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|Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith|
2005.12.15Local duo celebrates past through song
BY KALVIN D. PERRON, STAFF REPORTER
BRIMLEY - In 2004, the Chippewa County Historical Society, as part of a grant proposal from the State of Michigan, asked Sault Ste. Marie natives Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith to write songs about the era of John Johnston and to perform them at concerts in the newly opened historic John Johnston house in the Sault. The two retired teachers agreed and in January of 2004 undertook a six-month-long song writing marathon, filled with countless hours of research to gain insight into the lives of the Johnston family, the native peoples living in the area, the French and English, and the unique geographical setting of the Sault.
The CD “commands
In June of 2005, the culmination of Stanaway and Askwith's hard work paid off when the couple emerged from Taylor Brugman's Lake Street Studio in Brimley, Mich., with their finished 10-song CD - “John Johnston: His Life and Times in the Fur Trade Era.”
The songs chronicle the early days of John Johnston (1762-1828), an Irishman who settled in the area, his life as a fur trader, and his marriage to Ozhaguscodaywaykwe “Woman of the Green Glade,” a 13-year-old Ojibwe from LaPointe, Wisc. What the songs do not tell the listener, however, is that Ozhaguscodaywaykwe, later named Susan Johnston by her husband, was forced to marry Johnston by her father, Chief Waabojiig “White Fisher.” It also did not tell the listener how Johnston came to meet his future wife.
Local history says that after traveling to Wisconsin to strike it rich in the fur trade business, Johnston was abandoned by his crew of hired men. A greenhorn and unable to survive on his own, Johnston was found starving and freezing to death by Waabojiig in the wilderness. Waabojiig invited Johnston to winter with him and his people, which he did. After meeting the chief's daughter, he pleaded with him to allow him to marry her. Waabojiig told him to go to his own people and if, after one year had passed, he still wanted to marry his daughter he would allow him. Johnston returned one year later and married Ozhaguscodaywaykwe against her will. While many local Ojibwe may find it hard to listen to songs that revere a man like Johnston and his particular place in local history, they will, however, be captured by the songs about his wife, their children, and the era, in general.
“John Johnston: His Life and Times in the Fur Trade Era” commands a listeners' attention from the opening measure with the wonderfully crafted and upbeat song “Easy Come, Easy Go.” Written and sung by Stanaway, this acoustic ballad tells how Johnston built success from his misfortunes in this area. Another standout song is “Testing the Waters," which gives a gripping account of what life was like for those of mixed blood back then and the prejudices they had to endure. The songs also touch upon other aspects of the time, including canoes, voyageurs, life in the sugar bush and in the fishing business, and how they viewed life and death. Of all the songs on the CD, however, one particular piece stands head and shoulders above the rest - “Sweet Willy My Boy.”
“Sweet Willy, My Boy”
During the course of their research, Stanaway and Askwith happened upon a poem, written by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, the daughter of John Johnston and the wife of Henry Schoolcraft, about the death of her four-year-old son William Henry. The result of their discovery was the song “Sweet Willy My Boy,” which distinguishes itself as the only song recorded with lyrics not their own. Stanaway's wonderfully crafted guitars seem to hit all the right notes as Askwith's melodic voice, coupled with the haunting words of Schoolcraft's poem of a mother in mourning, make this the standout piece of the compilation. Like the sorrowful words of Schoolcraft's poem, which transcends time, so, too, will this song. It is a folk masterpiece, to say the least.
As a whole, “John Johnston: His Life and Times in the Fur Trade Era” is very good and a “must have” for any local history buff or fan of folk music. It can be purchased online at www.lakestreetstudio.com, at the John Johnston house located on Water Street in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., or by calling Askwith at 906- 632-7422, or Stanaway at 906- 248-3316.