Iron works by Otto Bacon
Last updated: May 1, 2012
Susan Askwith and Dave Stanaway performing
Some people never make a conscious decision to become an artist. They just are. They don’t have to decide to pursue a new art form. They just do. It’s there; they like it; they pursue it. They don’t worry about the logistics, or whether they’ll be good at something or what others will think about what they’re doing—they just do it. They work hard at it because they have the need to do the best they can and to master the techniques needed for expression. And instead of devouring their movable feast in solitude, they feel the need to share it. A mix of love and discipline and raw talent and creativity and hard work and generosity and joy is at work here. You see it in many artists. It shines in Susan Askwith.
When we asked Susan if she would agree to be featured as the artist for May, she replied, “I'd like to think of myself with that title, but mostly I just feel like a regular person.” Partly because of the great work of the Chippewa County Historical Society, most of you know Susan as a singer-songwriter, who, with Dave Stanaway, has written and performed many songs that celebrate Sault history, in particular the John Johnston era. Askwith and Stanaway have a CD out and they perform regularly during the summer at the John Johnston House. Susan is also a storyteller. Whether performing with Dave or alone, there’s something totally natural about Susan’s songs and stories. One never has the sense that she’s on or conscious of being on. There is just a spontaneous flow. She’s not performing; she’s communicating.
We had a lot of questions for Susan and we are mostly going to let her speak for herself instead of trying to paraphrase. (Our interjections are the nonitalics and we’ve put them in blue to help distinguish them from her words.) We wanted to know how she got started making music in the first place, what influenced her, and how and when she began performing in public. Her reply:
Who knows why music attracts people generally, or why someone would want to perform it themselves? It happened in me; but you need more than attraction. I’m so grateful to Sault Area Schools for providing music lessons. I still remember Mrs. Arney bursting into our Washington School classroom already singing in full voice. Then band was available in 4th grade and the schools made instruments available for free. I chose clarinet and later bassoon, so I learned to read both treble and bass clefs. My experiences in band, choir, and later orchestra remain some of the most powerful and wonder-filled times of my life.
My grandma was the next influence. She had a piano which was finally dropped off in her dirt-floored, unheated garage up the road. I’d go up there and practice in the freezing winters and damp summers and play till the daylight gave out. In the bench was a book of chords. I learned them for the left hand, and plucked out melodies with the right. Verrrrry cool! Although I could read music, this is where I played by ear.
This points out one thing about me: although I feel discouraged at making mistakes, I’m kind of a risk-taker at heart. But people have been supportive of my efforts, and I’ve felt I was working for something bigger than me. I remember Mary Wood saying often that when you have a gift it’s kind of an insult to God to not develop it and put it out there. Gosh, at this point I’m thinking of all the people who have loved me or at least tolerated me into being the best person I could be. I wish I had time and room to thank them all here.
Father Joe Lawless, Jesuit, found out I could do this and recruited me to play at Mass on Sugar Island. I was so unskilled! But he was desperate. It was never a chore to practice but it meant riding my bike from our home up by the 8th Avenue ballparks in the Soo, down to Gram’s on the Island. My singing saved the songs when my fingers goofed up. The congregation was SO patient!! The nuns who came in the summer to teach catechism insisted I use written music and learn to “crawl” my fingers over the organ keys. I got better, and continued acting as church musician in all the Catholic churches, and fill-in musician for almost all the churches in the area, as well as for weddings and funerals.
My Gram also had a guitar around the house. Like the piano, I don’t think anyone ever played it. She gave it to me and I wore my fingers out learning and playing it. I mostly played chords to back up my singing.
It might be interesting to note that I was born in 1950, so by the time I was in high school and college, folk music and sing-alongs were “in”. This is a very forgiving kind of music, and it’s ballads and protest songs. Its fun and audience participation were perfect for my personality. I still like that style today, as well as the blues and of course classical - what power and majesty and sweetness you can find there!!
We asked about her “day job” and also when she began actually writing music.
My career was teaching sciences at Sault High. In the last years, I’d try to take time on Fridays to sing with my students, using the guitar. I found songs and wrote some parodies of my own to reinforce the science concepts we were learning. Besides writing music for liturgical use, this was my first attempt at writing.
When I retired, I began taking guitar lessons from Dave Stanaway, an excellent musician and songwriter. My goals were to learn more (and more complex) chords, and to play more melody on the instrument - let it talk more. Later I was approached by the Chippewa County Historical Society to work on a grant to write and perform songs that celebrate the Sault’s fur trade era history. I asked Dave to collaborate with me; how fortunate I’ve been in that endeavor! That was back in 2003, and since then we’ve written over 50 songs about the fur trade era and the Great Lakes. We’ve sung them to visitors to our historic homes as well as to groups around Michigan. What a thrill!
Because of that grant through the Historical Society, Dave and I made a CD. (Thank you to everyone who bought it!) Although we have material to make several more, I don’t know if we’ll make another. The music world is changing all the time. Live performance may continue to be most interesting to us.
Susan and Dave in period costume for the Johnston era
We also wanted to know if, in addition to performing with Dave, she performed with any others.
My work with Dave has been my only collaborative work after my school/university experiences. My life has been so full it seemed impossible to fit in group time for music. After retiring, the time Dave and I put in writing, preparing and performing has been plenty. My other interests need time as well. Also, it isn't always easy to find musicians with similar musical tastes.
There’s a striving mastery here—not with the urgency of compulsion but with the joy of doing.
