Artist sets Everett pioneer’s life to music

Jason Webley has a story to tell. A local musician who has traveled the world, Webley is an artist whose singular talents work magic. But this story is not his.

At an April 11 performance at the Historic Everett Theatre, the singer-songwriter and his musical collaborators will bring to life — through song, poetry and pictures — a woman whose name evokes Everett history.

The subject of the show is Margaret Rucker. Its inspiration is a scrapbook about her life that was found in a Dumpster in San Francisco.

Anyone who knows Everett knows the Rucker name. Rucker Avenue, Rucker Hill Park, an historic mansion and a monument at Everett’s Evergreen Cemetery all bear the name.

Born in Everett in 1907, Margaret was the daughter of Bethel and Ruby Rucker. The Rucker brothers, Bethel and Wyatt, had come from Ohio with their widowed mother, Jane Rucker. They settled in Everett in 1889, and the brothers acquired land that is now Everett’s central business district.

Margaret grew up in Everett. She went to the University of Washington, where she joined Gamma Phi Beta sorority. She wrote poetry that was published in a 1927 book, “University of Washington Poems.” She married a Navy man, Lt. Justus Rogers Armstrong. The couple had two sons, and another who died in infancy. They settled in California.

Webley, a graduate of Mariner High School and UW who now lives in Everett, came upon Margaret Rucker’s story in an extraordinary way.

He has a friend in San Francisco, “Chicken” John Rinaldi, who owned the Odeon Bar where Webley, now 39, played his first Bay Area show. Rinaldi is a “showman,” Webley said, who once ran for San Francisco mayor and was involved in creating the Burning Man festival.

It was Rinaldi, Webley said, who found the scrapbook about 20 years ago. It was filled with photos of Margaret Rucker, along with her poetry, and newspaper clippings about her life. It included her birth certificate and her obituary. Margaret Rucker Armstrong died in 1959 in Riverside, Calif. She was 51.

Several years ago, Webley was in San Francisco visiting Rinaldi when he mentioned living in Everett. When Rinaldi heard that, he told his friend Webley that “there’s something I need to show you.”

It wasn’t the scrapbook, but a slide show of it on Rinaldi’s computer. The scrapbook is gone. Webley said Rinaldi had held a “memorial” concert at his bar for the woman in the scrapbook. At the end of that show, people in the audience were allowed to take a poem, picture or clipping. Someone even took the empty scrapbook.

A prolific songwriter, musician and showman himself, Webley on Wednesday picked up his accordion and sang a bit of a song inspired by the scrapbook. “My love left me in springtime, when my heart was young and true …” he sang in a voice that’s unmistakably his, but with a hint of other troubadours, maybe a touch of Tom Waits or Billy Bragg. Webley has described his music as “gypsy punk or folk punk.”

There was sadness in Webley’s musical preview of the “Margaret” show, just as the scrapbook told of a life that had its tragedies. Those will be revealed in the April 11 performance.

“Her life was so tragic,” said David Dilgard, a history specialist at the Everett Public Library, who believes Margaret Rucker Armstrong’s sons are deceased. The family lived in California, so Dilgard said it made sense the scrapbook would turn up there.

Dilgard, who has seen the scrapbook slide show, was touched by the pictures and poems. “It’s not timeless, exactly. She looks and sounds so much like a person in a particular place and time,” Dilgard said. “Margaret died a long time ago. That’s what this is all about. Jason comes along, and she is not dead yet.”

Rinaldi will be at the Historic Everett Theatre to present the scrapbook slide show. The “Margaret” event will showcase Webley’s longtime collaborators Jherek Bischoff and Led to Sea; talent from Everett, including Zac Pennington and Mts. &Tunnels; and some of Webley’s favorite songwriters, Eliza Rickman, Lonesome Leash and Shenandoah Davis.

Webley never had a chance to meet Margaret Rucker. And yet he said of her, in an email about tickets to the show, “This will happen only once. I hope you can come. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Webley set her life to music, he said, because of “just the crazy coincidence and serendipity through which her story rose up from the trash.” There is nostalgia in the photographs. And the poetry is “very dark, beautiful stuff,” he said.

“There are a few lines that she wrote that really twist your heart up,” Webley said. “I don’t want to give everything away, but they sort of foreshadowed a lot of darkness that was coming her way.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

“Margaret’ show

“Margaret: Music inspired by the life and writings of Margaret Rucker” will be presented at 8 p.m. April 11 at the Historic Everett Theatre, 2911 Colby Ave., Everett. Performers at the all-ages show are: Jason Webley, Shenandoah Davis, Jherek Bischoff, Led to Sea, Eliza Rickman, Zac Pennington, Lonesome Leash, “Chicken” John Rinaldi, and Mts. &Tunnels. Tickets, $15, at http://margaretshow.brownpapertickets.com

Find out more on Facebook: www.facebook.com/events/629483303766597/

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