnee, Ohio'

Joel Oliphint

While working on his Ph.D. at Ohio University, Columbus musician and archivist Brian Harnetty conducted ethnographic research ("Basically just deep hanging out," he said) in southeast Ohio, paying particular attention to a group of Appalachian coal-mining towns known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds.

After the coal boom, most of the Little Cities went bust, including Shawnee, an architecturally preserved town of around 600 people located about 65 miles southeast of Columbus. Harnetty discovered he had family roots in Shawnee - his grandfather Mordecai Williams graduated from high school there in 1925.

In 2010, Harnetty, whose previous projects collected audio from the Appalachian Sound Archives at Berea College in Kentucky and from the archives of avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra, asked a Shawnee historian if the town had any sound archives. "He said, 'Well, let me check,'" Harnetty said recently at a Clintonville coffee shop. "He went into his back closet and pulled a box of cassette tapes out. They were full of interviews he did in the 1980s and '90s."

Harnetty digitized and cataloged 40 cassette tapes, then went about the work of listening. He also supplemented the tapes with audio from the Library of Congress collection of Anne Grimes, who made field recordings of folk songs from all over Ohio in the 1950s. "There were no recordings from Shawnee, but there were other recordings from some of the other Little Cities," he said. "There's two murder ballads, both based on classic folk songs, but they have local lyrics. Both are from this little town called Gore, as in 'gory.' I think the name may have come after these murders."

Though Harnetty eventually adds his own music as a way of reframing the sounds, he never begins composing right away. For four or five years, Harnetty listened and investigated the context of the audio to make sure he wasn't culturally strip-mining the archives. "Doing some serious research and also hanging out with the communities connected to the archives doesn't give you carte blanche to use it however you want," Harnetty said, though over time, the hope is that "you can find some ways to use it ethically but still have your own artistic voice in there."

Inspired by Sherwood Anderson's 1919 short story cycleWinesburg, Ohio, Harnetty, a pianist, created a series of aural portraits, focusing on one person for each of the 11 tracks that make upShawnee, Ohio, which will be released next year on Dust-to-Digital. On Thursday and Friday, Oct. 27 and 28, Harnetty and seven other musicians (playing flute, saxophone, banjo, violin, cello, clarinet and other instruments) will perform the songs, accompanied by photo and video projections, at the Wexner Center (a co-commissioner of the piece, along with support from several other arts organizations).

The first portrait is titled "Jim." "He's describing the buildings and the people in the town when he was a kid," Harnetty said, "and in his mind he's moving from building to building along Main Street, which is totally fascinating. … Part of the visual project is to document the town today, so as he's recounting this, you'll be seeing footage of the town today mixed with archival photographs and video. There's this real mix-up between past and present."

On another track, "Boy," a banjo enters, followed by the voice of a child. "I'm going to ask my grandma questions of the olden days," the boy says. "Um, Grandma? In the mines, do you know how many people died? Do you know anyone that was in the mines? Can you tell me three people? Can you name them?"

A short pause follows each question, but instead of the grandmother's responses, only Harnetty's ghostly music is heard; the boy placed the tape recorder next to him instead of near his grandmother. "That gives it a haunting quality," Harnetty said. "If you listen closely without the music, she's giving some answers but is very reluctant. So that reluctancy in talking about miners who might have died and people she may have known, that opened the space up for the listener to imagine [her responses]."

Inseparable from the history of Shawnee and other Little Cities of Black Diamonds are the environmental and socioeconomic issues related to extraction in the region. Harnetty investigates what it sounds like when Ohio communities wrestle with what coal-mining and hydraulic fracturing have wrought in the region. "You rulers of the forest, this song to you I'll tell / Do the impact study, save us from fracking hell," an activist sings on "Jack."

"The big problem today is the scale [of drilling], and its connection away from smaller-scale, localized operations to trans-national stuff," said Harnetty, who, while researching, accompanied one local well-driller who's been using the same rig for 60 years. Some local drillers give their neighbors free gas. "There's this sense of generosity that you wouldn't even think of with a big corporation," he said.

For nearly 150 years, southeast Ohio has been booming and busting. Fracking, Harnetty believes, is merely the next phase of the same boom-bust cycle, which comes just as some natural areas are beginning to recover.

"They've been doing all these great things where they put these systems in upstream to fight the acid mine drainage, and it's working," Harnetty said. "So for the first time in 100 years, a lot of wildlife is coming back. Species of fish have come back, and that brings back the kingfisher, and that brings back other animals. Right at the time when there's real noticeable recovery, there's another boom/bust cycle happening."

Harnetty also realizes not everyone in Shawnee and the surrounding area will agree with his stance on fracking, and he sympathizes with the need for jobs in the area. "I don't have a solution," he said. He also acknowledged that no matter how much time he spends in Shawnee or how many hours he spends researching and listening, he'll always be a Columbus resident, and therefore an outsider.

But he still treasures his Shawnee roots. Before beginning a weeklong residency at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, Harnetty and his band will perform on Saturday, Oct. 29, in Shawnee's Tecumseh Theater - the same building in which his grandfather once played basketball.

Photo by Tim Johnson

Wexner Center

8 p.m., Thursday and Friday, Oct. 27 and 28

1871 N. High St.,