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Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith in Fur Trade Era costume Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith

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PRESS: review

2005.08.09Askwith, Stanaway record glimpse into past;
Songs of strength and a quiet lesson on social concepts

From The Sault Tribe News, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, August 9, 2005, p. 2 (JPG, 311K; PDF, 4Mb)

BY RICK SMITH

Anyone in the Sault who is savvy with the local music scene is bound to know the immensely enjoyable, powerful skills and talents of Susan Askwith and her long-time collaborator, Dave Stanaway.

Recently, Askwith and Stanaway finished recording a compact disc (CD) at Lake Street Studio in Brimley, Mich., which was in the works from April through June of 2005. The title of the CD is John Johnston—His Life and Times in the Fur Trade Era, which, as you might guess, imparts some local history as well as some fine listening pleasure.

“Sweet Willy, My Boy” could easily become a folk classic. The song is an elegantly haunting
heart-breaker”

Before we dissect the CD, we should briefly introduce Askwith and Stanaway to those unfamiliar with them and their works.

Askwith is a friendly and charming Bawating Anishinaabekwe who obviously knows her way around a guitar and how to convey feelings with her strong, yet delicate, flowing vocals.

Then there’s Stanaway, he bears the countenance of a gentleman who is articulate and forceful when bending his guitar’s strings or flexing his vocal chords. He’s also a talented lyricist and composer.

Okay, on to the main event.

John Johnston—His Life and Times in the Fur Trade Era is a tribute to one of the Sault area’s leading citizens, his family, home and times, who had what it took to thrive and survive in the fur trade, especially in the unstable era of the War of 1812.

The CD contains a booklet which provides a thumbnail sketch of Johnston, who married the daughter of a powerful Chippewa chief and settled in the Sault area in 1793.

Stanaway composed the music and lyrics for most of the songs on the CD, as he did in the first song, "Easy Come, Easy Go," an easy going ballad very briefly summing Johnston’s fortunes and misfortunes. Stanaway accompanies himself quite well on guitar and sings the story in this song while Askwith adds nice finishing details with her vocals.

The next song, "Inn of the Wilderness," gives a flavor of the Johnston home which often welcomed visitors in their travels. Most of the rest of the songs center on certain facets of the times such as the voyageurs, canoes, facing challenges in life and death.

There are two songs on this CD, however, that stand apart from all the rest. Not only because of the subjects of the songs, but how, together, they vividly illustrate a contradiction in the popular beliefs of that era. The songs are "Sweet Willy, My Boy" and "Testing the Waters."

The lyrics for “Sweet Willy, My Boy,” were written originally as an eloquent poem by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, a half-breed daughter of the Johnstons, about the loss of her four-year old son to a disease. Stanaway composed a beautiful, dignified musical score for the words of the poem and Askwith breathed life into this resulting masterpiece that could, seemingly, easily become a folk classic. The song is an elegantly haunting heart-breaker.

It’s the background of "Sweet Willy, My Boy" that contradicts the subject of "Testing the Waters." Back in the fur trade days, it was believed half-breeds were, well, half-wits, and "Testing the Waters" is an account of what life was like for most half-breeds back then. Contrast the testimony laid down in "Testing the Waters" to the graceful words of "Sweet Willy, My Boy" and a contradiction between fact and a belief held during days long gone becomes evident. While the entire CD is educational and very entertaining, there is an outstanding social lesson for all to learn in these songs alone.

Copies of John Johnston—His Life and Times in the Fur Trade Era are available online at www.lakestreetstudio.com, by visiting the John Johnston House on Water Street in Sault Ste. Marie or by calling Askwith at 632-7422 or Stanaway at 248-3316.