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Singing Loud and Proud About Baltimore

The Baltimore Song Project Mural - Christina Ralls
The Baltimore Song Project Mural - Christina Ralls

Mention "folk" music, and the first performers that come to mind are Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and maybe the Christopher Guest film, A Mighty Wind. Try the same thing with Hip-Hop…it's Wyclef Jean, Jay-Z, and Mos Def. At first glance, it would seem you couldn't find two more disparate forms of musical expression.

But are they? When Sam Sessa, host of WTMD 89.7 Radio's popular Baltimore Unsigned launched the "Baltimore Music Project" – an attempt to pair previously unacquainted musicians to see what they might create in tandem – Alt-Country performer Caleb Stine and hip hop artist Saleem Heggins might have agreed. Collaboration, however, quickly proved otherwise.

"Towson [University, which holds the license for WTMD] received a grant to bring together two artists from completely different genres to create four songs and perform them live. They contacted me and said, we can pair you with Caleb Stine. I was told he was a folk artist. Now in my mind, I was imagining, being hip hop, he'd be a rock guy or punk rock person," Saleem recalls.

"The first time we met, we clicked right away, and one reason is we are both music lovers…We soon realized that hip hop and folk have a lot in common—it's storytelling, environmental circumstances, things like that," he says.

Stine, a Colorado native who has lived in Baltimore as a working musician for about 10 years, agrees.

"Once Saleem and I met and sat down, the two of us focusing creatively, it was like driving a Cadillac. It was so fluid right away, I realized that within the first 10 minutes there would be no problem here and, in fact, it was really fun," Stine says.

In fact, Saleem and Caleb found themselves so in synch that instead of writing four songs they wrote 10, fashioning a complete album, "Outgrown These Walls."

Once the duo had finished the required four songs, they performed them live at the 8x10 Club in Federal Hill in the summer of 2008. [Watch the video]

Both artists talk of music having its own life, each song a child that must make its way in the world, forming connections its "parents" would never expect. One such connection was with Paul Sturm, an adjunct professor in the University of Baltimore's Department of Community Studies and Civic Engagement.

"One of the songs Saleem and Caleb came up with was 'Baltimore,' and I was really moved by it. Nothing like this has ever been written about Baltimore before. It speaks to me as a celebration of everyday life in Baltimore. I hear hope, faith, what it means to live and work in Baltimore, its assets and resources, but just as importantly, its problems and challenges. The song doesn't sugarcoat the city and say everything is great and wonderful; Baltimore is a very real place with issues like the homelessness, graffiti, homicide…but the song also attests to the city's history and culture," Sturm says.

Sturm had heard the song performed at a First Thursday concert in Mt. Vernon Square in October 2008, and again at a benefit concert for Barack Obama a week before the U.S. presidential election where he met Saleem. "I said, I love this song and I'm thinking about using it for my class in the spring. My students could do research based on the lyrics. Saleem was really touched by hearing this and that conversation was the beginning of everything since then," Sturm says. (Read the song lyrics below)

That "everything" became The Baltimore Song Project. Sturm, along with Christina Ralls who came onboard as the artistic director, submitted a grant proposal to the Baltimore Renaissance Seed Scholarship Fund for the project which could include a traveling exhibit—specifically, a four-paneled mural—a dance/theater piece and potentially a booklet, all based and inspired by the song, "Baltimore." The works would be developed by students of the Central Baltimore Higher Education Collaborative— the University of Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Johns Hopkins University, and Goucher College.

"We started to figure out how to coordinate a public art piece based on the lyrics of the song. I had gotten my Master's at MICA so I had contacts there, and we really wanted to get MICA students involved. MICA has a good focus on community outreach and it was nice to work with freshmen again," Ralls says.

Sturm and Ralls eventually decided to split up the lyrics into sections with MICA and UB students partnering to create four banners which would hang initially from the lobby of Baltimore's Penn Station. Working with Paula Phillips, a MICA professor, and Amtrak Linda Frankel, special projects coordinator, the banner concept morphed into a four-piece mural with images set on 7-feet by 4-feet pieces of plywood connected by hinges and set on wheels.

"About 50 students so far, between UB and MICA, have been involved in the project. The mural has been stored in an auditorium at the UB Langsdale Library," Sturm says.

"It will be displayed at Penn Station's entrance in March, so we're very excited about the fact that literally tens of thousands of people will see it as their first introduction to Baltimore, those who are coming here for the first time, and for those coming back to Baltimore, it will give them a really bright welcome," he says.

MICA freshman Emilee Wooten, who worked on the mural along with Jared Brown, Taylor Carltan, Ariel Chornsbay, April Dai, Adam Dirks,
Molly Dressel, Schuyler Fogle, Bianca Gigli, Doyoun Lee, Rebecca Le Ferre, Gilbert Oranday, Corynne Ostermann, Sarah Robbins, Marlo
Weekley, Yana Wertz, spent six hours a day for three days to finish her panel.

"I worked on the third panel with three other artists. We all had a sketch, a rough draft of what we wanted to do and had to translate that to a larger scale. The third panel is about all the different kinds of people who live in Baltimore, the different ethnicities and backgrounds. There's also [depictions of] the light rail, the Hippodrome and Artscape," Wooten says.

