Smithsonian takes its show on the road

  • Article by: KILEY ARMSTRONG , Associated Press
  • Updated: January 9, 2011 - 2:59 PM

Music is the focus as the national museum brings its New Harmonies tour to Minnesota and four other states.

This 2008 photo courtesy of the Delta Music Museum and Smithsonian Institution shows a visitor as he tries out a banjo in the "Country" section of the traveling exhibition for the Smithsonian�s "New Harmonies" program at the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, La. This banjo and other artifacts from the exhibition will be visiting sites in Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio and South Carolina this year. (AP Photo/Delta Music Museum and Smithsonian Institution) NO SALES

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The Smithsonian hears America singing, playing instruments and telling its history through music.

The Washington cultural institution's New Harmonies program will feature this musical history with a traveling exhibit in Minnesota and four other states -- Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio and South Carolina. Communities in those states will host performances and other events in conjunction with the exhibit.

The program, which is part of the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street project, showcases some of America's "richest stories," says Carol Harsh, director of Main Street.

"There's a lot of fine music in this country; you kind of take it for granted," says South Carolina's John Fowler, an Appalachian storyteller, musician and radio host. "New Harmonies is a great snapshot."

Venues in the five states include libraries, historical societies and performance spaces in towns, rural areas and small cities, with the first programs scheduled for Asbury Park, N.J. The sites host the New Harmonies traveling exhibit while developing unique, local spinoffs and promoting already-well-established programs.

"Connecting the national story with their own personal experience is pretty profound," Harsh says.

The core New Harmonies exhibit explores sacred music -- "Elvis Presley sang earliest in the church," notes Harsh -- as well as the secular: Cajun- and Creole-influenced Zydeco, Mexican-American Tejano, Jewish klezmer and folk music (Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez) that sustained civil rights movements.

Minnesota's New Harmonies tour will accentuate "absent narratives" -- musical, written and oral stories that haven't always gotten mainstream attention: Mexican, Somali, Dakota, Ojibwe, Laotian.

"Increasingly, there are more voices in play in the culture, the meaning of this place," says state humanities official Matthew Brandt. "They are part of the Minnesota story."

Lots of people have heard of Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater; this spotlight shines on "energized" smaller communities.

Minnesota gets rolling March 12 at the Austin Public Library (323 4th Av. NE.). One project will relate how different cultures have used a local ballroom; a dance will bring them all together. Decades ago, the place was called the Terp and hosted big bands; now called El Parral, it's mainly patronized by the local Latino community.

Evansville, Minn., plans open-mike nights and multi-language hymn singing led "by authentic Dakota, Norwegian, German, Swedish and English voices."

The state's tour winds up near the Canadian border in November and December, at the Roseau County Museum (121 Center St. E., Roseau).

For details, see www. museumonmainstreet.org and www.minnesotahumanities.org.

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