John McAlpine never taught a U.S. history class. He doesn’t have a history degree.
How, then, have I discovered from the Everett man stories of our nation’s past most of us never learned in school?
Ever heard of Milwaukee’s “Bridge Wars”?
The place that is now Milwaukee, Wis., was once three communities named for their founders. Kilbourntown was on the west side of the Milwaukee River, Juneautown was east of the river, and a trading post to the south was Walker’s Point. On May 8, 1845, rivalries exploded. West-siders destroyed part of a bridge. East-siders retaliated by wrecking another bridge. There were brawls and threats to destroy a dam. Tensions eased a year later when a charter created the city of Milwaukee.
Who knew? I didn’t, not until recently. I’ve been listening to McAlpine’s radio show “Made in the U.S.A.”
It airs on Everett’s public radio station, KSER (90.7 FM), at 1 p.m. Sundays. That title doesn’t do the program justice. It’s American music and a good deal more. Tune in expecting a political debate or Bruce Springsteen salute, you’ll be disappointed.
McAlpine, 63, said he might play Neil Young’s “Ohio” on May 4 to note the 44th anniversary of the Kent State University shootings. That said, listeners won’t recognize most of his musical selections from mainstream radio.
“I tend to stay away from ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ ‘New York, New York’ or ‘California Girls,’” said McAlpine, whose online description of “Made in the U.S.A.” is “a guided tour through American heritage in words and song.”
That mix of U.S. history and music gives him freedom to create eclectic playlists that evoke certain times, places and milestones. Unlike the dry texts of history books, the two-hour broadcast is too lively to put anyone to sleep.
These are a few selections from McAlpine’s recent broadcasts: “Jackie Robinson” by Ellis Paul; Pete Seeger performing “Home on the Range;” John Denver’s “Trail of Tears,” about the forced relocation of American Indians from the southeast to what is now Oklahoma; “The Death of Abraham Lincoln” from the A.L. Phipps Family; presidential campaign songs for Lincoln, William McKinley and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and a reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven.”
Songs are matched to dates, or his shows have geographical or other themes. “What I like about doing the program, the music could be any genre — it’s about a person, place or thing that’s American,” McAlpine said. “That’s an arbitrary way of cutting through the musical mass.”
It’s also a painless way to learn a little history. “What I like to do is find those little bits of interesting music to go along with an event. For each show, I probably put in four to six hours off the air doing research,” he said.
He has access to a 2,500-song database, mostly from KSER’s library, but also thousands of songs via iTunes.
His historical sources are far-reaching. For presidential biographies, he relies on the official White House website, www.whitehouse.gov. For dates, he looks at The New York Times’ “On This Day” feature. There’s his own memory, too.
Like more than 50 other local disc jockeys on KSER, McAlpine is an unpaid volunteer. He has a long history with the independent station. He is a former president of the nonprofit KSER Foundation’s board of directors. “Made in the U.S.A.” is a new version of a broadcast he had for nearly a decade in the 1990s. McAlpine said he was on the station with a children’s broadcast, “The Story House,” at the very beginning of KSER in 1991.
His day job is with Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, where he works as a recruiter for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program.
On Friday, McAlpine offered a sneak peek at today’s broadcast.
“I’ll do a couple of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ songs,” he said. Mark Twain’s novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” was first published in Britain in 1884, 130 years ago.
It’s also the weekend of George Washington’s birthday, which was Feb. 22, 1732. Don’t expect McAlpine to tell tales about a cherry tree. He’s a better history teacher than that. It’s more likely McAlpine will touch on Gen. Washington’s response to Daniel Shays’ rebellion — look it up.
“Before we had movies or television, how did people communicate? They made up songs or told stories,” McAlpine said.
Julie Muhsltein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Made in the U.S.A.”
John McAlpine hosts “Made in the U.S.A.,” a radio show exploring U.S. history in words and music, at 1 p.m. Sundays on Everett public radio station, KSER (90.7 FM).