As he sits in the National Frontier Trails Museum, Independence-based musician Dana Mengel can’t help but pick up his violin and play.
The colorful backdrop behind Mengel shows the long, winding story of the Oregon Trail, a canvas populated with oxen, covered wagons and rocky terrain. When Mengel finishes the last note of his song, he rushes from his chair with just as much sound and energy. His arms bristle with goosebumps as he points to the painting’s characters and begins to narrate their journey.
It’s an adventure Mengel feels like he himself has undertaken, one he’s gotten to know well through writing his “Oregon Trail Soundtrack.”
“When I hear the music in my mind, I’m there. I know these people,” Mengel explains. “They’re nice people. They were so honest. The music brings their comedy, their sense of sadness and their sense of grief.”
For Mengel, people and places have always provided insight into both music and emotion.
At 15 years old, he often practiced musical scales for hours in Woodlawn Cemetery. He recalls looking at the tombstones of two 15-year-old sisters who died of cholera on the Oregon Trail. On another eroded tombstone, Mengel could make out only the poem on the back, which he and his brother memorized.
“I had this marvelous sense of feeling like I lived there in that time, like this was a part of who I was,” Mengel remembers.
This connection resurged decades later on a vacation, where Mengel sprawled out in a swale, or a tract of land hollowed by wagons.
There, Mengel felt what he had never grasped in history books: a sense of mysticism, wildness and deep intuition. He began riffling through the settlers’ old diaries and drawings to chase this inspiration. Reflecting on that process now, he’ll recall the diarists’ anecdotes like familiar stories told by an old friend.
Mengel’s absolute absorption in these tales led him to compose the “Oregon Trail Soundtrack,” an idea he says seemed “right in [his] face.”
Mengel wrote the score uncommissioned, with no idea of where or if it would ever be performed. Recently, a friend told him about this weekend’s Party Like It’s 1843 festival, a three-day event celebrating the 175th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Migration of the Oregon Trail.
It felt like the perfect opportunity for Mengel to unveil his composition, which he has never publicly performed.
If audiences attend his Sunday performance, Mengel says they can expect to hear crashing cymbals, babbling water and a gong sounding. He describes the sound as “wild folk.”
“That’s what I want to do with music: have fun,” Mengel sums it up. “I want to play music that goes to the soul.”
IF YOU GO:
Hear Dana Mengel’s Oregon Trail Soundtrack performance at 2 p.m. Sunday at the National Frontier Trails Museum, 318 W. Pacific Ave., a few blocks south of the Square in Independence. It's part of the Party Like It’s 1843 festival.