One of my favorite things to do is practice. It’s paid off, too. I think I sing better and play better for it. That’s just the basics of making music. On top of that is the old familiar delight of making and hearing harmonies and complex sounds; feeling them. And the ultimate joy is using all of that to perform for people. You want to share what’s been so much fun for you, what’s been so touching, what has cracked open your heart. I love looking in their eyes, knowing they’re taking a moment out to look for a piece of magic, hoping that will come through my efforts somehow.
And there’s the quality of the arts that appeals to so many—their interconnection. They are all part of the creative process and it’s very difficult and actually counterproductive to try to draw lines in what is actually a continuous flow.
Like many artists, I am interested in more than one medium. My mom taught me all the needle crafts except tatting which I learned from a friend in the 5th grade. Drawing and adding color have always been in my life, and eventually sculpting wood and soap. In all of the arts, including music, there was the wonderful invitation to play, and to develop skills. Beyond that, for me, the arts need to have something to say or call people in some way to think and grow. I know not all artists feel this way.
So today my life is quite full of the arts. I like learning new techniques, new skills, and practicing. I’m always keeping my ears and eyes open for inspiration. My challenges include finding issues and ideas that allow me to “say something” but not be preachy or give the impression I know better than anyone else. I’m working on the emotional aspects. There is also the problem of trying to fit all my interests into my life. Thank goodness I’m retired! And thank goodness I’m living in such a good place in the world, and for all the good people in my life. I couldn’t even keep my feet without the support and love of my husband of 41 years, and the rest of my family. And I belong to both Keeping the Piece Quilters’ Guild and Country Spinners and Weavers whose members are good friends, and who teach me how to live ever better and more whole-ly.
At the point, we asked about other instruments and interests, and there were more! She has also taken up the violin.
When I was choosing my violin, I told the salesman I wanted an instrument that would be able to pray for me out in the fields. I still see it that way. The fiddle can express such a range of emotions. It's nice not to always have to use words. I love the way you can slide sounds because the fiddle has no frets. I've also noticed when I play the guitar and sing, people feel compelled to politely stop and listen. In at least 3 situations where I've played fiddle, people feel invited to look at other art forms and artifacts while the music in their ear is calling up some emotion. You can see them relax and take a breath and smile. The fiddle talks so well. It is also true I've been working on playing "chords" to back up singing with the fiddle. You sing one note of the chord and the fiddle plays the other two. This is a work in progress, but it's a lot of fun.
Singing and playing? What do you do with your chin?
Violin: you're right about less mobility in the chin and an odd position of the vocal apparatus when holding the violin with the chin rest. When singing I guess I use my left hand for support more than my chin - but still not crimping that left wrist. One guy Dave and I saw when we sang at Crossroad Village near Flint, sang with his fiddle and held the instrument lower on his neck - almost on his chest. This is certainly not the classical posture, but maybe you'd say "old-timey". It impressed me how much coordination is needed because the instrument is providing rhythm and 2 notes of a chord while you're doing a melody and lyrics. Your mind is all over the place. What fun!!!
And we wanted to know more about her interest in the spoken word and the programs at the library.
It seems I always found stories fascinating (I'm overusing the word, but it really describes how you really lose yourself completely as you become engaged in something). I feel so lucky to have had the chance to hear great stories, and I bet lots of people haven't had the chance to hear those tales. So I'd like to pass on the good stuff! My favorite compliment came from working at the Johnston House. A man said there was such a mountain of information to be had, he was overwhelmed. He was grateful the stories in our songs made a line of sense and order of the whole - allowed him to digest it. The best of stories go to the heart of an issue and allow you to feel around in it. This is in contrast to a lecture which is more factual.
I haven't said it, but I'm an avid reader.
I find stories in the kids’ section of the library, I love reading philosophy, lots of science stuff (all of the sciences), and some literature. I also listen to philosophy lectures, interviews with authors, and science shows archived on the internet. This reading and listening is something I do literally every day.
I don't think of my work as a ministry of any kind. I just like people and want to contribute to goodness/positive feelings in their lives. The songs Dave and I sing are set and people come to hear what we do. When I sing by myself, I choose songs that fit with the event and its attendees. None of my songs are religious or particularly spiritual in nature. What feels religious is kindness and compassion, understanding, thoughtfulness, spacious thinking, etc. Of course, this doesn't have to come from any faith tradition.
And what inspires the writing of a song?
The teacher in me wants to be educational/factual in writing songs. I would like my songs to connect historic events, thoughts, and choices to what is happening today. So sometimes I begin by writing the poem/lyrics, then I find a melody that "feels" like the words. For other songs, I start with a rhythm or a melody, and "listen" for the feeling or emotion or topic that it's talking about. Then I write lyrics. I like to consciously vary the style so all the songs don't end up sounding the same. One nice thing about inviting the audience to sing along is there's a tendency to simplify (or maybe focus) the song a little more. That's because when people hear a song for the first time, it can be hard to absorb everything. And maybe one time is all they'll hear it!
And in discussing musical and poetic forms of expression and how they evolved and how she liked to use them, we asked about how rap and hip hop fit into her tool bag.
As for rap and similar forms, it's kind of like poetry recitation. It's minimalist in its focus on word and rhythm. I prefer the greater complexity and richness of full melody and chords with rhythm.
And maybe “complexity and richness of full melody” sums this artist up—a complex, interwoven flow of ideas and artistry—flowing in and flowing out.
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