A Susquehanna ManJul 28, 2022 09:00AM ● By Chris Espenshade
Muddy Waters and the Mississippi Delta. Woody Guthrie and Oklahoma. Jim Croce and the southside of Chicago. Bruce Springsteen and Asbury Park. There is a long tradition of singers, songwriters, and storytellers being at their best when performing about their specific place and its unique heritage and people.
Danville, Pennsylvania, has Van Wagner. Van (above) is a folk musician, a songwriter, a storyteller, a historian, and an environmental educator. Though he travels and performs throughout the region and beyond (including some gigs in the Northern Tier in August and September), in his heart he is never far from his roots on the eastern bank of the Susquehanna River in Cumberland County. Danville, formed in 1792, has a long history of natural resource extraction, processing, and shipping. Coal mining, iron and steel milling, logging and lumber milling, silk and textile processing, and tanning all contributed to the nineteenth and twentieth century prosperity of Danville and other areas of northern and central Pennsylvania. That prosperity depended on strong backs and hard work, and the everyday laborers in these industries, and the history surrounding them, are often featured in Van’s songs.
“I have learned so much American history from songs,” Van says. “Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and hundreds of other songwriters have inspired me to write songs that tell a story. I like true stories about the people and places from where we live. I love Pennsylvania, and I love singing about local themes. I have rambled all over the world, but Danville is my home. The people and places of the Susquehanna Valley are sacred to me.”
Van dresses in neat Carhartt work pants, and a collared, short-sleeve shirt. He is tall, tan, and fit. Shoulders and forearms reflect long hours spent with axe, saw, and maul. His hairline is beginning to recede, but Van retains healthy sideburns. As with many storytellers, his eyes quickly transform from deadly serious to highly amused.
Van is explicit and unapologetic in acknowledging the strong influences in his life. His appreciation of history started with his family. His grandmother taught history at Danville High School, and his grandfather helped create the Montour Historical Society.
“I have been raised in a family that respects heritage,” Van says. “I like music history as well. I collect vinyl records. I have one of every Neil Young record ever released.” For the twentieth anniversary of his own album, North of 80, Van created a limited run of vinyl.
It was members of Van’s family who also provided his early exposure to folk music and encouraged him to become a musician.
“My brother Ollie has been a huge musical influence on my life,” Van continues. “He taught me my first chords on the guitar and also played the first Neil Young, on 8-track, I ever heard. Our dad played great music in his Volkswagen Vanagon: Guy Clark, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Kingston Trio.
“I do enjoy electric and acoustic music, but for me acoustic music reminds me of sitting around a fire with friends sharing songs and stories. So, for me, acoustic music usually wins out when playing. My songs are about local people, so I need to sing them to local audiences.”
You can’t get much more local than a song titled “Rattlesnake” or “Where the Bears Dance.”
At the risk of asking too much of a metaphor, strong roots also provide balance. The forty-five-year-old has a wife, Tamara, and two sons in high school, Luke and Calvin. Van balances annually writing twenty songs and releasing a new album with his day job teaching environmental science at Lewisburg High School. His summer break commonly finds him working as an arborist and forester. Van shares with his students his knowledge of and appreciation for the wilds.
“I grew up in the woods and was raised to appreciate trees,” he says. “I love wood and have made everything from guitars to mouth bows. I love natural resources. I have spent my life making a living from them—coal miner, logger, hunter, and small-time farmer. Our society has often lost touch with our connection to the natural world. We must be stewards of the land and use natural resources wisely. I find the best environmentalists are the people who know their wood comes directly from the natural world.”
As an environmental science teacher in the midst of shale fracking, Van resists being judgmental on what could be a highly divisive subject. Rather, he says he tries to “focus all my classroom teaching on local issues and the lives of my students.”
“I do not overwhelm them with global issues at their age but instead keep it local. I do a lot of labs with my students on natural gas and fracking, but I try not to use words like good or bad. I simply focus on the local picture of what it is and why it is. As they grow into the young adults they will become, they can find their own path of whether or not they support or oppose something.”
Van’s fans, and those who might want to be, will have many chances to see him perform throughout the region this summer and fall. On August 4 he’ll be at the Elk Creek Café in Milheim; on August 5 at the Pottsgrove Carnival; on August 12 at the Montour-Delong Fair in Washingtonville; on August 20 at the Stony Fork Music Festival; on August 26 at the Bradford County Historical Society in Towanda; on September 1 again at the Elk Creek Café; on September 9 and 10 at the Danville Heritage Festival; and September 17 again at Stony Fork at the Brayden’s Benefit/North of 80 Festival. You can also find a sampling of his music at vanwagnermusic.com.