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Local singer re-enacts music, history of early 1800s

In addition to teaching and acting, Mark Bridge sings and plays banjo for “Unpolished,” a local bluegrass, roots and Americana band. He’s put hundreds of hours of research and invested his own money into his American music and history presentation, “Historical Notes.” (Shannon Geisen / Enterprise)

By SHANNON GEISEN

Armed with banjo and tambourine, local folk singer and actor Mark Bridge will perform Saturday, March 28 at the Beltrami County Historical Society’s first-ever “Night at the [History] Museum.”

Bridge’s historical re-enactment will cover music from the minstrel period through the Civil War and late Victorian parlor music.

“I use the banjo to stitch together the fabric of history,” he said.

The fundraiser includes desserts and a silent auction of “fun experiences and vintage curiosities” at 6:45 p.m.

Bridge’s music and history presentation, called “Historical Notes,” begins at 7:30 p.m.

“I’ve always been interested in historical music,” said Bridge. “I’ve always been hung up on the 1800s time period.”

Bridge performs in period costume and plays on historically accurate replicas of instrumentation – namely, the Boucher banjo, tambourine and bones (a hand percussion instrument, typically made of a pair of animal bones or wood).

“A whole ton of American culture goes back to the 1800s,” he said.

Bridge’s studies began with Stephen Collins Foster, who is considered the “Father of American Music.”

“He wrote ‘Oh! Susanna’ – the first pop hit in modern America,” said Bridge.

First published in 1848, “Oh! Susanna” became the anthem of the California Gold Rush in 1849 and remained popular during the Civil War.

During his brief life, Foster wrote over 200 songs, including hits “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home” (“Swanee River”), “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and many others.

Sadly, Foster profited little from his professional work. A record label paid him $100 for “Oh! Susanna,” then went on to earn $10,000.

Record companies of the day released variations of Foster’s songs, fiercely competing to earn the most money from their popularity.

“But that was before the age of copyright,” said Bridge.

Foster died, penniless, at the age of 37.

Some minstrel songs present a problem for a modern audience. The earliest minstrel shows were staged by white, male, traveling musicians who painted their faces black and caricatured the singing and dancing of slaves.

“The actual minstrel show was politically incorrect. It was a Northern convention, a mockery of slave songs,” said Bridge.

After the Civil War, minstrel troupes composed of black actors were formed. A number of these had black owners and managers.

One of the difficulties of being an re-enactor, said Bridge, is that “the norms that were accepted in the 1800s are taboo now.”

“My Old Kentucky Home,” for example, talks about black families being sold.

Singing these songs today “comes with a disclaimer,” said Bridge. “It’s real dicey and fascinating, but it’s an important lesson in what slavery was all about.”

Bridge had a five-string, fretless Boucher banjo specially made for his presentation.

William Boucher was the first commercial maker of banjos in 1845. His mass-produced instruments were important in standardizing the form of the banjo.

The banjo was first brought to America by African slaves.

During the 1800s, “the banjo was the equivalent of the electric guitar now,” said Bridge. “It was prevalent.”

The Boucher banjo has a “totally different tuning style compared to modern banjos,” explained Bridge.

“I’ve had to learn an obscure style that hasn’t been done in ages.”

“Historical Notes” is not a one-time gig.

Bridge aims to record a companion CD in his home recording studio and take the show on the road.

He’s launched a Go Fund Me campaign to help cover costs (instruments, costumes, stage props, travel expenses, CD graphic design and duplication). Donations can be made at www.gofundme.com/MarkBridge. His goal is $1,000.

By autumn, Bridge would like to tour “Historical Notes” to schools, historical societies and other interested organizations.

The Beltrami County History Center is located in the restored James J. Hill railroad depot, located at 130 Minnesota Ave. SW in Bemidji.

Space is limited, so ticket reservations are recommended. To order tickets, call the history center at 218-444-3376 or visit www.beltramihistory.org.

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