Milwaukee Musician Brings Wisconsin’s History To Life In Song

By Joel Waldinger | November 10, 2017


For more than 35 years David HB Drake has been traversing Wisconsin performing a vibrant musical history of our state called “Wiscon-Sing.”  Drake is a folk singer, storyteller and historian. He describes his work as the coolest job in the work.  Born and raised in Wisconsin, he has deep roots in the Badger State and he’s turned his love for Wisconsin and background in musical theater into a career.

On this particular day he hauls his handmade musical instruments and historic slide show into Muskego High School’s auditorium. Several hundred elementary school kids wait in anticipation as Drake’s program walks them through this land known as Wisconsin. From the Native Americans and French explorers to European immigration. He highlights the work of lumberjacks and Great Lakes sailors, up to present day farmers, Wisconsin comes to life in song and the best part is the kids get to sing along.

For the most part Drake is self-taught on his instruments. He credits his musical flair to his upbringing. Drake said, “Where I grew up, we didn’t have a TV set. We didn’t have a telephone and we used to sing together and tell stories and I just like doing it so much I just kept doing it.” Drake is now helping teach Wisconsin history through his performance called “Wiscon-Sing.”  He explains how he came up with that clever name, “What Marquette wrote in his journal as the name of the river was O-I-S-C-O-N-S-I-N-G. Wisconsing. And when I saw that on a 300-year-old map I went, ‘Wiscon-SING.’ Badump bump.”

Students are spellbound by his stories and don’t realize the fun is an exercise in learning history. Drake says he took a chapter right from Mark Twain, “You can be educated and entertained and not know the difference. To me that’s always been the breakthrough thing about teaching. History can either be really boring, or it could be really fun. It’s all in presentation.”

Drake even takes that philosophy one step further. What he is does is not just present the songs of a long time ago in the history of Wisconsin but what it actually sounded like. For example for his lumberjack song, he plays the dulcimer. A popular instrument in Wisconsin’s logging camps. When he couldn’t find an authentic song that worked well for a sing along, he wrote his own songs.

He then saves the best for last.  Through his slide show he details how Wisconsin became a state in 1848.  Drake said, “We were the 30th state in the United States so when you look at a flag of America, and count up 30 stars, that 30th star is us.” The mourning dove is a symbol of peace. The muskie our state fish and robin is the state bird. Granite is the state rock. The badger is our state mascot. Wood violet is our state flower. This is Wisconsin, your home state. 

Then Drake raises an easy-to-answer question, “Do you all know what the state song is? And with a thunderous shout the students respond “On Wisconsin!” But Drake then goes on to explain the origins of that song.  He said, Interestingly it was actually written as “On Minnesota” but the University of Minnesota didn’t want it so they sold it to the University of Wisconsin and changed the words to “On Wisconsin.”

And with that twist on history he launches into one of the most popular songs in Wisconsin.

On Wisconsin, On Wisconsin!

Grand Old Badger State…..


Watch David HB Drake Sing “When I Came To This Land” by Oscar Brand

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 
2018-01-19T17:53:28-06:00Tags: , , , |

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