While visiting Saratoga Springs’ Canfield Casino next Monday and performing her musical tribute “Mark Twain: An American Life,” Judy Cook plans on a short side trip to the last resting place of one of Twain’s closest associates, Ulysses S. Grant.
“I’ve never been to Saratoga, so I’ve never been to Grant Cottage,” said Cook, who will be singing and telling stories about Twain at 7 p.m. Monday at the Saratoga Springs History Museum in Congress Park. “It sounds very interesting, so I’m definitely going to have go up there and check it out.”
Grant spent his last days near the top of Mount McGregor, just north of Saratoga Springs, finishing his memoirs with the help of Twain, who paid the former Civil War general and U.S. president a visit there in July of 1885, a few weeks before Grant died.
An Oberlin College grad who now lives near her alma mater in Ohio after spending most of her life in the Washington, D.C., area, Cook has been telling stories and exploring history through music since 1998. She put together her program on Twain with the help of her husband, Dennis, about 12 years ago.
“I had been doing a lot of programs on the Civil War and I would ask around about doing a program, and some people would say, ‘Well, we’re really not interested in the Civil War, but we’d love a program on Mark Twain,'” said Cook. “So that’s why I put together a program about Twain, and what I do is tell the story of his life through excerpts of his writing, relevant songs from the time period and projected images. I also use the voice of my husband as Mark Twain.”
History buffs in the Capital Region are probably familiar with how Twain helped Grant avoid financial ruin near the end of his life by editing and publishing his memoirs. But what many people might not know about Twain is that he, too, had severe money problems in the 1890s.
“The thing people are surprised to hear about Twain is that while he was in the midst of all this success and fame, he lost all of his money because of bad investments,” said Cook. “He was very interested in the latest technology, but because of his son he made some bad financial moves. He did regain his fortune by going back out on the lecture circuit and writing some new books.
“The other thing people are surprised by,” added Cook, “is that he had so much sadness in his life. Two of his siblings died, and three of his kids and his wife also all died before he did. We tend to think he was just this funny guy and a great writer, but a lot of people don’t realize how much tragedy he had in his life.”
Along with her program on Twain, Cook has musical offerings on various Civil War themes, such as “One Man’s Civil War,” “Lincoln’s America” and On The Home Front.” While she does often play a concertina during her performances, most of her singing is a cappella.
“I have always loved singing and we did it a lot in my family,” said Cook. “I was always singing, performing with friends in the Girls Scouts and college, and then I joined the Folklore Sociey of Greater Washington. We’d get together, have a potluck supper and then sing all evening. ‘These are my people,’ I thought. Well, I suddenly started getting asked to sing at different venues and festivals, and then I got paid. I really liked that.”
Her interest in the Civil War was heightened in 2002 when she found the Civil War letters of her great-great-grandparents, Gilbert and Esther Clafin. Cook transcribed the letters and added some historical context to them to produce a book, “A Quiet Corner of the World,” printed by the University of Wisconsin Press.
“The letters are what really drew me toward the Civil War period,” said Cook. “Gilbert was a Wisconsin farmer who at the age of 40 was drafted. He spent nine months in the Army and didn’t see any action, but he wrote these beautiful letters about camp life. He was stationed much of the time in western Kentucky near the Mississippi River and writes about having conversations with ex-slaves. They both write fascinating letters that tell us a lot about that time period.”
Cook’s appearance is part of the museum’s Alfred Z. Solomon Program Series. On Thursday, Aug. 16, S. Robert Powell, president of the Carbondale Historical Society, will talk about “The Delaware and Hudson Railroad and the Coal Connection to Pennsylvania.” On Thursday, Sept. 20, Capt. Hal Raven of the Adirondack Cruise and Charter Company will discuss “The Maritime History of Saratoga Lake.
‘Mark Twain: An American Life’
WHAT: A musical performance by Judy Cook
WHERE: Saratoga Springs History Museum at the Canfield Casino in Congress Park, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.saratogahistory.org
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