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Historical Society Explores Geneva's Musical Heritage

Jul 17, 2016

Last year, the Geneva R-and-B band Wilmer and the Dukes was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. Long before the regional spotlight turned to Geneva’s musical heritage, John Marks of the Geneva Historical Society had been cataloging and documenting the city’s musical history.

“What sparked it was Scott LaFaro. I grew up around here. I knew there had been a lot of music. I attended HWS Folk Fest and saw different groups and bands at the Smith Opera House.”

Linden Hall
Credit Geneva Historical Society

One doesn’t have to look much further than Geneva’s well-known landmarks to start to understand one part of the city’s musical history. The Smith Opera House has attracted top musical acts for more than a century not to mention Club 86.

“I started going to events there, I read the walls and saw the different people. Then, I started hearing some things and being involved at the Smith Opera House or going through the boxes we have here and also having the internet." says Marks "So, finding out that Mrs. Schumann-Heink in 1914 doesn’t mean anything, but you Google who Mrs. Schumann-Heink was, and she was actually a really big deal.”

But, visiting artists are only part of the story. The musical life of any community is measured by its residents and the music they made for one another.

“I think it was very gradual that I started picking up on the other pieces of musical heritage," says Marks "At some point, someone who had been the Appleknockers or the Appleknocker Juniors Corps came in and he was obsessed about it, so I learned a lot about the Appleknockers.”

The Appleknockers were a Geneva drum and bugle corps. A well-preserved record of their performances is one of a handful of audio recordings in the Geneva Historical Society archives. It’s a collection that hints at the variety of music that came from Geneva including vintage rock ‘n’ roll like Bobby “D” and the Trinidads.

All of which brings us to Music in the Key of Geneva. It’s the title of Marks has given to the collection he’s been curating, a collection that he’s reluctant to call an exhibit.

“I’ve actually been referring to it internally and to other people as a project because it’s going to have a number of things. You might walk into the lobby of the Smith Opera House and see one about brass bands or you might go into a bank lobby and see something about vocal groups. Exhibits are also often seen as the authoritative final word. The curator has researched. The curator has said this. It’s actually much more of a teaser for the whole project. It’s a visual way of getting people to think about all the kinds of music that are in Geneva and then hopefully they will pick up a podcast on the computer. They will read the blog on our website. They will read an article in the Finger Lakes Times.”

And, perhaps they’ll get involved. Members of the community have already come forward with sheet music and recordings of all kinds that are not a part of the Geneva Historical Society collections. Marks hopes that continues. For now, Music in the Key of Geneva will had its public debut, appropriately enough, at the corner of Scott LaFaro Drive and Seneca Street as part of Geneva Night Out.

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