Songs for the river: Local artists honor the Susquehanna in second album

John Zaktansky, who operates the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association out of Sunbury (MSRA) and is spearheading the Songs of the Susquehanna Vol. 2 CD. ANNE REINER/OnthePULSE

Milton, Berwick, Wilkes-Barre, Shelley Island, Clinton County, Nescopeck Falls, Shickshinny, Tuscarora Forest, Lake Chautauqua, Slackwater Bridge.

These are just a few of the evocative locales mentioned on “Songs of the Susquehanna, Vol. 2”—a newly released CD with 20 tracks by local artists honoring the beloved 444-mile waterway that runs from New York and Pennsylvania all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.

Following Vol. 1 in 2021, “Songs 2” was the brainchild of John Zaktansky, who operates the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association out of Sunbury (MSRA). It’s an organization that, as Zaktansky puts it, “strives to promote and protect an 11,000-square-mile watershed, which is basically all the land that drains eventually into the North and West branches of the Susquehanna.”

Because this is so vast, and because it doesn’t always come up readily in conversation, Zaktansky felt that a collection of music would “help us reach new audiences about the river and our aquatic resources, to educate and hopefully empower them with info about important issues and topics of the river.” 

He adds that “the project was also developed during the pandemic as a way to reach people without live events, but also to help give musicians who were struggling majorly after loss of numerous gigs to connect with their audiences in a new way.”

PHOTO PROVIDED

The album includes seasoned local artists like Van Wagner, Jack Servello, Don Shappelle and the Repasz Band—some of whom were on the first CD. Newcomers on Vol. 2 include Emily Berge, whose lovely “Me and the River (Sweet Serenity)” is her first original composition.

“I am honored to partner with the other musicians who were selected,” Berge told On the PULSE. “Although every song is unique in the genre it represents, I hope all who listen find joy in the music.”

“The music is very diverse in that we have a lot of genres and themes represented on each album,” adds Zaktansky. “There is folk music, which people may expect for river-based songs, but there are also songs that represent rock, country, blues, jazz and even rap and classical music. We have serious songs reflecting on historical situations such as the Knox Mine Disaster and the flooding of Agnes that took lives. We have lighter, more comical songs about things like fanny floats, polar plunges, a father-daughter trip down the river where they forgot a paddle and one where the musician decides to become the river’s first pirate.”

Musically, selections here call to mind John Denver, Dan Fogelberg, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, the Boston Pops, the Indigo Girls and Pete Seeger—with a range of instrumentation that includes pedal steel, harmonica, chirping birds, strong vocal harmonies, clapping, honky-tonk piano and of course plenty of acoustic guitar. And with more than half the songs having either “River” or “Susquehanna” in their titles, the lyrics cover an array of topics such as fishing, canoeing, pollution, wildlife, local produce, winter activities and the soothing solace of the waterway; some even use the river as a metaphor.

Consider, for example, the fetching lyric “when your life hits rough water, paddle on”—or Robert Sheldon’s concert-band piece “Beyond the Riverbend.” The latter, which was written specifically for the Lycoming County Honors Band program and serves as the final track on Vol. 2, aims to capture (as Sheldon puts it) “the spirit of hope and optimism as each of us is searching for what is in our future beyond our own ‘riverbend.’”

In terms of water pollution, Bill Dann and Jack Servello’s dandy opening track pays homage, as Dann says, “to the huge strides the Susquehanna River has made in recent years to be recognized as a fishing hot-spot.” And concerning his “Polar Bear Plunge,” Larry Lawson notes that “it’s easy to think of the Susquehanna in all its summertime glory, but when we live near a river, we’re also aware of its year-round beauty.”  

Shappelle says his entry—“Down to the River to Pray”—simply popped into his head one evening while gazing at the river near his home. 

“I kept repeating the chorus and adding verses as I stood there. Soon enough, I had to go out to a gig that evening and having never played it before, I performed the song that night from memory and have been playing it the same way ever since.” In a similarly interesting anecdote, Shappelle’s contribution to the first CD was composed spontaneously on the Hiawatha paddle-wheel boat in less than an hour—with the help of 60 schoolkids who were enjoying a class trip sponsored by the MSRA Floating Classroom program.

The selection process Berge alluded to is another fascinating aspect of these CDs. For this 2022 collection, artists were invited to submit compositions, nearly 60 of which were then posted on the Riverkeeper website early this year; over the following month, listeners from around the area cast their votes on which tunes they liked best.

“Songs had to be original, had to feature the river, its tributaries or the aquatic resources that depend on them as a central theme and had to be appropriate to be listened to by all ages and families,” says Zaktanksy. 

“Once the final list was selected, I put the songs on a thumb drive and delivered them to Kimbo Reichley. He is a technical wizard with an incredible ear who then edits and masters the songs so they have similar levels and sound as good as possible with the rest of the selections. He does an incredible job and makes it a true labor of love.”

“Singing songs to celebrate the river feels right to me!” adds Wagner. “The river has been here long before us and will likely be here long after us. We are all fortunate to live along her banks. She provides drinking water to most of the towns along her path through Pennsylvania. We humans are mostly water. So I would say we are mostly the Susquehanna River.”

Or as Doug Madenford and Chris LaRose put it in their composition, “Ain’t no other place that I’d rather be; the Susquehanna’s home to me.”Hard copies of the CD can be ordered at www.middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org. Zaktansky also hopes to have a digital download available soon, and that as well will be announced on the MSRA website.

Author

  • Joseph W. Smith III is a writer, speaker and teacher in Central PA. His seven books include “The Best Movies You Never Saw” and “The Best of Doug Smith” (a collection of his late father’s writings); both are available at Amazon. Feel free to write to him at robbwhitefan@gmail.com. Or visit josephwsmithiii.com.

Joseph W. Smith III

Joseph W. Smith III is a writer, speaker and teacher in Central PA. His seven books include “The Best Movies You Never Saw” and “The Best of Doug Smith” (a collection of his late father’s writings); both are available at Amazon. Feel free to write to him at robbwhitefan@gmail.com. Or visit josephwsmithiii.com.