Students take musical journey

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Music can entertain, inspire and express feelings and thoughts. As many Routt County elementary students learned last week, music also can tell history.

The sixth annual Strings in the Mountains Youth Touring Program visited more than 2,000 children from 10 area schools last week, using music and dance to tell the history of Northwest Colorado.

Led by scriptwriter and storyteller Kay Wagner, three musicians and a dancer donned a variety of period-appropriate costumes for an entertaining and succinct journey through the history of the region.

Wednesday's 45-minute performance at Hayden Valley Elementary School began with a musical rendition of "Hoedown," a song from Aaron Copeland's "Rodeo" ballet.

"This corner of Colorado where we live influenced that very song," Wagner told students. Copeland wrote the song with help from Agnes DeMille, a dancer who attended the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp in Steamboat Springs. DeMille, moved by the music and steps of the square dancing she witnessed here, wanted to make sure she had a square-dancing part in Copeland's ballet, Wagner said.

With that brief introduction, musicians Andy Pratt, Randy Kelley and John Fisher, and dancer Robin Getter began telling the history of Northwest Colorado with the days when animals, not people, roamed the valleys and mountains of the region.

The abundant game in the Yampa Valley attracted Ute, Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho American Indians, who fought fierce battles for the prized hunting grounds, Wagner said. Drumbeats and a traditional American Indian dance accompanied Wagner's narration.

"Then the trappers found this country and its huge supply of furs," Wagner told students. The early 1800s brought trappers, such as Jim Bridger, who shipped their furs to Europe, where they were sold at premium prices to the European elite.

"Those trappers, those mountain men, were a wild and wooly bunch," Wagner said. They rendezvoused once a year, often in Brown's Park, formerly known as Brown's Hole.

The musicians and Getter, dressed in trappers' clothes, next performed "Alloutte," a French song trappers used to sing while paddling their canoes along Rocky Mountain rivers. Encouraged by the musicians, Hayden students happily sang along.

It wasn't long before miners discovered Northwest Colorado. Joseph Hahn discovered gold near the mountain peak that bears his name.

But "no one found the fabled wealth for which they came," Wagner said, after which the performers broke out in a rendition of "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain," a song the children were more than happy to sing along to.

The musical history lesson then turned briefly to Texas, where cowboys began to herd longhorn cattle and drive them north into Colorado. Eventually, when beef prices sank and grazing lands became overused, some ranchers turned to sheep. If cowboys lived a lonely existence, it was nothing compared with the life of a sheep herder, Wagner said.

Many of the sheep herders were European, and the band played "Never on Sunday," or "Misserlou," while Getter performed a traditional Greek dance. Four Hayden students danced with her.

Wagner next told students about the fights that broke out between cattle and sheep ranchers about grazing lands for their herds.

"They called these times the Range Wars, and these were hard times for man and beast," Wagner said. But the U.S. Forest Service, using a permit system, solved the problem by allowing sheep to graze the high meadows and cattle the low meadows.

"This system proved a good one, and the land benefited, as well," Wagner said. "And then trains made it to the West Slope."

The Moffat Railroad was the first one to service Northwest Colorado, she said.

"The railroad made it easy to get both things and people here, and we weren't isolated in the mountains any more," Wagner told students after a musical performance of "I'll Be Working on the Railroad."

Even today, cattle and sheep ranchers, railroad workers, miners and teachers continue to shape life in the Yampa Valley, Wagner said.

She encouraged students to talk to their grandparents, neighbors and friends and ask them about their origins and histories.

"You have a history already," she told students. "Try to get to know someone else's. It really is the history of our country."

The Strings in the Mountain Youth Touring Program is sponsored by businesses and organizations, including the Steamboat Springs Rotary Club, the Frijole Blanco Foundation, the Huntsman Family Foundation and the Mabel Y. Hughes Charitable Trust.

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