2005.08.09Askwith, Stanaway record glimpse into past;
Songs of strength and a quiet lesson on social concepts
Sault Tribe News, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, August 9, 2005,
p. 2 (JPG,
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
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
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,"
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
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
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
Copies of John Johnston—His Life and Times in the Fur Trade
Era are available online at
visiting the John Johnston House
on Water Street in Sault Ste.
Marie or by calling Askwith at
632-7422 or Stanaway at 248-3316.