If given the choice between playing in a big city or some small, out-of-the-way community, Janet Humphrey and her bandmates will often choose the town less populated.
An acoustic three-piece band that brings high energy and tight harmonies to the stage, Trillium-239 seems to be in perfect harmony with their role as one of Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau’s featured presenters.
“We think what Humanities Washington does is important, particularly for small communities,” says Humphrey, an East Coast native transplanted to the Tri Cities until moving with her husband to Sequim in early 2017.
“(The series gets) topics and discussions into their communities that might not normally be there. You get to hear someone else’s perspective. In many ways, (playing small towns) is more important.”
Humphrey, who plays guitar, hand percussion and some dulcimer while sharing vocals, was half of a two-piece, performing originals and some covers with Mary Hartman (guitar, banjo, vocals) since the mid-1990s.
The pair, dubbed Humphrey and Hartman, added cellist Michelle Cameron in 2003 and eventually changed the group’s name.
A regular touring group at various concerts, festivals and special events throughout the Pacific Northwest, Trillium-239 caught the eye of Humanities Washington, a nonprofit founded in 1973 and funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities. The entity served solely as a grant-making organization until 1984, when it launched its first program, Inquiring Minds (now called Speakers Bureau), a roster of traveling historical and cultural experts.
Since then, the nonprofit has added other programs and initiatives such as Family Reading (1997-present), Traveling Exhibits (1999-2013), Think & Drink (2012-present) and the Washington State Poet Laureate program (2007-present).
Speakers or artists for the Speakers Bureau are selected through what Humphrey describes as “quite an extensive jury process” and then listed on the Humanities Washington website. From there, representatives from organizations such as libraries, museums, community colleges and the like can select a speaker and look to schedule that presenter or group.
Humanities Washington funds cover the travel costs and not much else, Humphrey says.
“The presenters all feel strongly about their topics,” she says. “For us, that’s music.”
Social change, in verse and chorus
The gig — or series of gigs, really — isn’t anything new for Humphrey and her cohorts. Trillium-239 was listed as a Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau presenter for the most recent biennial series (2017-2018), one that focused on the history of work, in some form or another, across Washington state in the past 200 years. The band’s presentation was “Bandanas to Badges: Songs and Stories of Northwest Workers,” exploring the evolution of workers’ experiences from the settlement of the American west up to the modern, high-tech industries of modern day.
Because Humphrey lives in Sequim and Hartman and Cameron live in the Tri Cities area, the band typically books several events at a time over a three- or four-month period, sometimes combining Speakers Bureau events with other concerts and festivals.
In the next installment of the Speakers Bureau’s 2019-2020 offerings, Trillium-239 tackles “Music with a Message: Songs of Social Change.” The trio offers thoughts and songs about how music has affected social change from issues beginning with slavery, on to the women’s suffrage movement to the civil rights movement, and finally to the #MeToo movement.
Because most slaves were illiterate, they used songs’ lyrics as road maps to find their way to safe houses, Humphrey says.
“There’s a lot of cool music (in these times),” Humphrey says. “It was used to rally folks together. Songs can be fun and broach difficult topics in a less divisive way.”
There’s lot to learn by taking a look back.”
The Humanities Washington presentations, offered occasionally though the North Olympic Library System at venues in Sequim, Port Angeles and Forks, are typically an hour long up to 90 minutes, and strategically offered at places that are free and available to anyone interested.
“Our presentations are a little different because they’re music,” Humphrey says.
“They’re interesting. We’ve found in the past two years, we’ve played all over the place. We find very different groups of people, different world views. It’s cool to get them in the same room.”
Humphrey says the group has played local concerts such as Lavender Weekend in Sequim, but hasn’t been asked to present a Humanities Washington event on the Olympic Peninsula yet.
Humphrey and her husband were living in Pittsburgh, Pa., before moving to Richland. There, both she and Hartman, who had both been playing as solo artists for years, kept meeting at various music events.
Humphrey — who has a degree in music theory and composition, fronted a six-piece jug band and taught finger-style guitar — recalls, “We ran into each other at festival and venues and said, ‘Let’s see if we can do this together.’”
Cameron, the cellist who also plays with a symphony in the Tri Cities, met the pair at a show and asked if she could sit in on a rehearsal.
“We said, ‘Gosh, thanks. But no.’” Humphrey recalls.
A year later, Cameron was back, and playing her way into the group.
Playing predominantly originals, Trillium-239 offers “writing and harmonic style” that “reflects the influences of Bach, Shawn Colvin and Mississippi John Hurt,” the band’s website notes.
For years the band went by Humphrey, Hartman & Cameron before finally changing it about two years ago to Trillium-239 — an homage to a rare, three-sided flower and to the Hanford nuclear works.
Looking to retire, Humphrey and her husband considered a number of places — Moses Lake, Cle Elum — before settling on Sequim. Within months, a couple of their closest friends from Richland moved to Sequim as well.
About once a month Humphrey ventures back east to the Tri Cities for several days to rehearse and perform at shows.
“We always had to drive to play; (now we) manage schedules more carefully,” she says.
Artists with a number of albums as solo artists, duos and a trio, the band is looking to put together an album in January after a 10-year recording hiatus, Humphrey notes.
“It’s high time (for the album),” she says.
For more about the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau series, see www.humanities.org/program/speakers-bureau.
For more about Humphrey and Trillium-239, see www.trillium239.com.