Inside the Tecumseh Theater
Listening to Social Life in the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”

Listening to Social Life in the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”

Inside the Tecumseh Theater

Inside the Tecumseh Theater, Shawnee, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson.

Throughout this series of posts, I am presenting portraits of people and places of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds region in Appalachian Ohio. Each post focuses on sounds and how paying attention to them can give insight into issues such as labor, protest, recovery, and social life. Recording and carefully listening to these sounds can also suggest ways of bridging between place and creative sound works.

Moonshine Festival, New Straitsville

I walk among a crowd of people at the Moonshine Festival in New Straitsville, Ohio. It is Memorial Day weekend, signaling the beginning of summer. The festival celebrates the town’s notoriety as a place where much illegal moonshine was (and perhaps still is) made and sold. It is an industry that arose here in part as a response to the underground fires that ended coal mining in the late 19th century. I walk up and down Main Street recording the sounds and voices that pass by. There is a Johnny Cash recording playing in the background, and I listen to people selling and buying t-shirts and funnel cakes and onion petals.

I hear: electricity buzzing, chains clinking, clapping, laughter, motors, coughing, yelling, a baby crying, a car radio, wood hitting concrete, hissing air, dog growls, sighs, birds, trucks revving, banging, pounding, a dog sniffing, and sneezing.

I hear many fragments of conversations from the people I pass by, too. They unfold something like this:

I said no! –– Good blowin’, honey! –– Ah, you know what I didn’t bring?
My grandfather… –– Onion petals, oh yeah! –– That’s crazy.
Wasn’t nothin’ we didn’t do when we was kids, wasn’t nothin’.
Video games are half off! –– Some of them boards out there…
He took it, put another one up there… –– Hodgey! –– You can walk with Sarah.
For our safety and your safety… –– This one’s 5 bucks! –– I told her…
They go fast? –– Yeah, a little fast. –– I’m not doing that!
Shit, I’m down there… –– Just waitin’ to hear the fire trucks.
Yeah, we’re doing good, getting ready to head out of here.
Now, I got two things… –– They’re probably all the way down at the end.
What do you wanna play?

A parade begins, mostly made up of local fire trucks, a few muscle cars, and a host of festival queens from around the state. The announcer’s singsong baritone voice provides a running commentary as he introduces each queen: “And here’s our very own Moonshine Queen… That is one serious dress you’ve got on right now…” The festival and parade highlight some of the ways the region remembers and defines itself. For example, the queens get their names from local industries, histories, and attractions such as the “Railroad Festival,” “Old Settlers Reunion,” “Ohio Hills Folk Festival,” “Coal Festival,” and “Indian Mound Festival.”

New Straitsville Moonshine Festival

I continue to listen and walk toward a parking lot where there are a number of temporary carnival rides. As I move away from the parade, its sounds do not disappear all together. Instead, they merge and overlap into the noise of machinery, chains moving, and mostly empty cages whirling overhead. A man yells to me, “Hey, hey, hey! You ready to play? I’ll let you win today!” There are only a few children on the rides, and the attendants look bored as they latch and unlatch their riders. A child yells above the din of machinery, “I wanna go on the rocket! I wanna go on the rocket!” as another says, “Hey, can you buy me a wristband?”

Tecumseh Theater, Shawnee

Now, I am in the middle of the Tecumseh Theater, a large opera house in Shawnee, Ohio. It is late morning in late December, and sunlight pours in on bare walls stripped down to the wood laths. There are old signs, a few chairs, and a piano on each of the building’s three floors. The theater is partially restored; residents of Shawnee have worked for decades to protect and hold the building up.

I stand in the theater and listen. I strain to hear the past and present of this place together, what Don Ihde refers to as using an “aural imagination.” I walk up on the empty stage. Remarkably, the faded, tapestry-like curtain under the proscenium arch is mostly intact. Looking out into the empty theater, I think of the dances, bands, small-town operas, and movies that all took place here. High school graduations happened here, too, and a 1925 program from the Little Cities Archive tells of the music played at the ceremony, a mix of ceremonial music and chamber pieces. The floor creaks beneath my feet, and I hear basketball games that also took place here in the same year. Crowds cheering, feet squeaking, the ball pounding––the scene is much more raucous than the more formal graduation.

Inside the Tecumseh Theater

Inside the Tecumseh Theater, Shawnee, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson.

Several dozen folded up theater seats surround an old upright piano. I wade through them and pluck the piano’s strings, since most of the keys are not working. The sound of the strings’ attack and decay fills the room, and I imagine the “Preliminary Triangular Music Contest” that took place here in 1925. Two high school orchestras compete against one another––Shawnee vs. Junction City––and in my mind I hear each tuning up. A jumble of violins, saxophones, piano, coronets, trombones, and drums clash in an Ivesian cacophony. I listen for laughter, gossiping, feet shuffling, and polite clapping. After each orchestra plays through their selections, judges tally scores, and cheers and stomping are heard from the balcony as Shawnee wins, 5-3.

Associations and Traces

These examples of social life in the Little Cities offer two places and many different events across time, loosely held together through listening. Bruno Latour argues that the “social” is “a trail of associations between heterogeneous elements.” And, speaking about Appalachia in particular, Kathleen Stewart states that it is “…a place that is at once diffused and intensely localized, incorporated into a national imaginary and left out, intensely tactile and ephemeral as the ghostly traces of forgotten things.” These “associations” and “ghostly traces” aren’t clearly defined or stationary. Instead they form a jumble of connections always in a state of movement and transformation, akin to sound. A sonic understanding of the Little Cities brings together the sounds of the communities that live there today, and the remnants of the communities that once were there.

As I listen, family roots also become a non-linear thread connecting past and present. I think of my grandfather, who was almost certainly participating at all of the events that took place at the Tecumseh Theater in 1925. Archival documents show that he was performing in the orchestra, graduating from Shawnee high school, and playing basketball as the team captain. Yet I am suspicious of the nostalgia associated with connecting family to place. Author and activist bell hooks warns against this, but she also finds a way to locate “a space of genuineness, of integrity” between past, present, family, and place. She states, “Using the past as raw material compelling me to think critically about my native place, about ecology and issues of sustainability, I return again and again to memories of family.” This sense of wariness and return acknowledges our own subjectivity, yet also offers a way to navigate between uncritical nostalgia and impersonal stereotype. I carry these personal traces and fragments and bring them together in a collage of sound, text, image, and interaction—an archive of ideas and contexts that do not stay put but are continually changing, emerging, and dissipating.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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