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reed magazine logoWinter 2008

Back to Roots

Lauren Sheehan ’81 took a chance when she was in her 40s. She quit her job teaching at alternative schools and began to pursue a musical career.

The teaching had turned into administration, and the private Waldorf school (Swallowtail) she had helped found in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro, Oregon, no longer offered her the kinds of challenges she needed.

It seemed like a leap, but for her it was a natural one. Sheehan has been playing and studying music from early on, starting with classical guitar lessons as a child in Western Massachusetts, followed by years of contra-dance accompaniment in New England and the Pacific Northwest, and then an attempt at scholarly reflection at Reed.

Lauren Sheehan ‘81


“No one should read my thesis,” she insists, reiterating a common sentiment for people who have gone on to explore their scholarly and artistic interests after college. (For the record, the thesis was titled Urban Cowsongs, advised by music professor David Schiff.)

Sheehan’s focus now is on the powerful and pervasive oral traditions in American popular music. As a performer and scholar, she views the living practitioners of traditional American music as her teachers and mentors; they help her understand and replicate music from before the time of sound recordings.

“Most of the people I work with are over 75 and they are all dying now,” she says. “But these are the people who learned music from their grandparents, who were living before radio created the changes and syntheses in American acoustic music that we have come to know.”

She has developed relationships with musicians who play blues, country blues, and mountain music in New England and Appalachia. Her own performance and recording style ranges over a variety of regional traditions and harkens back to music that became popular between the 1920s and World War II. She has worked with John Cephas, Ginny Hawker, Etta Baker, Carl Rutherford, Howard Armstrong, and John Jackson.

“I’m particularly interested in the confluence of mountain string bands and black country blues,” she says, “how mountain harmonies stretch over blues

tunes, or how the blues takes up the harmonies of string bands.”

In addition to releasing two critically acclaimed albums (Some Old Lonesome Day, 2002, and Two Wings, 2005), Sheehan teaches and performs widely. A proficient Piedmont-style picker, she spreads this tradition (familiar to some as the style played by Elizabeth Cotton) all over the Pacific Northwest. She has found a fertile community of fellow old-time musicians at Centrum, an institute in Port Townsend, Washington, which features an annual Festival of Country Blues, as well as week-long institutes.

The past couple of years have given Sheehan a new perspective, as she moved to the urban environment of Portland from her rural home outside Tillamook on the Oregon Coast. The most radical change she notices is her relationship to time: she finds city audiences impatient compared to rural ones. Sometimes, she says, she enters a performance venue expecting an attentive crowd, only to find people who want little more than a sound track for drinking. “I want to make music that keeps alive the sumptuousness that comes with taking time to listen and respond, to really communicate,” she says.

Education of audiences about music is never far from the performance of the music itself for Sheehan. In January, for instance, she appeared at the Ilwaco Heritage Museum on the Washington Coast as part of a traveling Smithsonian show called New Harmonies. The show visits rural communities around the nation, connecting to local musicians who are keeping the traditions of American roots music alive. Reedies

can catch her act at Reunions 2008 in June, where she will be teaching and performing from her vast repertoire.

Sheehan has numerous projects in the works. One involves her “favorite sideman,” Joel Tepp of Seattle (on bottleneck, clarinet, and harmonica), who has also worked with Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and Little Feat. “Together, we blend the sounds and feel for the old styles with a modern, personal, improvisatory, and interpretive approach,” she says of their collaboration. Another duo she is developing with Elizabeth Nicholson ’98 is called Strawberry Runes—“a Celtic/Americana orientation, celebrating the agrarian cycles and seasons with songs of family, hearth, and heart.”

Check out Sheehan’s musical projects and upcoming performances at

—Sarah Dougher ’90 (also performing at Reunions 2008)

reed magazine logoWinter 2008