State College

Chris Rosenblum: Artist’s State College performance to honor family’s tie to popular 19th-century song

The 19th-century song “Blue Juniata” has a decadeslong connection to a State College family. Singer/pianist Bethany Dixon will perform the song, among others, at The Attic at 7 p.m. Friday.
The 19th-century song “Blue Juniata” has a decadeslong connection to a State College family. Singer/pianist Bethany Dixon will perform the song, among others, at The Attic at 7 p.m. Friday. Photo provided

Long ago, a river captured a farmer’s imagination.

The river flowed past mountains 600 miles from his rocky potato fields. But when he heard the song, he could practically dip his hand. The song brought the waters to him, carrying a love story from central Pennsylvania to Poland, Maine.

“Wild roved an Indian girl/Bright Alfarata,” went the lyrics that lodged in his mind. “Where sweep the waters/Of the blue Juniata!”

John Gilman Davis named his daughter Juniata, so enamored he was of “The Blue Juniata” and its tale of a maiden longing for her warrior while traveling the Juniata River.

And so, he begat a tradition.

When pianist and singer Bethany Dixon plays “The Blue Juniata” Friday at The State Theatre — as she very well might along with blues and jazz standards — she’ll honor her family’s decadeslong tie to a piece of Americana.

Dixon’s great-great-grandmother was the aforementioned Juniata, but perhaps more importantly, her beloved grandmother is longtime State College resident Maralyn Mazza.

Mazza’s middle name is June, short for Juniata, another family link to a song that captivated many.

“It was so catchy,” Mazza said. “It was the most famous song of its day. It was a massive hit.”

Written by Marion Dix Sullivan in 1844, “The Blue Juniata” was the first commercially successful song penned by an American woman, according to author Karin Pendle. It went on to become one of the most popular 19th-century parlor songs, later recorded by both Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.

Davis, descended from English settlers who carved out farms from the Maine wilderness in the 1700s, imparted his love for the song to his daughter. Juniata, known to her family as “Junie,” in turn passed on the lyrics and melody during her granddaughter’s early years in Springfield, Mass.

“I used to hear it at home because my grandmother lived with us for a while in Springfield,” Mazza said. “She used to tell me this story of how her father loved this song. He had never seen the river, and neither had she.”

A twist of fate intervened for Mazza.

Her father, Don Davis, worked as the advertising manager for two Springfield newspapers — until the stress got to him. He refused to write ads for cigarettes and liquor, which didn’t make his publisher happy. Their fighting led to a stomach ulcer and a doctor’s grave advice.

“He said, ‘You either get out of this business or we’ll carry you out on a slab,’ ” Mazza said.

The choice was easy.

In 1936, Davis moved his family to State College to begin 35 years of teaching advertising at Penn State. Mazza was just 9, too young at first to recognize the karma of what happened. Of all the places to relocate, she wound up 30 miles or so from the river that inspired part of her name.

But it didn’t take long for her to encounter the famed Juniata. She saw it for the first time while traveling to Harrisburg.

“I was so excited,” she said.

More Harrisburg trips followed, and each time, she admired the confluence of the Juniata and the Susquehanna. Each time, she saw the ripples and rocks and thought of their connection to her family.

As life’s currents swept her along, the river remained a fixture. She grew up, graduated from Bates College, met a charming man named Paul Mazza in The Corner Room, married him in 1956 and together raised six children. In 1970, she and her late husband, who died in 2013, founded the South Hills School of Business and Technology.

Everyone close to Mazza knew her affection for the river. Her children grew up knowing “The Blue Juniata” and its closing lines: “Fleeting years have borne away the voice of Alfarata/Still sweeps the river on — Blue Juniata!” For her birthday last year, some of her granddaughters even rewrote the lyrics with her as the heroine.

Now, Alfarata’s heart song will ring again, courtesy of one of Mazza’s 15 grandchildren. Dixon’s 7 p.m. performance at The Attic, The State Theatre’s upstairs venue, will be inspired by a different love — her memory of her grandmother and grandfather dancing in their dining room to the Count Basie Orchestra.

Even now, more than a century after John Gilman Davis perhaps hummed his favorite song while planting crops, the Juniata River may add more memories for Mazza.

In all her years, she never enjoyed a picnic on its banks or cruised along its surface. But at 88, she’s feeling younger than ever, and who knows? Maybe one of these days, she’ll let the blue Juniata’s waters sweep by her up close and personal.

“I figure I’ll live to at least 100,” she said. “After that, I’ll make no promises.”

Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, places and events. Send column ideas to chrisrosenblum@comcast.net.

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