In a small living room in West Seattle, video equipment, lights and microphones are set up and ready to roll. With the smack of a filmmaker’s clapper board, the performance begins.
Charmaine Slaven begins buckdancing, what others might call clogging or flat-foot tap dancing. Her husband, Charlie Beck, is wailing on his banjo, while Slaven’s homemade wooden taps set the rhythm on the young couple’s planked fir floor.
The paintings on the walls shake and their dogs, Larry and Daisy, wander in and out of the video frame.
Slaven is the latest subject in a collection of “Americana Women” documentary videos assembled by Dyann and Rick Arthur of Mill Creek.
Before they start playing another tune, Dyann Arthur coaches Slaven on how to introduce the song for the camera.
The Arthurs, with their nonprofit MusicBox Project, have traveled across the country recording hundreds of tales and tunes: oral histories, public performances and songs played in kitchens and living rooms.
Here is a YouTube playlist featuring some of the sounds of the project:
The project is about women musicians who are experts in Appalachian folk music, the blues, bluegrass, old-time country music, gospel, jazz, Cajun, American Indian music, klezmer, maritime folk music or zydeco. It’s what the Arthurs call traditional “A to Z roots music.”
Part of the MusicBox Project collection already is catalogued in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and much of it is available for viewing on YouTube.
During the past three years, the Arthurs have been on a journey that has taken them from New England to the Deep South and back to the West Coast interviewing women, ages 18 to 93, and recording their music.
In most parts of the country, the MusicBox Project has been welcomed and applauded. In the South, however, some people have expressed surprise.
“I had women say, ‘Well, it’s a good thing your husband lets you do this,’” Dyann said. “I told them that if he did not like it, we would not be together.”
Dyann, 58, and Rick, 66, joke about writing a book called “Meet Me in the Middle.” Despite their different backgrounds, music is at the core of the middle ground in their lives.
Linda Dyann LeBlanc grew up in Seattle. She played the piano, took dance lessons and sang in the choir at school.
By the time she was in her teens, Dyann had learned to play guitar, left home and joined a rock band.
“But there was a lack of women in music to model after,” she said. “It’s the old adage that you have to see one to be one.”
She joined a commune in the Maltby area south of Snohomish and managed to graduate from high school.
“The commune was music and mayhem,” she said. “And the guys in the band told me I was just the singer. My opinion didn’t matter.”
So she changed course, fled to San Francisco, took classical voice lessons and then applied to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Dyann graduated magna cum laude in 1980, during a time when women at the college still comprised less than 5 percent of the school’s population.
Her career moved from playing gigs to arranging work for other musicians. She got married and divorced, without kids. She moved on to advertising sales and then to mortgage sales. Eventually she returned to the Northwest.
Still a musician, Dyann continued to wonder why so relatively few women were recognized for their work in music.
“It’s still a mystery to me. Why do more men become musicians?” she said. “Clearly music isn’t something you have to be big and strong to do. You just sit up and play.”
Rick Arthur grew up in Kentucky. He played drums as a teen and enjoyed The Beatles as much as he did the local bluegrass music.
He was drafted into the Army and ended up in flight school. In Vietnam, he flew helicopters north of Saigon. He earned 23 air medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. And he got married between tours. The marriage gave him two girls.
“By then I wanted to get away from the insanity of war,” he said.
Arthur, a chief warrant officer, returned to Kentucky but stayed in the reserves so he could pursue aircraft maintenance and test piloting. In Louisville, he joined the police force, which had just bought a helicopter.
“It was a time when I was moving back to my bluegrass roots,” he said. “I was there when the Red Dog Saloon hosted all these musicians and it changed me. It was a period of epiphany. I heard all this traditional bluegrass music and all my DNA fell into place. It clicked.
“I was a closet banjo player back then, but in my retirement I’ve come out.”
In 1979, Rick went back on active duty. His last stint was at Paine Field, where he made the transition to a job with Boeing as a flight simulator instructor.
Rick met Dyann in 1997 on a singles whale-watching cruise.
Rick taught Dyann to fly a small airplane and Dyann urged Rick to perform on bass and banjo.
They’ve been married for 14 years.
“We have strengths and weaknesses and we cover each other’s backs,” Dyann said.
“We became a team and carried each other to a new place.”
By 2009, the bottom was falling out of the housing market and Dyann Arthur was done selling mortgages. Rick was already retired. They had some savings and they wanted to travel.
But retirement had to mean something to Dyann.
It had to involve history, people and music. And it had to have an impact in society.
Rick was happy to oblige.
They considered a project talking to people about the musical chord progression of I, IV, V — something found in all sorts of traditional music including jazz and blues. Then Dyann realized there was a striking lack of information from and about women musicians.
“Where are the women? We have to find them.”
Rick took Dyann’s lead on the MusicBox Project.
“It wasn’t hard to follow. It was evident that it was a valuable idea,” Rick said. “I helped raise two girls; I know there’s still discrimination. It’s not just about music, either. The project is about the potential for cultural change.”
As they formed their mission and their plans, the Arthurs decided to focus on women playing traditional music.
“The project isn’t about female vocalists who front male bands, but more about women instrumentalists who seek to be taken seriously as a roots musicians,” Dyann said. “Women need to see that other women are a huge part of these musical genres.”
The Arthurs found their subjects by contacting cultural and heritage groups, academics and the authors of books and periodicals. In the end, though, referrals from other women were important, Dyann said.
The MusicBox Project became a treasure box of musical findings, reminiscent of the music boxes women have passed down for generations, she said.
