The Neighborhood Ballad Project
from left: Andrew Christenberry, Brandon Lott, Tucker Krajewski
“Poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are rather of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” Aristotle
Andrew Christenberry, a Harrison Center intern from Alabama, was looking for a summer project, and initially started writing poetry, a somewhat dormant skill for this Business/Marketing major. “I did have a poem published in high school,” he said, which modestly belies his gift for words and his musicianship. Eventually, Andrew decided to write about famous Indianapolis people, and connected with Brandon Lott and Tucker Krajewski, HCA interns who will be seniors at Herron High School this fall, who are both writers and musicians as well. Their strengths and talents complemented each other beautifully, and thus, the “Neighborhood Ballad Project” was born, serving to “give creative recognition to urban Indianapolis neighborhood figures from the past to the present through the medium of spoken word poetry.”
The moving, spoken-word ballads tell stories of inspiration and heroism, but also the darker, “feet of clay” side of many of our city’s well-known historical figures. “When Aeschylus Spoke, was King Park Listening?” became the first project, interpreting Robert Kennedy’s speech announcing the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Kennedy, who was planning a stop in Indianapolis as part of his presidential campaign, learned on the way of the death of a people’s hero. His respectful tribute, given in what is now Kennedy-King Park, was credited with preventing Indianapolis from rioting in the way most other urban centers did. The ballads elucidate other notable stories: Benjamin Harrison and Oliver P. Morton are featured, but so are exquisite tributes to legendary beauty entrepreneur, Madame C.J. Walker (“Learning Beauty Culture,” both Brandon’s and Tucker’s favorite for the jazzy acoustic background), May Wright Sewall (founder of Indianapolis’s first classical girls’ school, formerly located at the corner of 16th and Meridian), and infamous bank robber, John Dillinger (“The Outlaw,” which shares the very human story of Dillinger’s life from birth through his first crimes).
Andrew writes the ballads after extensive research into the lives of these famous, former King Park residents. “I try to nail down a mood,” he says, “I want to capture how I feel when I’m learning about their lives.” Then Andrew and Tucker write the music that will underscore the ballad, trying to “amplify that same mood.” Andrew says that “some of the ideas for the music have been in my head for years, just looking for a place to come out, ” like the music to “Lamentations of an Audience Left Behind,” the story of James Whitcomb Riley, which has become Andrew’s favorite. Brandon, whose rich voice is layered over the music, appreciated reading the poems, learning the stories of people he’d only heard about. The finished ballads are moving and astounding.
The three have recorded seven ballads together, which will debut during First Friday and be featured in the City Gallery this month. Tucker summed up the project, saying, “I really liked that we got to use our talents to write about the city, to be part of something bigger. It was an honor.”