The Awful Purdies and the Family Folk Machine kick off a ‘historical’ collaboration

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Lecture and Performance by the Awful Purdies

Johnson County Historical Society — Sunday, Aug. 28 at 2 p.m.

Awful Purdies
The Awful Purdies take a break from recording a video in Hills, IA — photo by Devin Hendrick Photography, courtesy of the band

This June, the Family Folk Machine was awarded a grant from the Iowa Arts Council jointly with the Iowa City Senior Center, which is celebrating its 35th year. The grant will fund a unique opportunity for the organizations to collaborate with the Awful Purdies — an Iowa City-based group made up of area musical luminaries Sarah Driscoll, Katie Roche, Marcy Rosenbaum, Katie Senn and Nicole Upchurch — on a project called Wasn’t That a Time? The project will utilize the story circle techniques developed by the Awful Purdies on their production with Working Group Theatre, All Recipes Are Home, last year.

Wasn’t That a Time? will develop through a series of story circles hosted by the Family Folk Machine at the Senior Center, offering a framework and support system for seniors to collect stories from friends and neighbors. Those stories will then be used during a series of songwriting workshops this winter, led by the Awful Purdies.

The collaboration will culminate in a joint performance at Arts Fest in June 2017, but it kicks off this Sunday, Aug. 28, with a free lecture and performance at the Johnson County Historical Society (860 Quarry Rd, Coralville) at 2 p.m. The lecture covers an introduction to songwriting and an overview of the story circle techniques used for All Recipes Are Home.

The Family Folk Machine is an intergenerational choir founded and directed by Jean Littlejohn. They hold monthly Community Folk Sings at Uptown Bill’s. The group ranges in age from 4 to around 86, and includes families, individuals, University students and seniors. In addition to singing, the group boasts a number of accomplished instrumentalists, and encourages and supports youth and adults looking to learn about and improvise on their instruments. In an interview earlier this year, Littlejohn told me that she particularly likes to expand her own musical skills in areas where she’s not that accomplished. It helps her “empathize with those who are sticking their neck out.”

They celebrate and highlight community building, especially through the experience of people rehearsing and performing together across generations. They also engage the community in a variety of ways, beyond the Uptown Bill’s events — last year, they built songs into their repertoire to dovetail with the University of Iowa’s social justice semester. They also work towards broadening community definitions of “traditional” American music, performing songs by more modern artists such as the Wailin’ Jennies and even Patti Smith.

“If you write a really good song about something, and the song survives,” Littlejohn noted, “then the thing you write about also survives, when it otherwise might have been forgotten.” This is the perfect distillation of the way that the choir’s passion for preservation ties in to the aims of Wasn’t That a Time?; there is much we can learn from both the recent and the distant past, and music and songwriting is one of the most powerful tools we have to assist in that goal.

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