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Legends of Vermont's Music Scene

02/25/05 12:00AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Vermont's unusually rich music scene recently lost two of it's most notable performers. Commentator Jay Craven reflects on the passing of Big Joe Burrell and Rachel Bissex and considers their legacy.


(CRAVEN) For three decades, Big Joe Burrell and his Unknown Blues Band entertained thousands of Vermonters and mentored several generations of the state's finest musicians. Joe also provided an intimate link to the great African American music of the 20th century.

He played with Count Basie, and I recall meeting Joe backstage after a concert 20 years ago, when he had made the long February trek to Lyndonville to greet his former band-leader, B.B. King. After the show, Joe and B.B. shared an hour of easy familiarity as folks paraded into the gym teacher's shoebox of an office. Joe sat beside and just behind the blues great, slipping in quips and reminiscences as B.B. greeted dozens of fans.

I remember Rachel Bissex from the earliest years of Burlington City Arts, when she and Doreen Kraft struggled so hard to get their program on its feet. Rachel also started the Burlington Coffee House during the late 80s. Both projects have given voice to hundreds of Vermont artists. But Rachel's own folksinging career breathed new life into a well-worn genre and attracted fans from Massachusetts to California. In Nora Jacobsen's new film, Nothing Like Dreaming, Rachel's performance is a revelation in its tough-minded simplicity and grace. At just 48 years old, Rachel still had plenty to give.

But Rachel and Joe's beat goes on. I caught an electrifying show by Jennifer Hartswick's brass-powered funk band recently in St. Johnsbury, and I was struck by how she's working with musicians she met as a high school student at Lyndon Institute. Hartswick rose to prominence through her work with Phish leader Trey Anastasio. Her own band is now making waves across the country - and it's strong in every department.

I suspect that Hartswick's leadership accounts for a lot of this. Her fluid trumpet sets the tone and expresses a soulfulness that is never imitative. And, as the Toronto Star wrote last summer, "Jennifer Hartswick's voice comes shooting out from a narrow cave like a heart-breaking bullet." Hartswick leads her musicians with gentle nods and playful gestures, as if these guys have known each other their whole lives. And, of course, they have.

"When I put this band together," said Hartswick in a recent AP interview, "I decided that friendship and chemistry were going to come first. I think that's where a lot of bands go wrong. They put musicians together who have no history, and expect them to have musical conversations. It just doesn't work. Everyone in my band grew up together so we all bring the same kind of vibe to the table."

Like so much in Vermont, its music draws from the resources that are available. Big Joe, Rachel Bissex, Jennifer Hartswick and others have infused their work with a generosity and a commitment to community that, even in today's hyper-commercialized music world, endures.

This is Jay Craven from Peacham.

Jay Craven is a filmmaker and teaches film studies at Marlboro College. He spoke from our studio at the Fairbanks Museum in Saint Johnsbury.
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