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By Marcy Stamper
Photography by Mandi J. Donohue
Hank Cramer’s sonorous bass voice has certainly changed since he was coached in the third grade by an Italian opera singer, but Cramer’s attraction to music has never wavered.
Still, it took some time before Cramer dedicated himself full-time to music. “I’d say my dream was to bag the day job and become a folk singer,” he said. So, after decades of juggling weekend singing gigs with work as a copper miner, a career in the Army, and as manager of 911 emergency-communications systems, Cramer has devoted the past 18 years exclusively to music.
With a specialty that blends history of the Western U.S., maritime history, and Irish and Scottish songs, Cramer now spends some 100 days on the road each year, traveling to performances at museums, historic sites, and music festivals. He has recorded 21 CDs of cowboy songs, folk music, Irish and Scottish repertoire, and sea shanties.
Between singing on a Columbia River riverboat and recording sessions in Tacoma, Cramer recently spent about 24 hours at his home outside Winthrop. He also played his long-standing gig singing for covered-wagon dinner rides at Sun Mountain Lodge.
Cramer credits the Sun Mountain job as a turning point in his music career. While singing cowboy songs at a dinner ride in 1998, Cramer met Kit McLean, a Methow Valley native and wrangler, who led the rides.
McLean has a particular appreciation for folk music and history. Her father, Ron McLean, was a folksinger, a poet, and a schoolteacher. He founded the Pine Stump Symphony, a well-respected folk-music festival, in the Methow half a century ago.
So McLean knew the landscape when she prodded Cramer to pursue his music. “Your whole future is inside that guitar case – you’ve never had the courage to try it,” Cramer remembers her saying.
“I surrendered first,” said Cramer. He moved to the Methow, and he and McLean later got married.
Those first few years were tough. Cramer worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, from helping on horseback rides and doing 911 consulting. “As you’re building your career as a musician or a landscape painter in the Methow, you may have to take the morning shift at Pardners Mini Market and plow driveways in the winter,” he said.
A VOICE THAT CARRIES
Cramer credits his ability to project his voice so it fills a room – or the larger outdoor spaces where he often sings – to the instruction he got in the third grade at Catholic school in upstate New York. Salvatore Baccaloni, an Italian opera singer, lived in the area and was eager to share his skills with the students.
Baccaloni taught them to breathe properly, to sing with their mouth open, and to aim for a spot on the back wall, said Cramer. Fifty years later, his voice carries so well that people sometimes ask if he’s wearing a hidden microphone, he said.
Cramer hasn’t had any formal vocal instruction since. “All those lessons stayed with me,” he said. Some of Baccaloni’s other skills also rubbed off on Cramer. Baccaloni was considered one of the best comic performers in opera – one reviewer said he “acted with his voice.”
Today, Cramer achieves the same effect through his inflection and delivery. He’s a natural storyteller, with a casual, disarming sense of humor. When he sings, that conversational intimacy comes through loud and clear.
“The whole show is an experience for the audience. There are jokes and poignant stories,” he said. “From the time you step on stage, you have to own the stage and connect with the audience.”
Cramer, who has a degree in education with a specialty in history, has never taught in a standard classroom. He had never thought about teaching through music until he was hired by Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) to teach a unit on Pacific Northwest history for a group at Sun Mountain. It turns out a lot of the participants in their educational vacations found their history teachers knowledgeable but uninspiring, said Cramer.
Cramer already had a repertoire of songs about the Oregon Trail, maritime history, and cowboy lore, which he recast as a curriculum in Northwest history. He’s been teaching it twice a year for Road Scholar at Sun Mountain for the past two decades.
Soon museums and historical organizations began hiring him to present similar programs. Cramer’s in his 18th season doing living-history presentations along the Oregon Trail, where he dresses as an immigrant, complete with a replica of a small guitar from the 1840s. In San Francisco, Cramer performs in sailing clothes, and he does a regular stint on Lady Washington, a replica of a tall ship from 1787.
“Mixing music an history is kind of uniquely mine,” said Cramer. He lets the audience control the pace. “I do history until they get doughnut-faced and get a glazed expression, and then I switch to a song,” he said.
