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Film and Fiddle Tunes Highlight Mill-Town Past

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Jenny Scheinman - COURTESY OF BLACK WILKINS
  • courtesy of Black Wilkins
  • Jenny Scheinman

When filmmaker H. Lee Waters went to Kannapolis, N.C., in 1941, he probably didn't guess that the footage he shot there would be screened more than 70 years later in Vermont.

Waters, a photographer by trade, made ends meet during the Great Depression by making movies. He traveled around shooting footage of townspeople in Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina, then showed the films on the big screen. The mill town of Kannapolis was one of 118 locales he captured on a total of 252 reels.

That Depression-era footage is the focus of a new touring show by California-based violinist and composer Jenny Scheinman. Commissioned by Duke Performances, Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait sets new fiddle songs by the acclaimed 43-year-old jazz musician against a reworked version of Waters' film by director Finn Taylor.

Kannapolis premiered at Duke University in Durham, N.C., in 2015. This weekend, the show comes to two Vermont locations: the University of Vermont, presented by the Lane Series; and Middlebury College. The mill-town history of nearby Winooski and Middlebury gives the performances special relevance, say organizers, who are staging accompanying events to explore that industrial past.

Known for her proficiency in jazz, Scheinman has played with the likes of Nels Cline and Bill Frisell, not to mention Lou Reed, Norah Jones and Ani DiFranco. While she has collaborated on multimedia projects before, she wrote in an email — citing many with Frisell — "this is the first time I've ever done a full program with visual media as a leader."

The musician didn't know about Waters, or his work, until 2011, when Duke — which holds a large collection of Waters' films — reached out to her and commissioned the project.

Watching the original reel from Kannapolis, the violinist recalled, she saw something special in the townspeople's faces. She called up Taylor, and they set to work editing the footage into a new silent film to accompany her music.

When Lane Series director Natalie Neuert heard about Scheinman's project, she was immediately drawn to it. "I felt this connection to the idea of the mill-town theme," she said in a phone interview. "There's sort of this lost America."

That sentiment may seem to dwell in the ethically murky territory of nostalgia for times gone by — times when Jim Crow laws reigned and women had only recently won the right to vote. But Neuert said the programming around the performance points toward the future.

"For me," she elaborated, "it's [about], how do we repurpose these [mill] spaces to contribute to a new creative economy in our communities?" In that vein, Neuert and her fellow organizers tapped the founder of the revitalized, Connecticut-based American Woolen Company, which once owned a mill in Winooski, for a talk at Burlington's Generator maker space.

For Scheinman, the element of nostalgia isn't necessarily a bad thing. "There's a lot to love about Waters' subjects," she wrote. "They are playful, affectionate, inventive and creatively engaged with each other and Waters."

Scheinman was struck by the contrast between the townspeople's evident poverty and their expressions of mutual affection and happiness. "It is clear that many of them are very poor," she reflected, "and we know the tough times they were in, so their generosity and resilience become all the more impressive."

The result of her impressions is three hours of original music, which she culled to 16 songs, many of them showcasing her lustrous voice. After stopping in Vermont, Scheinman will tour the show to other New England mill towns.

Her original output for the show became fodder for her newest album, Here on Earth. She called that project her "tribute to fiddle music, and Kannapolis [her] venue for performing [it]."

Accomplished Americana musicians Robbie Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe accompany Scheinman onstage. "The band is based on a scene in the movie where three acoustic musicians — fiddle, banjo and resonator guitar — are playing at a dance party," Scheinman revealed.

Just as she drew inspiration from the film for her band, the musician hopes viewers will find elements in Waters' moving pictures that can impact their lives today. "This is not a political film; it is a humanist film," she wrote. "It's about our American character, and I think it's important to look back on who we have been in order to come to an understanding of who we are now and who we can be."

Among the events linked to the show is a gallery talk introducing the exhibit "American Faces: A Cultural History of Portraiture and Identity," new at the Middlebury College Museum of Art. Mahaney Center for the Arts director Liza Sacheli said that both the show and Kannapolis revolve around "exploring and explaining the American fascination with images of ourselves."

And we could be surprised by what we find in the faces of the past. "[Waters'] subjects reflect back some characteristics that we have lost in our relatively peaceful and prosperous generation," Scheinman wrote. "They also remind us of the world without smartphones and social media. These people exhibit an amazing engagement with each other and their community, and are incredibly unselfconscious."

It's a perspective Waters couldn't have imagined — and one that should give fresh poignancy to the images he caught three-quarters of a century ago.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Art A Fiddler and a Film Explore a Depression-Era Mill Town"

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