Retelling history in song

Racy tune at church dinner leads to career

Racy tune at church dinner leads to career

August 18, 2005|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL


Listening to Roy Justice interpreting history through song and story, it's hard to believe that history was his worst subject in high school.

The tall, bearded man makes a living talking about historical events and the everyday lives of long-dead people, accompanying himself on a 12-string guitar.

It's a career he fell into completely by accident.

In 1971, when Justice was 18, he was invited to sing at a church dinner in Massapequa, N.Y., where he grew up. He performed Neil Diamond's "Longfellow Serenade," thinking it was about taking a girl to a park and reading the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow together. When he had finished singing, a man in the group stood up and denounced Justice.


"He was right in the middle of the audience," Justice recalled. "And he said, 'I never thought I'd hear a song like that in a church.'"

It turned out that the song contained a euphemism used in the military for something racier than discussing literature with a young lady. Justice apologized, and decided he would never again sing a song without knowing the meaning of every single phrase.

Often that meant delving into the history of the times in which the song was written.

However, due to a severe reading disability, Justice was unable to read until he was a junior in college.

"I took four semesters of music history in college and barely passed," he said Wednesday after performing at First United Methodist Church in Chambersburg. "But what I learned in the research for that class changed my life."

After college, he started giving programs on the backgrounds of songs, often researching the history of the group he was entertaining and tying it in with his presentation.

"You have to make it fun in some way. Music is a reflection of history," he said.

Since the mid-1980s, Justice has been calling himself a time-traveling minstrel. In medieval times, a minstrel was a musician who sang or recited to the accompaniment of instruments. Justice plays his 12-string guitar to accompany his "history lessons."

Justice is highly skilled at presenting what some think is a dry subject in an animated way, drawing on diaries and letters of the time, rather than on history books.

"History is people, not dates, facts and figures," he said.

From 1836 to 1852, settlers traveled west on the Oregon Trail in covered wagons, including many from Pennsylvania, Justice told his audience Wednesday.

That was not a particularly interesting fact to the children in attendance.

Then he told them that children in the wagon trains had to walk alongside the wagons with buckets all day, collecting buffalo chips to fuel the cooking fires.

"O Susanna," written in 1848 by Stephen Foster, "was the No. 1 hit song of that time," Justice said, "and that's what the children sang as they collected the buffalo chips. It was Susanna who got us across this country."

When Justice is not making history live for groups of all ages, he teaches voice and beginning guitar at Cumberland Valley School of Music, where his wife, Linda, teaches piano.

Attending Justice's performance with two friends was James Buchanan Middle School student, Alicia Cline, 11, who said that Justice's rendition of "Yankee Doodle" was her favorite song.

The time-traveling minstrel will perform two more times before school starts.

If you go

What: Roy Justice, Time-Traveling Minstrel

Where: Fellowship Hall of First United Methodist Church, 225 S. Second St. Chambersburg, PA 17201. Use the Washington Street entrance.

When: Sat. Aug. 20, 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., American Folktales and Legends. Wed. Aug. 24, 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Christmas in August.

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