This issue of NASAA's Partners publication is the second in a series on state arts agency projects assisted by the National Endowment for the Arts' Challenge America program.
Photo: Jewell Gwaltney
The names of the western Illinois counties along the Mississippi River read like pages from American history -- Adams, Hancock, Knox, McDonough, Stark, Pike. Settlers honored these prominent figures of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 after Congress set aside the land between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers as payment for volunteers in the War of 1812. By naming their land after such notable individuals, settlers demonstrated their pride and hope that the Mississippi River valley would soon rival Boston or New York for its trade and commerce. For many years, this area was Illinois's economic, political and social center. However, conditions changed and by the early 1970s, McDonough County was bypassed for state and federal funding to such an extent that local citizens dubbed it the "Republic of Forgotonia."
From Galena in the north to Cairo in the south, the Mississippi River dominates the history and culture of Illinois's border counties. It is a living landscape of music, stories and legends about larger-than-life figures like Mike Fink, a Mississippi River keel boat captain whom Davy Crockett once described as "half horse and half alligator" in tribute to his hardiness and strength. The river valley was also home to dreamers like Joseph Smith, whose Mormon followers settled in Nauvoo, once the largest town in Illinois. Smith's murder led the Mormons to abandon Nauvoo to another and subsequent utopian society, French Icarians. Keeping the heritage of the border counties alive is an active tradition of oral storytelling, jazz, blues and other expressions.
Restoring this region's cultural reputation is part of a multifaceted initiative of the Illinois Arts Council (IAC), entitled the Illinois Mississippi River Valley Project. By increasing awareness and invigorating the cultural resources of the border counties, the IAC hopes to change the perception of this area as a forgotten backwater. A key catalyst for this effort was the National Endowment for the Arts' Challenge America program. The river valley project was an ideal match for Challenge America funding, which is designed to help strengthen communities through the arts.
Reclaiming a Cultural Heritage
The Illinois Arts Council views this project as important for "reclaiming our Mississippi River heritage and making it a part of our everyday culture," says arts council executive director Rhoda Pierce. "There has been a rich tradition of Mississippi River arts in many disciplines that are treasures in their own right and deserve to be preserved and recognized."
One of the project's greatest challenges is geography. The valley is a landscape of hills, rivers and old mines with scattered pockets of population -- only a few communities have more than 20,000 people. The project will address an area more than 400 miles long. The vastness of the region prompted the arts council to invite the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, local arts councils, Western Illinois Tourism and the Mississippi River Parkway Commission to join their efforts.
With such a dispersed population, residents aren't always aware of the artists or the cultural resources in their area. So the group of partner agencies helped the IAC create and distribute a survey. It turned up fiddlers, riverboat musicians, storytellers, sculptors, painters, writers and local folklorists. More than 160 of these, as well as 25 community organizations, were contacted by the project's local coordinator and became part of a database.
The kinds of artists and organizations represented helped shape the arts council's approach to allocating its resources. The database revealed artistic resources and traditions that were deeply integrated into the day-to-day life of the region. As a result, the area's folk and contemporary arts were a natural choice for exploring the many connections between the Mississippi River and nearby communities. The arts council will use the database to create interactive lesson plans and provide information on the local arts and culture. The data will also inform a new IAC curriculum guide for schools, public libraries and community groups throughout the valley area and state.
During an artist residency funded by the Illinois Arts Council, students at Unity Point School in Carbondale created ceramic tiles for outdoor benches they designed. Photo: Illinois Arts Council
The arts council has funded artist residencies in several communities throughout the border counties, focusing in particular on the arts that are indigenous to those places. For instance, artists have partnered with the Unity Point School District of Carbondale and the Touch of Nature Environmental Center of Southern Illinois University for an arts and ecology residency focusing on the Mississippi River. In another residency, the John Wood Community College in Quincy hosted storytelling workshops on "Ghosts of the Mississippi River."
All of the residencies capture the reality of the valley -- the cultures, land and history. They also exemplify how artistic expressions and traditions are kept alive.
Artists Teach the Next Generation
One of the Mississippi River's greatest legacies is the evolution of jazz, as it moved through the hands of musicians from New Orleans to Memphis to St. Louis and smaller communities. Here a cluster of towns grew up -- Rock Island and Moline on the Illinois side, and Bettendorf and Davenport on the Iowa side.
Collectively, they are known as the Quad Cities and have a long history of jazz. The Challenge America funding supported a workshop that brought legendary local jazz musicians back to Rock Island to teach and pass on their knowledge to youngsters and the community.
arts learning through residencies in schools and community centers in rural and underserved areas along the Mississippi in Illinois
access to the arts through public programming along the river, as well as a database of Mississippi-influenced artists from Illinois
positive alternatives for youth through arts activities in non-school settings such as Carbondale's Touch of Nature Center
cultural heritage preservation through a regional survey of artists and communities, a documentation project, curriculum guide and proposed website
community arts development through new and enhanced partnerships with arts and local organizations along the river
The return of these jazz elder statesman was the culmination of four years of planning by the Homefolks Jazz and Blues Restoration Project. Joined by several local jazz artists and scholars, the musicians visited two elementary schools, neither of which had a piano. Shellie Moore Guy, a local storyteller and workshop leader, demonstrated that music begins with rhythm as she led the children in a chanting exercise. The three musicians then used their instruments to show how each one carried the rhythm and what its role is in jazz and blues.
Remarked bandleader, pianist and educator Bill Bell of the children's introduction to jazz, "It's never been presented to them this way, as positive and something they should listen to, should pay attention to, and as something that is explained to them." Bell was joined by another Quad City native, 89-year-old saxophonist Franz Jackson, and together they performed with several other local jazz musicians at two free concerts for more than 500 people. After the concerts, the audience participated in the same polyrhythmic chanting exercise as had the elementary school children.
Famed jazz saxophonist Franz Jackson returned to the Quad Cities as part of the Jazz & Blues Restoration Project. Photo: Jimmy Jones
The story of jazz and the other art forms that followed people up and down the river is the story of the United States. More often than not, the immigrants who settled here brought few belongings with them. What they carried with them were their language and values, which found expression in the forms of everyday life -- stories, lullabies, music, dance, food, etc. Jazz's roots in African culture and its migration was typical in that it evolved and was modified over time by the experiences of the people living along the Mississippi and beyond. Illinois's Mississippi Valley River project is the first of its kind to explore the relationship of the river and the history of those who live along it through folk and contemporary art forms. It is helping the artistic heritage of these border counties remain dynamic from one generation to the next.
Notes IAC Chair Shirley R. Madigan, "This project is in keeping with the Illinois Arts Council's longstanding commitment to creating awareness of the state's rich cultural traditions." The arts council with NEA support has linked artists, communities and organizations from the western part of the state with each other for the first time. It is expanding the initiative by creating an interactive website for students with lesson plans for teachers, developing a traveling Mississippi Riverboat Festival with selected performances at rural venues, and coordinating training workshops for artists and educators, among other things. This investment reinforces the lesson learned by the schoolchildren -- that it is they who keep culture alive.
Editors: Kimber Craine and Jill Hauser Design: Benson Design Sources: Illinois Arts Council, The River City Reader
Partners is published in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts. The work of NASAA and of state arts agencies is supported and strengthened in many ways through funding and programming partnerships with the Endowment.