Hank Harris

Deadwood's old songs live again

Musician Hank Harris records favorite tunes from the pioneer days

Buildings were few and far between on the dusty streets of Deadwood, a rough place where everyone was out to make a buck in the pioneer days.

But people could always find music, whether it was on the streets, in the bars or at a theater. On any given week in the late 1800s, you might find an opera, orchestra, minstrel show or musical troupe looking for an audience.

Researching the music of this time period has become a large part of the life of Hank Harris in the last few months. Harris, who is well known for performing his original music as a solo act or with bands, has taken on a new challenge. His latest CD, which comes out this month, will have songs that were played in Deadwood from 1875 to the early 1900s.

This piece of musical history came about in a roundabout, yet serendipitous way. Harris and Susan Caron created a photographic exhibit about their connection to Bear Butte and had a show at a gallery in Rapid City called Smatterings. When that show was over, they looked for another location to display their art and they asked Deadwood Adams Museum if they could show it there.

"Everyone at the Adams Museum was so supportive and expressed how much they enjoyed the show. It was such an amazing thing to be so appreciated." Harris said.

The show was up at the Adams Museum for almost three months. After getting to know the folks there, Harris asked museum director Mary Kopco if there was anything he could do there.

"I would have been willing to be an assistant to an assistant I was so ready to get involved with something new," he recalled.

Shortly after his discussion with Kopco concerning any job possibilities, she called and asked if he would be interested in a grant to research the music of Deadwood.

This was a chance for Harris to stay involved with music and not continue to perform in some places that didn't really understand how to showcase the work of local musicians, he said.

"After my dad died last year I had time to reflect on my life and made the decision that I needed to find some other way to express myself," Harris said.

After Kopco received word that the grant was approved, Harris began his journey into the historical stories behind the amazing variety of music that was performed in the early years of Deadwood.

Some of the resources he tapped for information include the Deadwood and Rapid City public libraries, the state archives in Pierre, searching the Internet and talking to the folks at the National Music Museum & Center for Study of the History of Musical Instruments in Vermillion. He also consulted with Darcy Kuronen, who is the curator of musical instruments at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Last year Harris performed some of the songs he discovered, and he then began the process of recording 15 songs in his Rapid City home studio. The final version includes Harris on guitar, banjo, jug, jaw harp, hambone and voice; Rick Jacobsen on accordion, keyboards and jug; Kenny Putnam on fiddle, mandolin and banjolin, Susan Caron, who sings on the song "Dixie," and Jimmy Goings, railroad spikes and tambourine.

The song titles include some familiar and some uncommon selections, including "Short'nin' Bread," "Whoopie Ti Yi Yo, Get Along Little Doggies," "Greensleeves," "Cielito Lindo," "Gary Owen," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot/Wade in the Water," "Golden Slippers," "Way Out West," "Camptown Races," "Red River Valley," "Dixie," "Yankee Doodle," "John Henry," "The Dreary Black Hills," and "On Top of Old Smokey."

Harris said he learned a lot researching and then performing the songs.

"One of the things that surprised me was the number of verses these old songs had," Harris said.

People can sing a couple of verses of some of them by heart but there are so many more, he added.

He uses his own arrangements in the music but based them on the historic renditions. "I wanted to play it the way it would sound back then," Harris said.

One of the songs, "Gary Owen," was Col. George Armstrong Custer's favorite tune and every night he would have his 16-piece band play the Irish piece on his expedition through the Black Hills in 1874.

It became his theme song and is still connected to his memory. A small town near the Custer Battlefield Monument in Montana is named Gary Owen.

Harris' CD will be called "Adams House and Museum presents Deadwood Songbook, Vol. I" and more CDs are planned. Historical tidbits about the songs will be included with the CD.

Putnam, who also has a graphic design business, Image Up, in Rapid City will design the cover for the CD. Harris and Putnam were members of the fabled South Dakota folk-country band Red Willow.

There will be a CD opening event at the Adams Museum & House in Deadwood at 7 p.m. March 9. The admission fee is $5 for non-members and free for museum members. Harris will play music he has discovered through his research.

For more information, contact 578-3724 or check out www.adamsmuseumandhouse.org

"This could be something I can do for a number of years," Harris said.

He would like to pursue the ethnic music of the time as well, including the Chinese funeral songs or the Jewish Klezmer music that were heard in old Deadwood as well.

If you are looking for a place to purchase the CD, Deadwood Chamber of Commerce President George Milos said they will sell the CD through their office and it will also be for sale at the Adams Museum.

Harris has also been named to the South Dakota Arts Council touring arts roster. He will be available to share some of what he has learned about the music from this time period and transport his audience back to a time where parlors, bars and theaters would draw audiences from throughout the Black Hills for a memorable night of entertainment of all types.

Many South Dakotans know Harris for his original music that he has performed as a solo act or with many previous groups such as The Red Willow Band, R & B Supply, the Shades, Hank & Christy, D.D. & the Fayrohs. He also has four CDs of his own songs. You can listen to some of his original music or purchase the CDs on his Web site, www.hankharris.com.

Harris's talents also extend into the world of film. He has written music for the films, "A Falconer's Memoir," based on the book written by Black Hills author Dan O'Brien and produced and directed by Sam Hurst Productions and "Hooked," a film that profiles Rapid City businessman Ray Hillenbrand and Dick Sleight, Hillenbrand's fishing guide of 52 years.