Artists of all kinds often struggle to find inspiration for their work, but sometimes it strikes in unexpected ways. For singer/songwriter and columnist Tom Irwin, inspiration came from a diary he found. It was written more than 125 years ago by a young man who lived in the same Pleasant Plains farmhouse that’s been in his family for generations.
Irwin recorded an album—and is now debuting a play—based on the life and times of Harry Glen Ludlam called “Sangamon Songs.” The play is debuting at the Salem on Seventh Theatre in Petersburg this Saturday at 7 PM and Sunday at 3 PM.
Ahead of the show, I spoke with Irwin and playwright John Arden on how telling Ludlam’s story in song was moving, joyful, and even cathartic.
SD: What's this play about? Can you paint a picture for us?
TI: "It's based in 1893. This young man named Harry Glenn Ludlum wrote a diary from August to February. Then, when my great grandfather bought the farm where he lived, he left his diary there. I found it 100-something years later, when I was working on my master's degree out here at UIS.
From there, I was going to do more of a different project on it. But then, as a songwriter, I began to write songs about the different things that he did. As I read through the diary, from shucking corn [to] going to the World's Fair and all this, all these characters, these things started coming to me and I put it into a...song cycle."
JA: "When I came down here, I'm a real music fan and I was introduced to Tom. I began to hear Tom do some of the songs, and then he gave me a CD and another local musician said to me [that] this is the best CD that anybody's made around these parts in a long time. I listened to it, and I read the liner notes and everything, and I was very interested in the whole story and the fact that they're not just songs about a particular character at a particular time, but there's a real arc. There's like a dramatic arc to the story.
So I said to Tom, last fall, 'You know, this really calls out to be a play. Have you ever thought about doing it?' And he said, 'Yeah, like, every day, everybody tells me, I should be making this into a play, but I never quite get around to it.' So at a certain point, I said, 'Well, would you mind if I took a crack at it?' And then I consulted with a couple theatre people that I knew and they said, 'Yeah, this is really grist for for a musical play.' That's how we get going on it."
SD: Let's get into that dramatic arc [and] this character that we're talking about here, Harry. When I was listening to some of this music, it sort of struck me as emblematic of what life might have been like at that time in Central Illinois.
Is that sort of what you're striking out [to do] here?
TI: "Part of it is that, but what happened in this story is Harry actually wrote down more than just shucking corn and the chores he did and going to town and what the weather was like. As he's having this beautiful, wonderful life out there...then his grandma gets sick and she dies. And then they sell the farm and he's gone. He wrote about all that. He wrote about certain things, like when he had to leave the farm; he wrote this beautifully eloquent piece about how he will have to make the best of his circumstances basically and says, 'I will do the best and I will follow in the footsteps of my maker.' So these lines like that I just saw, I went 'Well, that's a song, that "footsteps my maker."
For me, I would read these diary entries, and then certain phrases would jump out me and and I wrote a song about them and try to feel what he was like. So not only did it talk about what was going on during that time period, but also it just kind of follow[s] this real universal arc of the human condition.
Up to this point, I'd done all the singing [of those songs]. I sang the song, but in the play..[it's] really just myself as a narrator, and then Harry Glen Ludlam is the only other character in the play that we present on stage. But then Harry will go ahead and speak his actual parts that he wrote in the diary, and he'll sing them in the songs."
JA: "I looked at the songs and then I looked at the diary entries, and I thought the only thing that Tom really knew about Harry was through the diary entries. And so I decided it would be great to really play up the connection between Tom and Harry, having lived on the farm at the same age, and, you know, Tom's mom still lives out there. In fact, it's really interesting that Harry's family actually sold at Tom's grandfather, so they have a real connection from a time and place."
SD: So, Tom, his family sold to your family? Do you in a way feel responsible or feel like you have to tell this person's story because of his connection to you and your family?
TI: "I could say that there's definitely...a connection that I felt in writing the songs. It's just odd to sit here and think about it. I just read these things this guy wrote when he was 16 years old and [would] go, 'Oh, that sounds like a song to me,' and I would develop what I thought he might feel, combined with actually how I felt. That's how the songs were developed."
SD: You've mentioned [this] a couple of times: [you have] a song about shucking corn. He [Harry Glen Ludlam] writes about that, in this sort of idealistic way...and that stood out to you?
TI: "Actually, that's something I interpreted. I just took the idea. He didn't really say much about it because he did it every day. It was a job that could be done. Sometimes Pa helped him, sometimes Uncle Ed, sometimes Julius Tuxhorn, the neighbor, would come help. But that became a tradition. There are folk song traditions about shucking corn; they had big parties in certain areas of the country, where people would just show up, come to your farm, shuck all your corn, and have a big party. He never talked about that, but I just thought, you know, he's a 16 year old kid and that's kind of how I felt about it; that if he had to shuck corn every day...after a while you're gonna go, like, 'Some folks got all the luck. Me? I got corn to shuck,' which is kind of a funny little line that came out of it."
SD: Finally, for the both of you, what's kind of the takeaway of this show? When folks come out to this, what do you want to leave them with in telling this story and singing these songs?
TI: "Part of it is the music. The songs will kind of carry themselves, but then [this] thread of how the story goes in between and what really happened that just takes it to a different place that it hasn't been before. I would say I hope people take away just the happiness of the songs, and what music just does to you. Plus, I'll use one of my old lines: it'll be entertaining, but also educational, because you'll learn a lot of things. I think they'll take away more the emotional part of it."
JA: "I always admired the songs. But when I brought this to a couple theater people before I even sat down to write, they said there's really a very heartfelt story in here that is calling out to be told. So...the songs are uniformly excellent, but the fact that they're in this kind of framework of this really interesting and hard tugging story [is] I think a great combination."