LONG BEACH - The music of the Willapa Hills Band will make you laugh, clap, cheer and maybe even shed a tear or two. There are six members of the group: Andrew Emlen, Sunrise and Jessica Fletcher, Fern Fey, Jennifer Hanigan and Kerrie McNally. Respectively they are a kayak guide, bed and breakfast owners, a retired teacher, a mother of nine, and an attorney. They all live in Wahkiakum County and they all love to make music together.
Among them, they play nearly a dozen instruments including guitar, autoharp, banjo, mandolin, cello, Jew's harp, fiddle, piano, mandocello and percussion. All members of the group sing, meandering seamlessly from total-group harmonies to quirky solos and the rousing call-and-answer of sea shanties. Occasionally the audience is asked to join in; at other times, listeners do anyway - they just can't help themselves!
Their current program, "Springers and Springboards," celebrates our Lower Columbia region - the people and events of our colorful history. "Springers," of course, refers to the fat spring salmon heading upriver; "springboards" are the boards loggers inserted into the trunks of huge trees, standing on them as they manned their crosscut saws back in the days of logging by hand. Not only are the Willapa Hills' songs about subjects near and dear to local hearts, the music is home-grown, written by band members and by other songsters and composers of our area.
"I can't think of a better way to preserve our heritage," says local historian Sydney Stevens. "There are so many people and cultural nuances we know through folk music - John Henry, Tom Dooley, Casey Jones - even the wind Mariah. Having our own region's stories set to music is fabulous!"
Kerrie McNally's song, "The Imperial" tells of octogenarian Roger Davis's memories about riding the mail boat, Imperial, when water travel was the only way to get to communities along the river. Andrew Emlen's "Between Cathlamet and Skamokawa" tells of the age-old rivalry between those neighboring communities. Several songs by Sunrise Fletcher are also included in the program, one with the familiar name "Shanghaied in Astoria."
The current Willapa Hills program also includes songs by Seaview resident Mary Garvey, by Cleave Hedman of Cathlamet, and by Ray Raihala of the Brownsmead Flats. Each documents an aspect of our local way of life or tells a bit of our history. Sometimes the story is one which has not been told before. Garvey's "Oystershell Road," for instance, tells of the women who worked the tides in Willapa Bay while their men were off on the front lines during World War II.
Looking for Stories The band is on the search for additional stories, especially from the "old-timers" of the area. The group is intent upon building a repertoire that is local in content and flavor and that speaks of our unique experience here at the Pacific's edge - folk music in the truest sense.
"It was Andrew's vision to put this group together as well as every show we have done," says Fern. "He is amazing!"
Jessica agrees. "Andrew is the driving force. It's his energy and vision that inspire us and keep us going."
According to Andrew, "We are, of course, part of the greater folk tradition, and we have borrowed from many genres for this show: gospel, blues, and classical as well as folk. One important influence on me is Joseph Stevenson of Astoria, who has directed many programs that combine history and folk music. I performed in his "Oregon Trail" show about 14 years ago at the Netel Grange. The process was creative and fun. I wanted to do something similar when I moved from Astoria to Skamokawa 11 years ago.
"Skamokawa had an annual music revue that allowed me to meet other musicians. My experience with Joseph gave me the confidence to recruit people who were interested in traditional folk music and get started. In 2003 I hand-picked five talented people for a performance we called 'Soggy Bottom Revival,' a benefit show for Friends of Skamokawa which played off the popularity of 'O Brother Where Art Thou' and included much of the same music. I enjoyed learning the history behind the songs, and included some of that history in the show. The show was a local hit."
"A Certain Magic"
"I had originally intended to audition new people to perform music on a new theme each year, but something else happened," Andrew laughs. "There was a certain magic when the six of us got together. Rather than mess with the chemistry, we became a band."
Most years, the busy lives of the band members mean a hiatus from May to September. "Andrew is on the river during those months," says Jessica. "And summer is our busiest season at the Inn at Lucky Mud. We just don't have time to rehearse or perform."
So, in the winter months, they get together to build a new show and perform during February and March. This year's April 11 show scheduled for 3 p.m. at the Cranberry Museum is an unusual occurrence. Hosted by Ardell and Malcolm McPhail at the urging of the many Willapa Hills fans, it is hoped that donations will help with the production of a new CD.
Of the current show, Andrew says, "Putting together a collection of songs about this area has been a dream of mine for about four years ... so I asked the band if they were willing to work with my idea. I was excited when they all said 'yes.' I hope we can continue to collect local stories to turn into songs. There are plenty of song-worthy people and events here that remain unsung."