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flags Bill Schustik, An American Troubadour, home


Bill on stage Bill in the classroom
Photo: © Sarasota County Arts Council, Artists in Schools Program

Bill Schustik's passion for American history and performing for audiences of all ages has led him to become involved in numerous educational programs and performances in schools across the country.

Below is a letter from Deane L. Root, Director, Center for American Music, University of Pittsburgh on Bill's participation in their National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Teaching Institute, "Voices Across Time: Teaching American History Through Music" in the summer of 2004. It provides insight, not only on the power of Bill's performances, but also on his impact in the field of education.

Below that is an article first published in "Art Beat," The quarterly newsletter of the Sarasota County Arts Council. Bill served as Artist in Residence in the Arts Council's "Artists in Schools" program and the article gives a sense of the unique way Bill brings history to life for children and young adults.

University of Pittsburgh
Center for American Music
University Library System

August 31, 2004

Dear Bill,

The twenty-four teachers who participated in our NEH Summer Teaching Institute, "Voices Across Time: Teaching American History Through Music," have now all returned home and most have started their teaching year already, putting what they learned here in Pittsburgh to use in their own classrooms.

You got us all off to a terrific start the first week. One of the favorite photos circulating the last week was our Interlocked teacher, Amy, dressed in pirate's garb, and throughout the five weeks teachers held up your presentations as a standard against which they measured our other performers.

We are beginning to get the participants' (anonymous) evaluations of the Institute sent on to us from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and they are terrifically enthusiastic. Here is the best example of the comments:

"There were so many good performers. Bill Schustik, is a shanty singer and had to be the most entertaining of all the performers. He not only performed for us for two days, he came to Dr. Whitmer's house and performed and gave us a lecture on pirate history. It was wonderful. In fact I have already spoken to my administrator about having him come and perform for our school."
On behalf of all our NEH Institute participants and our staff, please accept my heartfelt thanks for a job superbly well done. You have positively affected the teaching in schools as far apart as Alaska, California, Texas, Michigan, Florida, and Massachusetts. Here's hoping this is just the start of even greater things to come.

With appreciation,

Deane L. Root, Director, Center for American Music
Fletcher Hodges Jr., Curator, Foster Hall Collection
University of Pittsburgh

Bill Schustik's passion about American lore,
particularly the less-known people, places and circumstances surrounding the American Civil War, has led him on a 25-year adventure, stopping all over the world to captivate audiences with his boundless energy and skill. He has performed his 'Troubadour's Songbag' in over 2,000 villages, towns and cities across the United States, including Washington D. C., where he has performed for three U. S. presidents, and written a show about the Civil War, "Shiloh Hill", which was produced by Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

So why is a critically acclaimed historian and performer spending his time in Sarasota classrooms? Well, he's a troubadour, and in true troubadour style, he unpacks his instruments and his props wherever he finds an audience. And in Sarasota County schools, thanks to the "Artists In Schools" program, Bill Schustik finds thousands of kids waiting to be wowed.

Capturing the attention of 100 seventh and eighth graders in the throws of adolescent self-consciousness and preoccupation is a daunting task. Just ask their regular teachers, who are given a brief respite when Bill Schustik comes to town. Last month, I had the opportunity to see Schustik at work, during a supervisory visit led by Ruth Gassett, who oversees the program for the Arts Council. Accompanied by Gerri Aaron, an Arts Council board member and passionate steward of the arts in education, we found seats in the audience at MacIntosh Middle School for an hour-long performance of 'A Troubadour's Songbag'.

I was there to take notes for this story, but although I did manage to jot down a few quotes, the right moments to shift my attention from Bill Schustik to my pen and paper never presented themselves. Like the kids, Ruth, Geri and I were transfixed.

Inspired by his deep curiosity as a child growing up in upstate New York and his parents' love of history, Schustik has spent his life studying American history, looking much deeper than textual accounts and combining fact with folklore for a story that is as captivating as it is enlightening. He says kids ask him why they don't get the real story in their history classes. He responds, 'O. K., you want the real story?" and off he goes, donning a three-cornered hat, breeches and boots, telling inside stories about the Confederate and Union soldiers like the kids have never heard them before.

While Schustik communicates factual history through entertaining anecdotes, he never stands still. He marches from one end of the classroom to the other, expertly plays the banjo or guitar, and sings American folk songs, pulling new props from his bag periodically to enhance the role of the moment.

