Digital History Localized: Heavy Water Radio and Bismarck’s June 2008 Ribfest

If one is a geek, the phrase Digital History is indeed familiar. It sounds even a bit sexy, the combination of a semi-conductor Silicon Valley word with a traditional discipline (historians like to use the word “traditional” and “contemporary”). To see how I could put together a short memory from the summer of 2008, I decided to use Google’s algorithm, or what we commonly refer to as the Google Search Engine (here is a heck-of-a discussion on the algorithms that power Google). By typing in the name of a band I used to drum for — Heavy Water Radio (HWR) — and the name of the city most-associated with this band (Bismarck, North Dakota), Google returned several results.

One of the results consulted was the “Ribfest 2008 Schedule” put out by Nightlife Music, and this listed all the bands for the the 3-day line-up. HWR played toward the tail-end of it all, on a Saturday evening (June 21, 2008) from 6:00-to-7:30PM, the stage set up just south of the Civic Center in downtown Bismarck. This is one example of what the south side of the stage looked like, the Bismarck Civic Center to the north behind the stage.

This is a Google Earth map of the Bismarck Civic Center and surrounding area, asphalt parking lot included.

The Bismarck Ribfest came about through broader historical forces (as all events do), ultimately fusing the blues and slow-cooked ribs, the origins of which either realistically or mythically came from the geographic area that is the American South (a Romanian friend once insisted that bbq originated in Romania — whatever). Today this fusion is appropriated by organizers and projected across the world, the northern Great Plains notwithstanding. The blues and heavy blues (which was the business of HWR) often articulate feelings of melancholy and subtle distress, even oppression, yet the output is lively and celebratory — “I got the blues!” is often said as a kind of boast, sticking it to the real or imagined Man, letting them know they cannot keep one’s spirit down.

Anyhow, to show how this story benefits from the vehicles of Digital History calls for a bit of reflection. First of all, Digital History allows an individual to share individual experiences and contextualize them with broader events through various platforms of Social Media: so long as a person has an internet connection and a computer, they are outfitted to become active participants rather than passive recipients of history. Things do not, after all, happen in a vacuum, and the interconnectivity provided by the mobile web is increasingly realized (globally, the influence of the mobile web has been demonstrated in Libya and Egypt, throughout various occupy movements, and as of December 2011 in Moscow).

As for HWR’s performance on June 21, 2008 in downtown Bismarck, I remember the evening as being all the warmer due to the event being held in an asphalt parking lot. A chain-link fence surrounded the parking lot as well, and its purpose was to keep out individuals who did not pay. It inadvertently had the effect of also making the drummer for HWR (that’s me) feel as though he was readying to play in some kind of penitentiary courtyard on a hot summer evening.

Members of Heavy Water Radio eat ribs from styrofoam containers in an asphalt parking lot that felt like a penitentiary courtyard. The HWR drummer is at left and the bass player at right (June 2008).

After scrolling through some of my own digital photos, it also became clear that at some point after the event, HWR received some ribs — always negotiate a complimentary food/drink tab with the organizers (don’t be afraid to politely assert yourself: we all need to front our dignity every now and then). Do this especially if you are a thirsty blues band like HWR.

And because live music requires gear, and a place to store and practice with that gear, the personal photos also revealed a snapshot of what it is like just before a band leaves the studio (aka, your friends sweet basement playing room) for the gig, gear packed into a pickup, this equipment ready to receive amplification and — if the band pulls it off with enough success — accolades.

A segment of gear that your local musicians have to purchase and haul and set up before and then play and then tear down after each gig. Because we're tearing down gear after a gig is often why we cannot join you for celebratory drinks immediately after said gig.

With numerous events getting digitized the world over, and with super algorithms that provide researchers with near-instant digital data and results, it is important to remember that analysis (and analysis of that analysis) are fundamentals to all history: a singular event can be and is viewed and understood in numerous contexts. So if you think a history you are a part of is missing something, then it is okay to say so and offer your perspective. At the very least this gives historians and publishers job security, since a new edition will need to be published to account for the new data and information. Also, because societies evolve and change over time ultimately means that history evolves and changes over time. What was once un-important and left out may at some point become important and significant to this or that person or group.

These little snippets of mine are but one amongst many, as everyone who attended invariably had a take on their own experience. This little essay seemed like a good enough reason to briefly talk about digital history, and upload a couple personal photos to the collective web.

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