Gary Eller grew up in West Virginia, where ballads about train wrecks and hangings and floods were written and sung at the drop of a hat. But when Gary moved to Idaho to retire, he was astounded by the lack of songs from the early days of his new state.
He says: “I just don’t believe that’s true. These people came from the same spot I do — and they didn’t stop writing songs just because they got here.”
Nearly everyone who immigrated to Idaho came from places rich in music: from Missouri, Texas and Tennessee; later from Dust Bowl states like the Dakotas and Oklahoma; and with roots in Latino, Irish, Chinese and Basque culture.
“They (would have) brought their music with them. They didn’t stop and change their musical tastes because they moved to Idaho. It was a way of holding on to home.”
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In 2007, Gary applied for an Idaho Humanities Council grant to prowl the archives of museums and historical societies across the state, looking for lost lyrics.
“So here we are. Two hundred songs later.”
What he’s looking for are songs written before 1923, which is when the radio came to Idaho, blurring regional distinctions; songs written about uniquely Idaho people, places, events.
“A test for my five-star songs: If I take the word ‘Idaho’ in a song and replace it with ‘Montana’ or ‘New York’ or ‘Massachusetts’ or whatever; if I play the song back and it makes sense, it’s not going to make my five-star (list).
“There are thousands of ‘I love my state’ and ‘the skies are blue’ and ‘the water’s clean’ — every state has thousands of them. They’re not of interest to me.”
(Including the state song, he digresses. “I mean, it could be the New Mexico state song.”)
“I collect those (generic Idaho songs) when I find them, but that’s not what I’m really interested in. I want songs about shootouts in the Sawtooth Valley or miners in the Wood River Valley complaining about the snow. Things like that.
“Those 200 songs — most of them are not five-star songs. But there are some dandies in there.”
• • •
In local newspapers — which used to publish the lyrics to songs and poems before about 1910 — and in obscure boxes and file folders in libraries and museums, Gary looks for one-of-a-kind stories. He also keeps his eyes open for those colorful characters who are so fundamental to the character of Idaho history.
There was an amazing young woman, a liberated slave, for instance, who walked the Oregon Trail until she ended up in Boise in 1867 and decided she wasn’t going any farther. She was likely the first African-American woman to put down roots in Boise, a charter member of Boise’s First Presbyterian Church — beloved by kids and known for her cookies. Her name was Aunt Viney Moulton. She’s buried in Morris Hill Cemetery, and Gary went to visit.
“It’s just a little grave with her name; you’d never know the great story behind this person. She’s part of the fabric of early Idaho. Hers is a story that deserves to be told. My way of doing it is to write songs and perform them. ... ”
There’s Kittie Wilkins, who owned the greatest horse herd in the world in Owyhee County. A single woman with a ranch that went from the Snake River to the Nevada state line.
“She had the touch with the wild mustang.
“She made that big spread go.
“Known as the Queen Diamonds, Horse Queen of Idaho.”
And May Arkwright Hutton, who came from Ohio dirt poor when she was 17. She ran a boardinghouse in Wallace and was able to purchase a partial interest in the then-unproductive Hercules Mine, which would become one of the world’s greatest silver mines. She was a strident labor activist, suffragette and philanthropist, and was active in Democratic politics.
“She was a swashbuckling, steam-rolling woman who got her way. ... I love those stories.”
When Gary finds these stories that are just too good not to tell in song, he’ll write one. But his heart is in preserving the old songs written back in the day.
“Storytelling and song. That’s what spins my wheels.”
• • •
Some of the songs are hard to come by. Gary has been looking and looking, for instance, for songs written about the Big Burn, the enormous wildfires of 1910.
“Arguably, certainly one of the greatest environmental events that ever happened in Idaho. I am quite confident there were songs written about it at the time. I’ve looked really hard and I’ve never been able to find them.”
He found an elderly logger who had written a poem about the fires, and together they turned it into a song. But historical lyrics — elusive. It was the same when Gary went looking for songs that early Latinos would have written about life in Idaho.
“I said, ‘Am I missing these songs?’ I wasn’t missing them; they just weren’t there. Or maybe there existed at one time but they got lost. They didn’t get handed down over time. ...
“I can understand why the Chinese, for example, might not want to sing about their experiences here, but there’s some good experiences on the Latino and Basque side. Besides, it’s good to tell the bad side of the story, too, right?”
You learn something about yourself, Gary says, uncovering these stories, which is what makes them so important to preserve.
“You understand where you came from. Or maybe how your new home developed. You learn something that’s useful going forward, too.
