“Tunes are good remembrancers,” Mark Twain said in a letter to his wife, Olivia, in 1868. “Almost every one I hear instantly summons a face when I hear it.” On Sunday, Jan. 29 at 3 p.m., the History Singers of Forest Park will summon the bewhiskered face of the writer in the white suit when they present “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Forest Park Public Library.
Kathy Atwood, who teaches piano at Steckman Studio of Music, in Oak Park and gives private lessons at her Forest Park home-studio, did the historical and musical research. “I’m an English major, so diving into Twain was fun,” Atwood said. Her husband John served as her sounding board and technical assistant.
“Although most of our History Singer programs consist of John and me on piano, guitar, flute and vocals,” Atwood said, “I knew the music for the Twain program would be enhanced by the addition of more instruments.” Joining them at the library will be Dan Hoenisch on banjo, Deborah Hostetler on fiddle, dulcimer and mandolin, with her brother, Marcus, on bass. Chris Maund will read excerpts from Twain that correspond to the songs. The group has been practicing weekly at Atwood’s home.
America’s foremost humorist was a music lover, who played piano and sang. Ten years after expressing his fondness for music in his letter, Olivia presented him with a music box for his birthday. It was an enormous thing, coffin-sized and costly – $8,000 in today’s dollars. It could play orchestral versions of 10 pieces. The man who famously described Wagner’s music as “better than it sounds” chose classical pieces so he could catch-up on old world culture.
That wasn’t really Twain’s taste, Atwood said. “Camptown Races” and “My Old Kentucky Home” were more his cup of tea. “He was a backwoods riverboat guy,” Atwood said, “but he wanted to be thought of as a cultured society man.” She accessed his musical roots by contacting Twain enthusiasts in his hometown of Hannibal, Mo. To find more song titles, Atwood devoured Twain’s voluminous autobiography, which was released on the centennial of his death. “I found mention of songs he heard,” Atwood said, “but I also learned he was a big fan of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.”
She explained that this pioneering African-American ensemble “brought spirituals to the whole world.” Twain helped in this effort by encouraging them to tour Europe and providing letters of introduction. The History Singers will perform “Swing Low” and “Steal Away” in their honor.
Atwood and her husband formed the History Singers in 2003. It combined their love of music with their love of history. They wanted to re-create how Americans encountered music prior to the electronic age. Since then, they’ve presented music programs at nearly a hundred venues. They picked Twain for this occasion because it coincides with the Chicago-area “Big Read” of his works. Besides their Forest Park showcase of song and story, they will be presenting the program at libraries in Oak Park and River Forest.
Prior to teaching at Steckman, Atwood studied piano, flute and voice. She has performed as a soloist in addition to her ensemble work. John Atwood was learning trumpet and piano when he watched the Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. He switched to guitar and formed a garage band. He eventually mastered the string bass and has played with everyone from small groups to symphony orchestras.
In addition to their shared musical backgrounds, Atwood has a B.A. in English and American Literature, with a minor in history, while her husband has a B.A. in History. “The History Singers combine our passions for music and history,” Atwood said.
The Twain show will be their 10th. In the past, they have performed programs covering “Songs of the Civil War,” “Greatest Hits of the 19th & 20th centuries,” and “The Generation Gap,” featuring “Songs of the Sixties vs. Songs of the World War II Era.”
Closer to home, the Atwoods are composing a song called, “The Ballad of Albert Parsons.”
“It basically covers the Haymarket incident,” Atwood said. “We’re fans of Albert Parsons, but I didn’t visit the monument until last winter.” Atwood had just finished reading about their burial, so seeing the martyrs’ final resting place brought her to tears. The History Singers performed at the re-dedication of Oak Park’s Scoville Park World War I Memorial last year.
The Atwoods moved to Forest Park a decade ago. Besides conducting piano lessons at her residence, she has been an early childhood piano teacher at Hephzibah Home in Oak Park since 1998. She said their family has enjoyed a great time socially and academically in Forest Park. She hopes neighbors and residents will give a listen at the library this Sunday, or visit www.HistorySingers.com to find out about future events.