We learned that Jeffrey Amherst—and not the Indians—invented the barbaric practice of scalping to substantiate the number of Indians he killed and was compensated for. We learned that Continental soldiers' style of dress and coif, which included very tall wigs and feathered caps, was known as 'macaroni', after the Continental cuisine du jour, because the men held their stacked hairdos together with flour and water. I have heard or sung Yankee Doodle a hundred times and I never knew what was meant by the lyric, 'he stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni'. Now I do.

After telling us stories about the Quartering Act and other oppressive British practices that led to the Revolutionary War, Schustik explained the origin and purpose of the armies' articles of clothing and weapons, illustrated with an impressive collection of authentic samples. The double-breasted coat was designed to overlap to the left or right side of a soldier's chest depending upon the direction of the wind. Likewise, the three-cornered hat was designed to catch the wind in such a way that it stabilized the hat to the head rather than blew it away and also funneled rain off the shoulders. The tomahawk not exclusively an Indian weapon, was the armies' weapon of choice because it also served as a hatchet tool in the woods.

I had to steal myself away from his performance long enough to look around and see that not one student was fidgeting or whispering or falling asleep. Between 9 a. m. and 10 a. m. on a Friday morning, when middle school students have long-since spent their attention on a week's worth of learning, Bill Schustik had successfully captivated every single member of the audience, including me.

—Story by Wendy Cloutier, "Art Beat"

For more information on school programs and availability, please call 845.268.6505.

Performing at Lincoln Center
Bill Performing at Lincoln Center's "Reel to Real for kids"
Photo: © Mitch Teplitsky

Below is a sampling of letters sent to Bill by students:

Cloudcroft, New Mexico 1991

Thank you for coming and singing. You were great! William, Grade 2

I really did like you singing for us and I mostly liked your singing so much! Theresa, Grade 2

Bay Haven Elementary, Florida 1992

Thank you so much for the music and the fun! Martin Jammillo

Thank you for coming. Your stuff and you were neat. I wish you could come again and tell us more. Sarah Merritt

I love those wooden people that you made dance! Everyone at my house is amazed at how I can "tongue" the harmonica: I tell them that Mr. Schustik taught me! Miss Taylor Simpson

I am so glad you could come! Where did you learn to play all those instruments? The one I liked best was the one where the people jumped up and down. Where did you learn all those songs? I thought they were so neat and different. I hope you come back next year! Ashley Evans

Jersey City, NJ 1986

It was fun to hear from you what we had already studied, but in a different manner. Your act reinforced old material and taught us new things as well. It was interesting and exciting! David Worman

You are the best actor and singer that has ever traveled the world! Eliezer Feanqui

In addition to being informative, you were very entertaining and enjoyable. I believe the things we learned from you will stay with us for a long time. John Wiler

Although I had heard of the traditional American songs, I never thought I would feel America with them. Thanks for having brought nearer the American spirit to me. I really enjoyed myself and after your performance, I think differently about America. James Vara (from Spain)

Northeast High School, Florida 1990

Bill Schustik is a pretty mondo cool dude! Many students who walked into class with apprehension, walked out with a smile on their faces. Everyone left feeling a little different, and a little more educated. Sabrina DiDonato

Bill Schustik is a great folk singer! William Barlow

When I was told I was going to see a folk singer I was more than a bit skeptical. Much to my surprise, this went far beyond my expectations. Bill is a good performer with a great sense of humor! On a scale of one to five I give him a five and a half! Carrie Padicinski

St. Petersburg High School, Florida 1990

Thanks very much for performing for us. You did an excellent job and kept all of us very entertained. Please come and visit again! Dana DeRussy

Thanks for giving us the opportunity to hear some great songs. History seemed more fun than it ever has, and I really enjoyed that day. Cindy

Your performance was great! A welcome change from every day history class. Jay Janowsky

Your show was enjoyable and enlightening. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. Anonymous

I thought your performance was great, and it was a new experience for me because I have never heard a folk singer before. You taught us facts in a way that no teacher teaches. The whole activity was fun and educational. Guy Wofford

Bill automatically kept everyone awake! Cheryl Johnson

You actually made history interesting and entertaining, which was a welcome change from the regular lecture. Beth Newman

Previously when the term, "folk music" has been said, I thought of Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked and other artists. Thanks to you I now know the true meaning of "folk music", and I also enjoy it! Alison May

You were beautiful and touched my heart deeply; FoLklore is #1! Denise Buren

I am a native of Vietnam, and though I know little of the Vietnamese heritage, I know even less of America's; that is, until your visit. Now I am richer in understanding and enjoyment of my adopted country's traditions. Thank you for the invaluable lesson. Ann Huijid

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