The Susquehanna River is an iconic feature of the Valley and a recent project is highlighting just one more service it provides — a source of inspiration.
The Songs of the Susquehanna project, a 20-song compilation featuring pieces by local musicians about the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, was organized by the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association. The playlist is available to purchase as a $15 CD with proceeds benefitting the organization.
“A former co-worker mentioned about a similar group doing something creative with river songs. I had a lot of connections with local musicians and have grown to really appreciate their diversity, talent and passion,” said John Zaktansky, riverkeeper. “The region — defined by the river valley our organization serves — has a great music scene.”
When the pandemic shut down venues and events for local musicians, it also denied the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association options to engage new audiences and teach about the river’s benefits and issues it is facing.
“This project seemed like the perfect pandemic-proof way to give local musicians a new platform to share their talents while giving us a creative way to engage people throughout the 11,000 square mile watershed we serve about the environmental, recreational, historical and therapeutic aspects of our river-based resources,” Zaktansky said.
In the end, 36 musicians or musical groups submitted 46 original songs inspired by the river and its tributaries.
One of those musicians was KJ Reimensnyder-Wagner, who submitted “Susquehanna (The River Called Her Name).”
“I actually changed the words to a song that I had written originally, honestly, for the Juniata region since I was working out there at the time I first wrote this song,” said Reimensnyder-Wagner. “I thought this would be a nice opportunity to adapt the song to this river region now, since I actually live closer to the Susquehanna and the storyline could be the same.”
She said the technique is common for songwriters.
“You’ll hear many stories of songwriters doing that with material, adapting songs to fit the needs at the time,” she said. “’Take Me Home, Country Roads’ is also a lovely example of that.”
After nearly 200 people offered feedback and cast 1,152 votes on which songs should be included on the Songs of the Susquehanna 2021 playlist, the list was narrowed down to 20 by members of the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association’s board of directors.
Zaktansky said it was “extremely” difficult to narrow the selection down that far.
“We opened up an online voting option to get a feel of what resonated with people throughout the region,” he said. “We got quite a bit of response, but also didn’t want to make this a popularity contest. Association board members factored the public response heavily, but also wanted to be mindful of producing an audibly diverse album with geographical representation across our watershed, lyrics that were easy to understand and focused on the river as the central element.”
Reimensnyder-Wagner’s song was one of the 20.
“I’m honored to be among these fine songwriters. Many of them, I considered dear friends, playing music with them for years,” she said. “My cousin, Barbara Duncan, has also been selected for one of her lovely pieces, originally a Pennsylvania resident herself.”
Zaktansky said the quality of the songs submitted made selection difficult, but it also led the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association to make the project an annual event. Any song not selected this year is automatically eligible for the 2022 Songs of the Susquehanna project.
He also encouraged “people of all ages and backgrounds to create new songs from their river-based adventures this year.”
“It would be great if school music programs incorporated the project and we develop a student bracket in our program,” he said.
The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association is working on a way for audiences to download the playlist via music streaming platforms. Lyrics to all the songs are available at middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org/song-project
Reimensnyder-Wagner said she wanted to thank Zaktansky and Kimbo Reichley and anyone else who was involved in the project.
“The beautiful word itself, Susquehanna, lends itself to many stories, songs and poems throughout the years. I’m glad it’s being highlighted like this now,” she said.