"Baltimore" is a song that lends itself to artistic expression. Stine notes, "It's a very image-based song, where every line could be another song. There are so many stories within this one piece.

"Baltimore is such an underdog city—it's America. There's still a sense of history and rough-and-tumble living, culture, immigrants, there's surliness, and art, and commerce. I think a lot of American cities have buried most of that, so it's harder to see," Stine says.

A song filled with real "snapshots" of city life made "Baltimore" a perfect fit for Sturm's class project.

"My students were really excited about this. When Caleb and Saleem came to our final class they played the song live for the students…everyone was singing and clapping, it was just a great experience for everyone," he recalls.

"My students are the video and internet generation, so knowing that the song was all over the radio and YOUTUBE, it got them excited about doing research in a way that just assigning them to study homelessness or poverty would not have," Sturm says.

The result, Saleem notes, was impressive.

"It's one thing for a teacher to say, we want to take your song and examine it, but to see the students do it—they worked really hard. One student's project was really amazing, he got pictures of Baltimore's different historic districts, going back 100 years; another did something on homelessness, and as a result said he wanted to do more volunteering as it was so startling to see the level of this problem in Baltimore City," he explains

"What stuck out was the level of professionalism…they did PowerPoint presentations and even a video, so I was very impressed with what each group did," Saleem says.

"Wonderful, a completely profound experience," Caleb says of the UB student presentations. "Here were these just brilliant, hardworking students who had taken the smallest snippets, making a song from each line, a research project about homelessness or gangs or the architectural history of Baltimore's buildings, it was a beautiful thing."

"The song resonates with people and makes them want to create their own things with it, and that's the ultimate success for a song…it was inspiring to other people. It's one of those songs that continues to have a life. Hopkins has been using it to help introduce freshman to the city. We've played it in high schools and Saleem performed it in [Cherry Hill] elementary school," Caleb says.

Sturm, who moved to Baltimore during the last season of "The Wire," thought that, given the bleak and violent portrayal of the city in the HBO series, Baltimore must be "horrible."

"Yet my own experience coming to Baltimore revealed the city to be a pretty cool place. I think Baltimore is one of the most unappreciated urban jewels in this country. Having lived in Boston, grew up in New York, and also lived in Milwaukee and Chicago, Baltimore has so much going for it in terms of history, culture, character…One of my hopes is that this song and the work of the students will help the image of Baltimore, here and beyond our borders as well," Sturm says.

The mural will be unveiled on Thurs., March 4, 2010 at 2 p.m. at Penn Station. A reception will follow.

A communications professional for over 25 years, Dan Collins has been a reporter, features writer, editor and columnist since 1984, including stints with The Washington Times and the Times Publishing Group and The Baltimore Examiner in Baltimore. His freelance writing career has included his work for the Beacon newspaper as well as other publications including Baltimore Magazine.

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1. MICA students Doyoun Lee, Bianca Gigli, and Sarah Robbins work on the third panel.
2. Musicians Caleb Stine and Saleem Heggins 
3. MICA students Ariel Chornsbay, Schuyler Fogle, and Jared Brown share ideas and concepts for the second panel.
4. MICA student April Dai working on collaging recycled newspaper to create Lexington Market and rowhomes for the last panel.
5. The mural
6. Musicians Caleb Stine and Saleem Heggins

Photos by Christian Ralls

Baltimore City of Dreams, lyrics by Caleb Stine and Saleem HegginsBaltimore, city of dreams

Harborscapes, addicts, and fiends

Sugar factories and subway steam

Where people embrace the craziest scenes

I'm walking down Maryland Avenue

No destination, no where to travel to

I stand still to take in the scenery

Trying to figure out what does Baltimore mean to me

Gave birth to hard hats and business suits

Ripped jeans, white tees, sneakers, and leather boots

Jazz notes proudly embedded in the pavement

Rhythm of the traffic patterns this is a chattering statement

Of lost love and glory that's forgotten

Of steel mills where metal cranes were the watchmen

Shipping yards sent kids to private school and then better

Paired with scholarships to get their college life together

It's a metropolis that feels like a small town

A special place a lot of people calling home now

Lexington market at 3pm, waiting for the 22 to pull in

I got a dollar in my pocket and it's only Wednesday

Baltimore, city of dreams

Harborscapes, addicts, and fiends

Sugar factories and subway steam

Where people embrace the craziest scenes

Walking contradiction of the prosaic

Placed in the landscape of a mosaic

Of graffiti covered buildings, factories, and trash

Historic districts with cobblestone paths

Representing the full spectrum

Of life, struggling artist and war veterans

A striving middle class and a working class that struggles

People newly homeless, couldn't avoid the housing bubble

Will John waters write a story about this

Artscape, AFRAM, Hunfest outfits

Watch it at the Hippodrome, put your best sweater on

Camera lights flashing like an amber bright metronome

Click, clack goes the Marc train over steel tracks

Gotta take a trip out the city, this will get you back

This is where the people at, where life moves rapidly

Attracted to the feeling of the inner city fantasy

Lexington market at 3pm, waiting for the 22 to pull in

I got a dollar in my pocket and it's only Wednesday

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