Agricultural Echoes: Jerry Way & The Swampers hit Heyde stage with new original show

Taylor Reisdorf

Sing it, swampers! Local composer Jerry Way composes songs that communicate the history of the Chippewa Valley. This shot is from a 2010 swampers show.
Sing it, swampers! Local composer Jerry Way composes songs that communicate the history of the Chippewa Valley. This shot is from a 2010 swampers show.

For the past 17 years, Jerry Way and The Swampers – a musical lumberjack aggregation that represent early pioneers of the Chippewa Valley – have been explaining local history through song and slideshow at the Heyde Center for the Arts in Chippewa Falls.Each August, as part of the Pure Water Days celebration in Chippewa Falls, The Swampers take the stage with an original performance that focuses on some aspect of the Chippewa Valley. They also have annual comedy performances in March.

As soon as we finished performing (the 2017 show) Wissota In The Making, I began working on The Farmer Feeds Them All.  – director Jerry Way

This year’s August show, entitled The Farmer Feeds Them All, focuses on the history of farming in the Chippewa Valley. During their performances, the group of six – Jerry Way, Amanda Tanzer Schafer, Judy Brist, Kathy Danielson, Tim Danielson, and Rob Kuchta – are positioned in a semi-circle in front of a projection screen while they belt out their “Swampgrass” harmonies and verses. Their tunes and tales, which are written primarily by Way, are accompanied by a variety of folk instruments: violin, mandolin, guitar, banjo, whistle, and kazoo. This year’s performance will also feature an intimate song written by Danielson and his son, “Homestead”; a poem by Amelia Barr, “The Farmer”; and a song recorded by Pete Seeger, “The Farmer Is the Man.”

Way has been writing songs – both the words and music – since he was 14 years old. At 73, it’s still something he does almost every day. “It seems to be something I need to do,” he said. Way said the annual Swampers shows serve as great motivation and inspiration to keep writing. On top of The Swampers, Way writes music and sings for the Chippewa Valley Community Chorus. He also plays with and writes for the recorder quintet MJ Consort and the jazz trumpeter Todd Bartlett. Some of his music – band, orchestral, and choral – is performed by schools in the area.

Writing for The Swampers is a constant priority for Way. “As soon as we finished performing (the 2017 show) Wissota in the Making, I began working on The Farmer Feeds Them All,” Way said. The rough draft for this year’s show took Way around three months to write, he said. After waiting six months, he went back to fine-tune the pieces. This is generally how his writing process goes for both the March and August performances, he said. Although this year’s show has yet to be performed, Way said he already has a “top secret” idea for next year. In terms of the not-as-near future – Way hopes to keep writing and performing for many years – Way would love for The Swampers tradition (and their “couple hundred” songs!) to be picked up and carried on by the next generation.

Way said the primary goal of The Swampers is to celebrate the Chippewa Valley – both past and present.

“The Chippewa Valley is a wonderful place to live: beautiful natural surroundings, good people, and positive energy,” Way said. “The Swampers truly appreciate the audiences that come to the Heyde Center for the Arts to enjoy our shows each year. These are the terrific folks we celebrate!”

The Swampers present The Farmer Feeds Them All • Aug. 9-10 • 7:30pm • Heyde Center for the Arts, 3 S. High St., Chippewa Falls • Adults $13, seniors $12, youths $8, family of four $32 • (715) 726-9000 • cvca.net

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