Skaneateles native pens chamber-music tribute to the late Libba Cotten

When he was growing up in Skaneateles in the early-1980s, Greg Wanamaker took semi-weekly guitar lessons from Dick Sheridan, a versatile musician who lives south of town on West Lake Road. Sheridan taught the 14-year-old Wanamaker how to play “Freight Train,” the classic traveling tune by Libba Cotten.

“That was my initial introduction to her sound,” Wanamaker remembers. “I later saw a special on WCNY-TV and was fascinated with her unique left-handed guitar style.”

Over the years, Wanamaker has moved far beyond the study of simple folk melodies and into the world of classical composing. Now a professor of composition and theory at the State University of New York at Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, Wanamaker’s music has been performed internationally by groups such as the PRISM Quartet, Trujillo Symphony Orchestra, West Point Saxophone Quartet and Syracuse’s Society for New Music.

At the relatively youthful age of 44, Wanamaker has emerged as a pivotal figure in contemporary chamber music. But he never lost his love for the kind of music made by musicians such as the East Coast Piedmont blueswoman Libba Cotten, a North Carolina native who lived her later years in Syracuse.

Twenty years before her death in 1987, Cotten wrote and recorded a sprightly song about dying called “Shake Sugaree.” A year ago Wanamaker wrote an instrumental tribute to that Cotten tune that will be performed at a Society for New Music concert at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, at the Everson Museum of Art in downtown Syracuse.

Wanamaker’s composition, which premiered last July in Cazenovia, is titled “Who Shook Sugaree?” Performing the piece will be guitarist Tim Schmidt, flutist Kelly Covert and cellist Elizabeth Simkin. Schmidt’s guitar part uses slide and folk-style fingerpicking as well as classical techniques.

“The real joy of Libba Cotten’s ‘Shake Sugaree’ is in her lyrics and the stories that she tells in them,” Wanamaker said. “The tune is great, too, and the harmonic progression simple, so basically what I wanted to do was recreate some of the humor in the lyrics instrumentally. I retain quite a bit of the traditional harmony and melodic materials throughout the piece.”

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