They’re a blast from the past.
By day, Betsey and Jonathon Goering devote themselves to teaching high school and the economic development of Allen County, respectively, but on many a night and weekend they transform into The Free Staters, a historical reenactment band that plays a mix of Americana, minstrel and folk songs.
The duo even had a Civil War-era style wedding, and happened to celebrate their eighteenth anniversary earlier this week.
“All of our bridal party was begrudgingly dressed in period clothes,” laughed Betsey.
And Jonathon recalled how, “on our honeymoon, we went to Virginia and met the guy who made my banjo. He lived on top of a mountain, basically in a log cabin.”
“I’ll never forget that.”
THE STORY of The Free Staters began when Jonathon first learned about Civil War reenacting while at Tabor College in Hillsboro.
One day he decided to journey to Carthage, Mo., where he joined up with a group of Wichita reenactors and was blown away by the experience.
“That’s where I found this music,” he said. “I had heard other songs, but had no idea this music existed.”
Not long after, Betsey got in on the action as well, though not at first as a musician.
“There’s not much for a female dressed in period attire to do at a battle reenactment, so eventually I thought I should be a soldier,” she grinned.
Two more bandmates would also join the fun, and before long, The Free Staters found themselves living weekends on the road, including performing multiple shows in Humboldt.
“We ended up getting on the Kansas Touring Artist roster, and toured all over the state and region,” Jonathon explained.
“We had so much fun. We met so many people, and because it was a niche, very few people were doing that, especially in the Midwest.”
“One year I think we played 50 shows, and were still working full-time,” Betsey recalled.
IN The Free Staters, Betsey plays violin and Jonathon plays banjo, which he referred to as “the quintessential American instrument.”
She started early, first picking up the strings while just three years old.
He was originally a guitar player, though the transition to another instrument proved surprisingly challenging.
“I had to suffer through that,” said Betsey, laughing about the memory of Jonathon first learning to play a fretless instrument.
AS for the band’s repertoire, as Jonathon explained, “the music we play is Antebellum, mostly pre-Civil War, although a lot of these melodies are centuries old.”
“You’re seeing these European melodies from Ireland, Scotland, England, and seeing them combined with African rhythms, the banjo being an African instrument.”
He continued, observing how “it’s so melodic, percussive, catchy, infectious. That’s why so many of these melodies survive today.”
Unfortunately, given its historical character, “a lot of this music is racist, because it was written by white northerners interpreting slavery, poking fun at either slaves or slave-owners.”
Hence it’s often necessary to change certain lyrics or phrases for the sake of cultural sensitivity, while keeping alive the music’s original character as much as possible.
The band’s biggest hit, however, is the instrumental “Ashokan Farewell,” which as Betsey explained, “is not a period song but appeared in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.”
“Everybody goes ape over that song,” she said, “and I happened to play it in the seventh-grade talent show.”
AS historical reenactors as well as musicians, it’s easy to see why The Free Staters’ music involves an educational experience as well as a sensory one.
And not just because the band’s name refers to people historically opposed to slavery.
“It is an opportunity to educate people,” Jonathon agreed. “Because the beauty of it is, that this is America’s first music.”
“This music is the source of everything you hear today: country, rock, RnB, jazz.”
And it was largely music originally made by Black people, then repurposed by white artists over the years.
Hence “it’s really challenging to be sensitive and appropriate,” Betsey observed, but both she and Jonathon agree about the importance of keeping such songs alive.
ALL told, “I hope the music leads to conversations,” said Jonathon.
“I hope people hear it and say, ‘What is that?’ ‘Where did it come from?’ ‘Why is it important?’”
And the themes of many songs are especially relevant during this time of the year, when people are increasingly thinking about not only freedom as such, but the unfulfilled yet ongoing promise of America to deliver liberty and justice for all.
So if you have a chance to catch one of The Free Staters’ performances, enjoy, but listen closely.
You’re sure to learn something.