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'Songs Of St. Joseph' Concert Tries To Figure Out The Identity Of A Missouri Town

Tanner Martine
Simon Fink, left, with his Under the Big Oak Tree band mates Doug Ward and Kristin Hamilton.

In 2016, Simon Fink and his band, Under the Big Oak Tree, performed a holiday concert in their hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri.

One of the songs they played was “The Little Drummer Boy,” which was composed by Katherine K. Davis. As it turned out, she was born and raised in St. Joseph.

Fink and his bandmates had already been toying with the idea of doing a show featuring St. Joseph songwriters, based on the original songs they had been hearing from other local musicians.

But after that holiday show, they got the idea to incorporate songwriters from the past. And they started digging.

The result is "Songs of St. Joseph," which they'll perform in St. Joseph on Saturday and in Kansas City on on Monday.

About half of their research into past songwriters involved talking to other local musicians.

“A lot of (these songwriters) weren’t famous enough to write about; they weren’t well-documented,” Fink says.

He encountered some surprises while doing his research.

Coleman Hawkins, a tenor saxophone player who revolutionized the role of the soloist in jazz, was born in St. Joseph. Fink didn’t realize that Hawkins had done many of his own compositions as well.

Or that Davis, of “The Little Drummer Boy” fame, had been a professional composer and arranger starting in her late 20s, and had written many choral songs.

“I was definitely surprised by how prolific she was,” he says.

For Fink, the purpose of featuring St. Joseph songwriters, both past and present, is part of trying to figure out the identity of the town.

He used to live in Texas, where his job was to go to small towns to help with arts programs. In Texas, every small town had some sort of identity, he says, whether it was "the mushroom capital" or was known for its border culture.

“I feel there’s so much history, so many interesting things (in St. Joseph), but that’s not coalescing for people right now as an identity,” he says.

According to Fink, the songs that they’ll perform at Songs of St. Joseph have something in common.

“They all use very simple materials to communicate something interesting or expressive,” he says.

One Coleman Hawkins song, “My Own Blues,” uses three notes in its melody. And the music by their contemporaries is also simple, but with a spark, he says.

But Fink is reluctant to say what St. Joseph should be known for.

“I’m really interested in that question, and I don’t feel like I can answer it. I’m curious what people will hear in this concert.”

Under the Big Oak Tree performs Songs of St. Joseph with special guest Jason Riley, 2 p.m., Saturday, April 7 at the Paradox Theatre, 107 S. 6th Street, St. Joseph, Missouri 64501; and 6 p.m., Monday, April 9 at the Rural Grit Happy Hour at The Brick, 1727 McGee, Kansas City, Missouri 64108; tickets are $3, for more information, call 816-421-1634.

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org and follow her on Twitter @JenChenKC.

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