A Soundtrack for 21st-Century Rural Kansas

by Sydney Boyd, program manager of Humanities in American Life initiative

Ever hear a song on the radio and feel transported to a place in your mind? John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” or Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” tell the story of America like only music can. Humanities Kansas wanted to capture that feeling as a state-specific part of the “Crossroads: Change in Rural America” tour, a nationwide travelling exhibition focused on rural communities. So they came up with a program called “The Soundtrack of Rural America,” a curated playlist made for and by Kansans.

As Humanities Kansas Program Officer Abigail Kaup and Associate Director Tracy Quillin explained to me, any Kansan can submit a song selection along with a story of how they picked the song, and Humanities Kansas will compile it into a playlist that best captures the spirit of life at the crossroads in Kansas. When I talked to Kaup and Quillin, they’d just gotten a new song submission that came with a great story.

“It’s a silly old English song, it doesn’t even have a title,” Kaup told me. The Kansan who submitted it said he used to sing it as a kid on his family’s yearly camping trip – his dad would sound out this song as a call and response, and the song has stayed close to him over the years.

“He still sings it with his grandkids when he goes fishing,” Kaup said. It’s stories like his that are exactly what the exhibition focuses around – what change, community, and rural life in 21st-century Kansas means, Kaup explained, “Those really unique stories to Kansas that pinpoint the moments of change – I guess what we’d call those crossroads moments.”

The newest Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition from Museum on Main Street (a collaboration between the Smithsonian and state humanities councils nationwide), “Crossroads: Change in Rural America” is offering small towns across America a spotlight in which to tell their own stories and explore those things specific to rural communities – identity, land, community, persistence, and managing change.

But while the exhibition is traveling across the nation, the “Soundtrack” is part of “Crossroads Conversations,” a set of programs unique to Kansas that the council created with accessibility in mind even before the pandemic struck early this year.

“We want the humanities to be something you can participate in from your couch,” Kaup said. “The humanities will meet you where you are.”

Other parts of “Crossroads Conversations” include a reader’s theater – “Love at the Crossroads” – that is customizable to your own hometown (Quillin said the council staff performed it together on Zoom – it was a success! Try it for yourself by reserving a script here!), as well as book discussions and a catalog of speakers Kansans can invite to speak to their communities.

Find our more and explore Kansas’ exhibitions online here, check out the Crossroads playlist on Spotify, and keep an eye out as new exhibitions open through spring 2021.

This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.