For former Union College professor Robert Wells, the link between folk songs and the story they tell is a fascinating one.
"I've been interested in folk songs and history for some time now," said Wells, who will deliver a talk, "The Ballad of Schenectady and Other Local Songs," 2 p.m. Saturday at the Schenectady County Historical Society. "I've always enjoyed looking into the connection between the folks songs and the history they're based on."
Along with researching the songs and telling the story behind them, Wells is also well-equipped to perform the music with either his banjo or guitar.
"I was teaching a UCALL (Union College Academy for Lifelong Learning) class at Union about folk songs and I mentioned 'The Ballad of Schenectady' and played a little bit for them," said Wells, who also performs semi-regularly at the Moon and River Cafe and Arthur's in the Stockade neighborhood of Schenectady. "It's a long song and I've asked the people at the historical society to pass out some copies of the lyrics so people will be able to sing along with me."
Some of the other songs Wells will be discussing include the popular Kingston Trio song from 1958, "Tom Dooley," and "Spirit Gifts," a Shaker song.
"There are a number of songs that have a connection to Schenectady," said Wells. "'Taps' was written by a Union College graduate, Danuel Butterfield, and Tom Dula, it's pronounced like the song, Dooley, was also a Union College graduate. There are Shaker songs, Erie Canal songs, and Woody Guthrie wrote a bunch of songs about the Columbia River which the General Electric had a lot to do with."
Stories about those songs and others are all included in Wells' new book, "Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History." Published by Illinois Press, the book explores how American folk music relates to the American experience. It is the fifth book for Wells, who also produced "Facing the King of Terrors: Death and Society in an American Community, 1750-1990," back in 2010.
Wells was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, grew up in Flemington, New Jersey, went to Denison University for his undergraduate degree and went on to get his Ph.D at Princeton University. He started teaching early American history at Union College in January of 1969.
"I came up for an interview and really didn't know that much about Schenectady," said Wells, who finished his dissertation after taking the position at Union. "The guy who had been teaching decided to become a dean, so they needed somebody to start in the middle of the year."
Union looked at three Princeton Ph.D candidates for its vacant teaching position and decided to choose Wells. He didn't have to think twice about saying yes.
"There were two other guys looking for a job and we were all into early American history," remembered Wells. "One of those guys ended up in Iowa and the other in Oklahoma, so it worked out pretty well for me. If early American history is your thing, then upstate New York is not a bad place to be. But I was so busy that first year I didn't have a lot of time to learn more about Schenectady's history."
When Wells did finally dig into Schenectady's history, what he found was all very intriguing.
"There aren't a lot of cities in the U.S. that date back to 1660," he said. "I didn't know about the Massacre when I moved to Schenectady, but there's a lot of history here. We also have the Erie Canal and the arrival of GE and ALCO that really transformed the city. It's a wonderful area that my wife and I have really enjoyed since moving here almost 60 years ago."
Wells taught at Union for 45 years before retiring in 2013.
"A liberal arts college is a wonderful place," said Wells. "Teaching at Union was a great experience. I taught a lot of different history courses, and I always found it intriguing."
As for "The Ballad of Schenectady," written by Walter Willie in 1690 a few months after the massacre, Wells hopes his listeners on Saturday are in good voice. While Willie reputedly wrote the lyrics, Wells has supplied the music.
"The song was published in a book in 1840, but it says it was written in 1690 and I think that sounds pretty authentic," said West. "There would have been 10 to 20 common songs back then, so it would have been a common meter; eight beats, six beats, eight beats. I made it up with just two minor chords, but any kind of common meter tune would have worked."
'The Ballad of Schenectady'
WHAT: A presentation on history and folk songs by Robert Wells
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $5 for non-members
MORE INFO: (518) 374-0263, or visit www.schenectadyhistorical.org