“Born as a digital project, you open this music box by clicking (your computer mouse) on it,” Dyann said. “I thought it was an appropriate name. People have access to the digital documents we record.”
In 2010, the Arthurs loaded up their spreadsheet of contacts, a big U.S. map, recording equipment, their guitars and some camping equipment and took off on a seven-month trip around country. They logged 23,000 miles through 30 states, down Route 66, along the Blues Highway, through Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta.
Sometimes Dyann would type up details from the last interview as Rick drove to the next.
In Breaux Bridge, La., the Arthurs followed bassist Yvette Landry to her bar gigs with an all-woman Cajun band. Landry, who can trace her family many generations back to French settlers in Canada who later moved to the South, said playing music is her life.
The Arthurs unpacked their guitars in Arkansas when 93-year-old fiddler Violet Hensley invited them to join her as she and her family played the old favorite, “Turkey in the Straw.”
In Tennessee, they met banjoist Murphy Henry.
“I am tired of fighting this battle. I’ve been doing it for so long,” Henry says on video, referring to wanting to be recognized as an accomplished musician. She does see changes, however, especially with more girls taking up instruments like the banjo. Henry credits the shift to Title IX, which made sure girls could play sports in school and provided a message that they could do anything they wanted, Henry said.
Some women told stories about being held back from musical careers by motherhood or the need to work higher-paying jobs. Others talked about playing their instruments in church and on their porches with their neighbors.
“Women adopt and adapt. We found pockets of traditional culture everywhere,” Dyann Arthur said. “And the response we got for the project was very enthusiastic. They got it.”
Back at home, Dyann sat at her computer for months, whittling down each three-hour interview into a finished video.
With their collection in hand, Rick and Dyann pitched it to the American Folklife Center for inclusion in the Library of Congress.
So far, the MusicBox Project has added 2,400 digital video and audio files to the library’s collection. They also donated more 100 CDs from many of the women they interviewed.
Stephen Winick, a folklorist and writer with the American Folklife Center, said the Arthurs’ collection is worthy of a place there.
“Dyann and Rick are driven collectors,” Winick said. “It’s wonderful that they have documented this.”
It’s a valid subject, he said. Women have been playing traditional American music all along, and there are some recordings of women beginning in the 1920s, but they are relatively few.
“Female traditional instrumentalists have been under-documented,” Winick said. “There are a variety of reasons for that, including that it was often hard to catch women playing in public. Now that era has passed and we have numerous brilliant musicians who are women.”
Dyann Arthur plans to talk about the MusicBox Project on Saturday at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle. The presentation will include a showing of her short film, “American Women: Roots Musicians — Women’s Tales and Tunes.”
At some point, the Arthurs hope to produce a full-length documentary to play across the country, aimed at drawing attention to women involved in preserving traditional forms of American music.
“This is my passion, and I will be working on this the rest of my life,” Dyann said. “It feels really good that people get it.”
The Arthurs are eager to get other people on board with the project. The nonprofit could use a little grassroots money, too. So far, their financial backing has come out of pocket, from relatives and from a board of directors.
Rick believes America is in a period of a revival of traditional music, and they are happy to be a part of it.
They also plan to stick closer to home for a while to record more women musicians. Many women involved in roots music live in Washington and Oregon.
And that’s how the Arthurs ended up in the West Seattle living room of Charmaine Slaven.
She was chosen for the MusicBox Project because of her immersion in the old-time music scene, which continues to gain popularity in the Northwest. Slaven and her husband are part of a larger group called The TallBoys, and together they are Squirrel Butter, often seen busking at the Pike Place Market. They are scheduled to perform Sunday at the Everett Public Library.
The Arthurs earlier had sent Slaven a biographical questionnaire and Slaven’s answers set the stage for the video interview. Born in South Korea, she grew up in Montana with her Chinese mother and her military veteran father, who came from the hills of Tennessee. Her dad loved listening to the old-time tunes, and she remembers going with him to the Elks club and standing on his feet as he danced the two-step.
“So later when I walked in and heard the music at the Old Time Festival in Portland, I heard it as my dad’s music. It was magical,” Slaven said. “I wish my dad could see me now.”
The interview at the Slaven-Beck home ends with the videotaping of a rendition of “Rubin’s Train.”
On this tune, Slaven plays the guitar while she flat-foots, which isn’t an easy thing to do.
The dogs are running around, the walls are shaking and in the middle of the song, a piece of a torchiere lamp falls to the floor with a crash.
The Arthurs can’t contain their laughter and Dyann begins clapping along.
At the end, she shouts with pleasure, “Tear the house down!”
Charlie Beck and Charmaine Slaven, the husband-wife duo called Squirrel Butter, have drawn crowds at the Pike Place Market for their performances of rip-roaring, traditional old-time music.
A subject of the MusicBox Project, Slaven and Beck plan to perform at a free concert at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Everett Public Library, 2702 Hoyt Ave.
Beck plays banjo and Slaven plays guitar. She is perhaps best known, however, for her tapping, which is called clogging, buckdancing or flat-foot tapping.
MusicBox Project at Folklife
Dyann and Rick Arthur of Mill Creek are to present their short film, Americana Women: Roots Musicians — Women’s Tales &Tunes,” at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Seattle International Film Festival cinema narrative stage at the Seattle Center.
The Arthurs plan to talk about their project, answer questions and introduce some of the local women they interviewed. Hear some of the interviews at www.youtube.com/musicboxproject. More information about the American Folkife Center at the Library of Congress is at www.loc.gov/folklife.
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Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.