A modern-day Woody Guthrie travels the state's highways and byways
Seattle Times staff reporter
Where's Wes Weddell?
Composing a tune in Tenino? An ode in Othello? A ballad in Ballard? Or a simple ditty in Coulee City?
Could be any of the above.
Weddell, 19, is a University of Washington junior who can't decide whether he's a history student moonlighting as a folk musician - or the other way around.
So he's taking spring quarter to travel the state's highways and byways, write folk songs drawn from the history of each area, and perform at coffee shops and bookstores along the way.
"History is what I want to study, but music is what I want to do," said Weddell, who tailored the project for history and geography credits. He's calling the adventure "Woody Guthrie 2001?: Preparing a Musical Neo-History of Washington State."
It's a timely title. Guthrie, whose on-the-road work includes Washington's official folk song, "Roll On, Columbia," is the subject of a new exhibit at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, an early stop on Weddell's travels. OK, but who is Wes Weddell?
"He's a young man with lots of thoughts and dreams and plans, and I'm sure he's going to create something wonderful out of this," said UW Associate History Professor James Gregory, who accepted Weddell's proposal for the trip as an independent-study project.
Gregory said Weddell stood out even in a freshman-level history lecture course with some 200 students a couple of years ago. "He bubbled over with ideas and enthusiasm."
Mary Lytle, president of the Seattle Folklore Society, calls Weddell's work reminiscent of Arlo Guthrie or Bob Dylan in their early days.
And she was particularly gratified that dozens of college-age listeners showed up to hear Weddell at The Grateful Bread cafe in Wedgwood in December.
"These kids were completely mesmerized, fixated by this young man. ... It just renewed my heart about folk music."
More about Wes: Clean-cut. Lanky. Plaid shirts. Jeans. Wide-eyed curiosity behind oval-shaped lenses. His interest in the connection between music and history inspired an earlier project looking at the music of Japanese-American internment camps of World War II.
And toss these into the mix:
He was 9 when he got his first guitar, a present from his dad. But he didn't "get serious" until 13, when he got a book on self-instruction. "I got tired of having a guitar and not knowing what to do with it."
Having decided to attend the UW despite his Pullman upbringing, he has already put in a fair number of miles traveling the state, good background for his current exploration.
He hopes to help a new generation connect with both folk and bluegrass music. "When I get to bluegrass jam circles, I'm often the youngest guy there - by about 20 years."
To start his project, Weddell split a Washington map into 13 geographic areas. Then he reconsidered, feeling the state shouldn't have more regions than spring quarter has weeks. In his newer version, all of Washington is divided into nine parts.
Weddell expects to put in more than 3,000 miles on the road, hoping his recently purchased 1986 Honda, with 168,000 miles already on it, is up to the task.
And by the way, he wants to take all of us along.
Not in the Accord, already cramped with guitar, mandolin, tent, sleeping bag, cook stove, tape recorder, a couple of microphones, stands and a duffel bag of clothes.
Instead, he's posting his journal on his Web page.
The songs he writes won't be attempts to summarize an area's history, but to draw on interesting tidbits that give a glimpse of its character. For example, did you know the mossy rock for which Mossyrock, Lewis County, was named was blown to bits to make room for a railroad track? Now you do.
His Mossyrock song, drawn from a discussion among old-timers at a cafe, is his sole completed piece from the trip so far, but he's toting homemade CDs of some of his earlier work, hoping for $12 donations to help finance the project.
To minimize expenses, he'll stay in campgrounds, with friends or with contacts he's made through folklore groups.
His shoestring budget was cinched a little tighter by his least-favorite Mossyrock souvenir - a $100 speeding ticket for doing 35 in a 25.
His performances began Saturday in a Yakima bookstore. His first back in the Seattle area will be 8 p.m. May 5, opening for English folk singer Bob Fox at The Grateful Bread cafe, the prime venue for Seattle Folklore Society events, and one where Weddell sometimes works the counter. Weddell also will appear there June 2.
Since proposing the trip, Weddell has learned his idea isn't exactly original. Bellingham folksinger Linda Allen, who was designated Washington's resident songwriter for the state's 1989 centennial, did a similar project then, writing 29 songs and producing the CD "Washington Notebook" with Victory Music.
Weddell, nervous about how Allen might perceive a newcomer taking on a similar project, was relieved when she not only encouraged him, but suggested the two might share the stage at a concert this fall.
"I don't know his work but I'm very excited about what he might come up with," said Allen, 55.
"It's good to see the next generation get involved."
Jack Broom can be reached at 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.