By Judy Berthiaume, UW-Eau Claire Integrated Marketing and Communication
While Eau Claire’s reputation as a music hot spot is growing thanks to Justin Vernon’s success on the world’s stage, the Chippewa Valley’s music and arts scene actually has been thriving for decades.
Now a team of UW-Eau Claire public history students is working to share the stories of the artists, producers, publicists and others who are longtime contributors to the city’s eclectic music scene.
Students working with the “Sounds of Eau Claire” project are researching and interviewing a variety of people who have made significant contributions to the local arts scene. They have already completed nearly a dozen of the hour-long oral history interviews, which are the basis for podcasts scheduled to air on Blugold Radio.
Goal is to preserve and share history
The ongoing oral history project’s goal “is to preserve and share a broader and deeper history of Eau Claire music for residents and visitors,” said Dr. Daniel Ott, a visiting assistant professor of history at UW-Eau Claire. “The project helps to do that by exposing listeners to stories about musical individuals in the region who each have different stories and understandings of Eau Claire’s rich musical landscape.”
Home page photo: Robert Baca, UW-Eau Claire professor of music and director of jazz studies
The “Sounds of Eau Claire” project involves multiple groups and organizations, including Blugold Radio, McIntyre Library, faculty and students from the university’s history department, the Chippewa Valley Museum and narrators from the community.
Given the arts’ current impact on Eau Claire’s growth and economy, focusing a public history project on the local music world is of interest to the students as well as the community, Ott said.
Public history focuses on the community
“Public history is focused on doing research with the community, that is relevant to the community and that is available to the community,” he added. “As a topic, the Eau Claire music scene made perfect sense. Additionally, local music seemed like an easy topic to get students excited about and an ideal way for them to learn the craft of oral history through interviewing real people.”
Elizabeth Schmidt, a junior public history major from Lake City, MN is one of the students excited for the opportunity to share the stories of local icons while also building her skills as a historian.
Schmidt’s team is sharing the story of Robert Baca, an accomplished jazz musician who leads UW-Eau Claire’s jazz program. To prepare for that interview, the team researched Baca’s contributions as a musician and as a faculty member, Schmidt said.
The goal, she said, was to ask questions and to encourage him to tell his own stories rather than telling the stories for him. That preparation paid off, she added.
“He had wonderful stories. . . “
“He had wonderful stories about his work with icons such as Frank Sinatra as well as his role in the revitalization of the university’s jazz program,” Schmidt said. “He also has been key to the success of the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, which helped spark the musical renaissance that Eau Claire is in.
“His stories are fascinating and created a wonderful narrative for us.”
After completing the on-air interview with Baca, Schmidt and her partner created a podcast script based on it.
“We decided to focus the podcast on his work as a professor and what makes the jazz studies program special, which is an obvious passion for him,” Schmidt said.
Blugold Radio jumped at the chance to partner in the project because it aligns with the station’s commitment to elevating the talents of local musicians, said Scott Morfitt, station manager.
“Every day Blugold Radio plays a wide variety of local musicians, and it’s at the core of our mission to connect listeners with this music community,” Morfitt said. “We are excited to be part of it.”
The original “Sounds of Eau Claire” interviews air at 10:30 a.m. Sundays. Starting in September, the interviews will air again during afternoon drive time. Links to the podcasts are on Blugold Radio’s website.
Project will include many parts of the music landscape
Ott noted that the students will touch on as many parts of the Eau Claire music landscape as possible. Indie, jazz, country, blues, folk, punk, rock, big band and others all will be among the genres featured, he said, and interviews will feature musicians as well as the off-stage talent that supports their work.
The first interview to air in the series — featuring Howard “Guitar” Luedtke, a staple of the local blues scene — is his favorite so far, said Eli Klatt, a UW-EC junior integrated strategic communication major who helps to edit and process the recordings and hosts the podcasts. Students work in teams of two to research their subject and conduct the on-air interviews, and work with Klatt to create the podcasts.
Luedtke, a blues musician from Chippewa Falls and a local legend, has been part of the blues scene here for decades. In the podcast, he reflects on the changes in Eau Claire’s music scene that he’s observed during his long career.
BB King: part of Eau Claire’s music history
Luedtke “has seen all of the changes the whole scene has gone through,” Klatt said. “I also thought it was awesome that BB King has played a show in Eau Claire. Plus, Luedtke hands down has the best interview voice.”
Being part of the oral history project has him thinking about the local arts scene in new ways, Klatt said.
“Being a transplant to Eau Claire, I always knew the area had a rich musical history, but never knew the history about the bands and the venues that put Eau Claire on the map as the ‘music capital of the north,’” Klatt said. “Through producing this podcast, I gained an understanding of the musical landscape that I hope can be shared for years to come.”
Series will include people in “behind-the-scenes” roles
While some of those featured in the series are musicians, like Luedtke, others play important “behind-the-scenes” kinds of roles.
For example, one segment features Evan Middlesworth, owner of Pine Hollow Studios in Eau Claire, which has recorded projects by many local musicians.
“From my perspective, the project has been very rewarding and fun, both as an educator and as a collaborator,” Ott said. The interviewees “are excited to have their stories preserved and shared. Organizations are thrilled to collaborate and do so readily.
“Students are excited to learn, to apply themselves beyond the classroom and to do something substantial,” he said “They enjoy the process of doing real work that has real, concrete deliverables — well-researched interviews with real people that are now preserved in the archives, and co-producing professional quality podcasts. They really liked collaborating with professionals and feeling like their coursework mattered.”
Schmidt said she was thrilled that she could take what she learned from the “Sounds of Eau Claire” project to use during a summer internship at a church in Red Wing, MN.
“Only two months after I finished ‘Sounds of Eau Claire,’ I was able to use what I had learned,” said Schmidt, who plans to go on to graduate school to prepare for a professional career in public history.
While she values the hands-on learning opportunity, Schmidt said it was even more meaningful to know she was part of something that benefits an entire community.
“These projects not only benefit the students, but also the community members who get to learn about a new perspective of their town,” Schmidt said. “It also preserves the stories of the interviewee, who might not have very many opportunities to tell their stories. It is important to document these stories for our present and future communities before they are lost.”
The project will continue this fall, with Dr. John Mann, professor of history, teaching the class.
“Hopefully after that, we will create a digital exhibit and collection of community stories and artifacts associated with music in the region,” Ott said, noting that the Chippewa Valley Museum is interested in using the podcasts in a future exhibit. “Given the amount of interest we have and the amount of ground we have to cover, we hope to keep the project going for a couple of years.”