Folk songs narrate lives that have overcome odds
The Owatonna Arts Center was crowded on Nov. 21 for the Twin Cities-based folk artists Curtis Teague and Loretta Simonet’s debut performance of their new album “When There’s Good to be Done.”
“This whole album is about real people that have gone through huge obstacles,” said Loretta about the individuals that have inspired the musical content.
Two former wards of the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children, Peter Razor and Harvey Ronglien, were inspiration for two of the folk melodies and spoke before Curtis and Loretta played their songs.
As Ronglien pointed out, the music filled the room where Razor and he would consider their childhood dining hall. The Arts Center is located in the historical building that was part of the orphanage’s campus.
While Ronglien and Razor were both wards of the Minnesota State Public School, they had entirely different experiences that have shaped their lives.
As a Native America, Razor suffered racial discrimination and cruel abuse by some orphanage staff members. Despite being beat by a hammer in his youth, he stated “I don’t have any scars, maybe on my mind, but not on my back.”
Curtis and Loretta’s song about Razor, called “Where the North Wind Blows,” describes his life. He was abandoned at 10 months old and grew up at the state orphanage. His case number was 9164.
The song lyrics talk about the lies and omissions of abuse in Razor’s official records discovered in the 1990s. In those records, it became clear that Razor’s grandmother wanted to raise him, but she was denied custody.
Prior to the song, Razor chose his words carefully as he spoke before the audience: “When you are raised like that, you don’t look back. You look forward.”
He now lives in Tomah, Wisconsin. His daughter encouraged him to push through his demons and write a memoir, “While the Locust Slept.” He received the Minnesota Book Award for Autobiography & Memoir in 2002.
Without racial discrimination aimed at him, Ronglien has a different perspective of growing up at the state orphanage during the Depression. He spoke of appreciation for three meals a day and a warm bed, yet he still endured a loveless upbringing.
He had difficulty adjusting to life after the orphanage, and suffered and overcame alcoholism. Ronglien spoke of thanks to his wife, Maxine, for sticking with him. “I wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans without Maxine.”
Curtis and Loretta’s song about Ronglien is called “Case 9164,” his case number as a ward of the state and also the name of his memoir book.
Also present at the album debut and inspiration for Curtis and Loretta was Habibo Haji. She was raised reluctantly by her grandmother in Balcad, a small primitive village in Somalia.
Like Razor and Ronglien, she suffered from abandonment and a loveless childhood. By age six, she worked as a shepherd, a harsh chore primarily done by teenage boys. She suffered molestation and other hardships in that position.
Her life changed when at about age 17, she had the opportunity to come to the United States. She is now a registered nurse at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She too wrote a memoir called “Conquering the Odds: Journey of a Shepherd Girl.”
Her positive attitude stole the attention of the room when she got in front of the audience.
“It is a long journey throughout everything, loneliness and rejection,” she said with an American accent learned from hours of listening to National Public Radio. “But my inner faith never ended. I turned to praying. We don’t always know who we are praying to when we pray, but we still pray.”
Haji now has three children, and she said that she never goes a day without telling them that she loves them, a luxury she did not have as a child.
She said that it was the love of strangers that made her fall in love with America. “I’ve learned that unless you give someone a reason to dislike you, they love you,” said Haji. “When people see you smile, people gravitate towards you.”
Her song began with a harp chord reminiscent of the grasslands of her childhood and brought tears to a few audience members.
Haji, Ronglien and Razor are inspiration for three of the 12 songs. Others that have overcome hardships inspire the other nine songs. As Loretta said, the three individuals “practically wrote these songs themselves with their lives.”
To delve into more details of the folk artists or their inspirations, visit www.curtisandloretta.com.