He’s struck a good balance. People say, “If I’d have had you as my high school history teacher, I’d have really enjoyed it,” said Cramer.
Cramer draws material from old folk and cowboy songs, although he writes some of his own material. “With folk songs, generally the melodies are older than the words – melodies can be 400 years old,” he said. “In this genre, it’s a good thing if it sounds like it’s 50 years old before the ink is dry,” he said.
And part of what makes his approach successful is that songs from that era use people’s own words to tell their stories, said Cramer.
Cramer takes advantage of the tens of thousands of miles he spends on the road each year to learn new material. He prefers to learn music by ear, in the true folk tradition. “By listening, I understand that the art of a good song is really enhanced poetry,” he said.
“I call it listening at the top of my lungs,” he said. Once in his motel room, he works out the chords on the guitar – he has nine guitars for different types of music, and also plays banjo.
Cramer also performs around the state through Humanities Washington. In fact, he’s made it his mission to bring his music and history shows to out-of-the-way places that rarely hear traveling performers. In 2011, he received the Humanities Washington Award in 2011, presented to one performer each year for excellence in the humanities.
Cramer was surrounded by music when he was growing up. His grandmother, who came to the U.S. from Ireland when she was 6 years old, took him to his first concert of Irish songs, a performance by the Clancy Brothers. Cramer wasn’t enthusiastic. He was an 8-year-old boy, into Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. “I didn’t want to listen to my grandmother’s music,” he said.
But he was transfixed. “I’d never seen anything like it before – the energy level leaped off the stage,” said Cramer. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up.”
Cramer’s experiences in the military also inform his performances. He comes from a long military tradition, following his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father in serving in the U.S. Army. Cramer’s father was the first U.S. soldier to be killed in Vietnam, back in 1957, when Hank was just 4 years old.
Cramer spent 14 years in the Army, specializing in communications, and then put in another 14 years in the Army reserve. After leaving the Army, he ran civilian emergency-dispatch operations and headed up the 911 program in Washington.
Among all Cramer’s musical accomplishments, the biggest honor – although one of the hardest things he does – is singing at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, for Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Fathers’ Day ceremonies.
Captain Cramer’s name was added to the wall on Veterans’ Day of 1983, one year after the monument was first dedicated. Now Hank is asked to help when they read all the names on the memorial. The next reading is this Veterans’ Day. It takes four days to read the more than 58,000 names, he said.
PAYING IT FORWARD
Cramer is continuing to expand his role in the music world by promoting younger musicians through his Ferryboat Music label. So far, he’s produced two albums of traditional Irish and Scottish songs for Brian Maskew, a British musician who lives in the Methow; an album for Carter Junction, a young couple from Spokane; and the first album for his son, Hank Cramer IV.
“I provide advice, but the artist isn’t obligated to listen to me,” said Cramer, who admitted he didn’t know what he was doing when he first produced his own albums.
“I’m nearing the end of my career,” said Cramer. “If I can take the things I’ve learned in all these years and help other people progress without trial and error, that’s my new mission. Then I’m pretty happy.”
WHERE YOU CAN HEAR HANK:
Sept 1: Natl Historic Oregon Trail Interp Ctr, Baker City, OR
Sept 2: Tumbleweed Festival, Richland, WA
Sept 7: Cowboy Chuckwagon Dinner, Sun Mountain lodge
Sept 14: Fundraiser for Methow at Home, Twisp River Grange
Sept 16: Cowboy Chuckwagon Dinner, Sun Mountain lodge
Sept 21: Spokane Veterans’ Forum
Sept 30: Cowboy Chuckwagon Dinner, Sun Mountain Lodge
Oct 2-4: NW History Story & Song, Road Scholars, Sun Mountain Lodge
Oct 7-8: Sharlot Hall Museum, Prescott, AZ
Oct 24-29: Celtic Music Festival, Ocean Shores, WA
Nov 1: Shriners Musical Salute to Veterans, Spokane, WA
Nov 7: 35th Anniversary “Reading Of The Names”, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC
Nov 11-12: Spokane Fall Folk Festival
Nov 25: Seattle Folklore Society
Dec 9: Canon Rose Acoustic Society, Canon City, CO
Visit Hank’s website to learn more about his performances and life at www.hankcramer.com.