Lincoln Log Cabin - Chris Vallillo 03/31/18

Chris Vallillo performs at Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site near Lerna.

LERNA -- When it came to music, rural Illinois in the 1800s and early 1900s flourished with an influx of styles and instruments from across the country, according to a roots-folk musician, Chris Vallillo.

He said Illinois was a "melting pot" for music. Illinois music was a "blend."

A performer of historical rural Midwest music throughout this era, Vallillo demonstrated the eclectic sound to rural Illinois music this spring.

In his performance at Lincoln Log Cabin, he indicated that Illinois served as a crossroads for music at the time.

The state's unique position in the nation soon coupled with a robust transportation afforded rural Illinoisans the opportunity to get a constant and diverse stream of music.

"We were rich with transportation like no other state," he said.

Major waterways surrounded and went through the state. Along with bringing supplies and goods, boats heading down rivers like the Mississippi or the Wabash brought along with them new music and instruments.

Later on, Illinois benefit from the railroads. The railroads grew and Illinois became a central connection for rail lines across the country, Vallillo said.

The railroads and the steamboats would quickly inform what became the "melting pot" that was the Illinois sound.

Many of the influences early on came from the south.

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"Most of the earliest settlers in our state, much like Abraham Lincoln himself, are people coming out of Kentucky, Tennessee and eventually bringing to Illinois the old music they knew," he said. "A lot of those early songs were fiddle tunes."

They brought along with them fiddles predominantly, Vallillo said. But, steamboats would also bring along slide guitars and introduce the bottle-neck style to the state in the later 1880's.

Also during that time, the birth of steam-powered presses brought along popular music from the east.

"I was expecting all of these weird old songs," Vallillo said of his research into Illinois music. "There are not the many -- the music was surprisingly cosmopolitan. There weren't that many isolated pockets where it kept that way for generations and generations."

Vallillo said the primary instrument was the fiddle especially in the dawn of the state; however, other instruments like the banjo came into the picture in the 1840s. Guitars would join the fray after the Civil War.

When instruments like these were not available, people would still find a way to crank out a tune. Vallillo said music was often a social activity more than a talent at the time. He said the instrument of choice could have been as simple as a jaw harp, which offers up the cartoonish sounds like boing, bing and zing that the instrument is known for.

Vallillo said Lincoln often played the jaw harp with his lawyer colleagues along his trips.

When an instrument was not there, they would simply sing. Vallillo performed and noted a few work songs that were often sung as a rhythm as people rowed up and down streams on flatboats.

Music was everywhere in the state and its sound could have been seen as a window into music from across the country.

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Jarad Jarmon is a reporter for the JG-TC. He covers the city of Charleston, Eastern Illinois University, Mattoon schools and the Regional Office of Education.

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