This article originally appeared in the Mt. Vernon Register-News
MT. VERNON — The Jefferson County Historical Society opened its special-event season with bluegrass and a bang as Chris Vallillo performed his one-man historical tribute “Abraham Lincoln in Song” at the historical village Saturday.
The 75-minute performance, a narrative show tracing the president’s life through the songs of his era and political tribute pieces, used a variety of musical instruments including three guitars, a jaw harp and an authentic 1880 hammer dulcimer.
Vallillo plays them all, as he did Saturday to perform 12 songs ranging from “Dixie’s Land,” the New York City satire that morphed into Confederate anthem “Dixie,” to the repurposed Irish folk song “Lincoln and Liberty” that became the theme of his 1860 presidential campaign.
Vallillo, a nationally-recognized historian and performer of period folk music, separated the songs with spoken history about Lincoln’s life, from his birth in Kentucky to his several failed business ventures in southern and central Illinois to, finally, his emergence as a national politician and death in office.
The program was commissioned as part of the bicentennial celebration of Lincoln’s birth in 2009. The finished product is a project about which Vallillo’s intensely passionate, and it showed in his animated, informative presentation.
“My background is in archaeology, so it really came together when I got interested in old instruments and old music,” he said. “I think this is a really interesting vehicle to teach history and use music to engage people and put them back in those times.”
Vallillo appeared at the village through the Illinois Humanities Council’s Road Scholar program, which funded the show’s development and staging. Getting the tribute from concept to stage to tour was a difficult but ultimately fulfilling one for Vallillo, and he thanked the donors who helped make it possible.
“I have been very, very fortunate to be able to perform this around the country,” he said. “It’s been a great experience: It’s taken me to places I never thought I’d go, and I’ve met people with all kinds of connections to Lincoln.”
Jamie Wheeler, director of community relations for JCHS, said it was an honor to host Vallillo, and she’s excited for the remainder of the village’s season.
“Getting (historical) programs into the rural parts of the country is very important because we don’t have the cultural resources downstate that even the poorest people in Chicago have,” Vallillo said. “There are kids (who see these shows) who have never seen music played besides on TV. That’s absolutely important for small communities. I want them to watch me and realize, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”