“Either you believe that a sense of history is important or you don’t; I happen to believe it is. Not everybody believes it, but they’re guaranteed ... to make the same stupid mistakes again.
“And maybe you understand a little better why people make stupid mistakes now, if you see it’s just part of human nature in all of us.”
Gary compares what he does against that of the state historian.
“He’s got the 30,000-foot view of history looking down. The big picture.
“I’m telling the story — the history — from the average person looking up. And I’m here to tell you that they’re different stories. And I believe they’re both important; you will not get the story from the bottom up reading most textbooks. ...
“There’s another adage that history is written by the winners. It’s true, largely. But it doesn’t mean it’s the only history of the event.”
• • •
Eller has a doctorate in chemistry. He spent 30 years doing nuclear science and engineering at Los Alamos before retiring on 13 sagebrush acres south of Nampa, and he’s been immersed in music his entire life a la his West Virginia roots. That makes a specific skill set for his sleuthing.
“I’m that nerdy research guy, and I like to get off on my own and figure stuff out — and I like to go play banjo, too.”
Gary has preserved those 200 songs (there’s more now) in 15 booklets (and counting) with accompanying CDs, complete with documentation, biographies and historical context. The booklets go into major libraries and universities around the state, as well as the Library of Congress.
“That’s the real permanence. ... So the next person won’t have to work as hard as I did to find these things.”
It’s a labor of love.
“Well, the way I explain it is that some (retired) people spend their time going to Mexico to build houses or they get involved in soup kitchens here in town. A lot of retired people are trying to give back one way or the other with enormous volunteer time.
“This is what I do.
“I’ve got some unique skills to apply to this. I could go pound nails someplace, but a lot of people can do that.”
In his spare time, Gary plays with a band called Chicken Dinner Road. It’s fun and he loves playing in the band. But this research — that’s food for his soul.
“This (work) is kind of a payback for me: The idea that a kid growing up on Proctor Creek in West Virginia could spend 30 years working at Los Alamos is pretty freaking incredible. (This) is a way for me to do something I love and still leave some footprints behind.
“Jamming and playing in a band won’t do that. Probably my kids won’t even remember I recorded some CDs with Chicken Dinner Road.
“But somebody’s going to find this stuff in libraries.”
When Gary finds the lyrics to a song, sometimes the tune is noted. (“Played to the tune of ...”) Sometimes he’ll be able to figure out the melody out based on popular tunes of the times; sometimes he’ll get together with someone somehow related to the song — by direct connection or maybe just by feeling — and they’ll make their best guess.
From his vast network of singer/songwriters throughout Idaho, Gary will find the “right” person to record the song. For instance, he found George Katseanes, of Blackfoot, who learned a 1920s song called “Pal Pinto” as a kid while riding on cattle drives with an old cowboy.
Gary got George to record the song, and when George died, his family played the song at his funeral. His family wrote Gary a letter, thanking him for the “incomparable family treasure.” Indeed: an incomparable Idaho treasure as well — preserved for everyone.
“That’s the absolute best thing. ... It’s an honest-to-goodness real Idaho cowboy song. Nothing Hollywood about it.”
Gary takes his research on the road; he’s part of the Idaho Humanities Council speakers bureau, and he travels around the state giving talks — which is to say, singing songs — about various topics, like “Bad asses and disasters of early Idaho: Songs that should have been written but weren’t,” or “ Strong women of early Idaho” or “Early Idaho train songs.”
As you might guess, Gary is a good storyteller and singer. His enthusiasm is contagious.
“I can go out and tell these stories just in a lecture. Or I can take my banjo and sing a bunch of random songs — and there would be a lot of bored people.
“But when you put them together — it just comes alive magically. There’s a magic combination. ...
“Songs written from the heart by the common person.”
DO YOU HAVE A TREASURE?
Gary Eller has combed the archives of libraries and museums throughout the state. Now, he’s relying on people to bring him pre-1923 stories and songs and poems — “story songs” or “event ballads” that your great-grandparents or older would sing.
“There are a lot of old papers in family collections in a town like this. I am 100 percent sure there’s good stuff out there — but I won’t know it’s there unless somebody brings it to me.”
If you have pre-1923 Idaho material, contact Gary Eller: firstname.lastname@example.org
LIKE OLD-TIME MUSIC?
May 6: Bluegrass guitar workshop
May 13: Shaped note gospel harmony workshop
May 18-21: Bluegrass banjo camp
June 17-18: Weiser banjo contest
For information and registration: banjocontest.com or call Gary Eller at 208-284-4700.