Cece Otto to perform women's suffrage concert at Grand Lodge
Editor's Note: The event is canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The original story is written below.
In honor of Women's History Month, the McMenamins Grand Lodge Theatre in Forest Grove is educating others with a historical performance.
On March 25, the theater will host "Centennial of Suffrage: A Concert Commemorating the 19th Amendment" by Portland-area singer, composer and historian Cece Otto. The 90-minute show will feature songs from the 1860s through the 1920s.
"You're basically traveling back in time hearing these songs as they would have been sung a hundred years ago," Otto said. "As we do the songs, I always talk about the history of the song before we go back in time, because I find people just like that point of reference so much better."
In 1920, the United States ratified the 19th Amendment, prohibiting states and federal government from denying women the right to vote, after 70 years of protests, conventions and rallies.
Music was a pivotal part of the movement by getting the word out about the cause, as well as boosting morale for women who were on the front lines.
"We found that there were lyric booklets that they would carry," Otto said. "When they were protesting, they knew the melodies already and the words were there. But trying to find arrangements and music melodies that they would have known for the time was a little bit tough."
The concert features songs such as "Keep Woman in Her Sphere," set to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." By the 20th century, Tin Pan Alley began turning out suffrage-themed songs, leading to a wave of popular tunes like "I'm Going to Be a Suffragette" and "The Anti-Suffrage Rose," which also will be featured in the show.
"I wanted to bring these songs back to life because it's important to hear what they felt about the cause and what they wanted for us," Otto said. "I think people forget how long it takes to make something happen like that."
She added, "In our instant YouTube society, (how) you can find answers for everything so quick is wonderful. But sometimes, we forget that things take a long time to happen. I think it's important to bring that up and share that with people, too."
Otto has been a performer for over 20 years. In 2013, she launched her American Songline project to travel, write and share historical music across the country.
What Is a songline?
A songline is a trail followed by aboriginal Australians, who follow these paths singing songs that, according to traditional beliefs, may bring their ancestors back to life. Otto learned about the concept and wanted to adapt the idea for America. In 2016, she was granted a trademark for the term.
"It was kind of born out of this dream of doing this singing travelogue, and then I saw that people really wanted this more," Otto said.
The singer launched a Kickstarter to initially make the concerts free to the public. After much success, she started tweaking the concept.
"I decided to take on other points in history and kind of bring these musical concert programs from other points in history to people, and that's how it came to be," she added.
But the crowd wanted more.
After six months on the road, Otto wrote a travel memoir talking about the experience of performing historical shows around the country. An audience member then gave her a suggestion to create a book comprising all the research put into her shows.
"I then created a booklet that contained the lyrics, some of my research and some amazing pictures that I found that I could use with permission to share with people," Otto said.
For each performance, Otto also includes a snippet of history unique to the town she's performing in. She's excited to bring that knowledge to Forest Grove.
"It's so important, because each part of the country was looking at women's suffrage in a completely different way," she said. "It's important to focus on those little details locally because it makes this program unique."
Otto hopes her American Songline performance with a mix of story, song and humor will inspire others throughout Women's History Month.
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