VT Artists Preserve Songs With New Recordings
10/04/11 12:44PM By Steve Zind, Ric Cengeri
(Host) The late Margaret MacArthur of Marlboro made a life's work out of collecting and reinterpreting songs that Vermonters sang.
She saw old songs not as museum pieces but as things kept alive by constant use - made to be picked up, reshaped and performed.
That's why collecting songs was only part of MacArthur's life's work: Performing them in recordings and in front of audiences was equally important.
Today, the songs are being kept alive in two new releases by Vermont artists.
VPR's Steve Zind reports.
(Zind) Tracing an old song back to its very beginning - all the way back to its original form - can be a fascinating exercise, and one that's occupied lots of folklorists over the years.
But for Andy Kolovos, a folklorist himself, and the archivist at the Vermont Folklife Center, the real fascination lies in going in the other direction; following how an old song changes as it's passed down through generations.
(Kolovos) "My angle on it, what makes it valid or not is not whether or not it was crafted by a horde of ecstatic peasants in 1012! Its how people relate to it and how they transmit it themselves. Once it becomes common property, where it goes."
(The Cleveland Simmons Group performs "Hoist Up the John B Sail")
(Zind) Here's a simple example. This song was first recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax in the Bahamas in the 1930s.
Then it resurfaced during the folk revival of the 1950s.
(The Weavers perform "The Wreck of the Sloop John B")
(Zind) Finally, it experienced another incarnation in the rock and roll era.
(Beach Boys perform "Sloop John B")
(Zind) Each version is a reflection of a different time and sensibility. And each has a different meaning for both the performer and the audience.
What the song represented to the descendants of slaves singing it in the Lomax recording was very different from the meaning it had to a group of middle class kids from southern California.
(Kolovos) "Something like a song, people can alter its substance and alter their perception of it."
(Zind) Margaret MacArthur of Marlboro dedicated herself to collecting and reinterpreting songs that Vermonters sang when they gathered in their kitchens and parlors.
MacArthur stressed the importance of songs as hand-me-downs. Ideally, she felt, you don't learn them from books, but from people. Then you add your own personality to them and pass them along to a new generation which does the same in its turn. For that to happen, songs have to be kept alive by performing them.
As she told the Vermont Folklife Center's Jane Beck in 2002, passing them on that way wasn't easy.
(Macarthur) "The hardest thing for me as a performer has been introducing my songs to make them fit into some kind of context that will help the audience listen to them. Because people aren't into listening to ballads and the kind of songs I like to sing."
(Zind) MacArthur died in 2006. But today, other Vermont artists are passing along songs she collected and performed, and adding their own twists.
(Zind) One of those artists is MacArthur's granddaughter, Robin. She and her husband Tyler Gibbons form a duo called Red Heart the Ticker.
Their new recording of songs performed by Margaret MacArthur is titled "Your Name in Secret I Would Write".
(MacArthur) "We actually got a Vermont Arts Council grant to record this record, and what we said is if songs are going to survive, part of the folk music process is to change and evolve and fit the times, so that they can reach new audiences."
(Zind) Robin MacArthur says she didn't grow up listening to her grandmother's music. Her appreciation came later in life.
For the album, she spent time going through the original field recordings her grandmother made, which are kept in the archives at the Folklife Center.
(MacArthur) "Most of it was unaccompanied by instruments and the singing was very different from the way she sings them, and she added dulcimer and harp and guitar and had family members sing along, so she changed them in her own way, so we've just taken that another step into the future."
(Zind) MacArthur and Gibbons have preserved certain sparseness in the music, but they've also added electric instruments.
For Robin MacArthur, the songs capture a sense of the past that changes the way she sees the present.
(MacArthur) "A lot of them are written by women and from the perspective of women, so its kind of this oral-literary legacy from this place that otherwise is forgotten. Singing these songs myself has really changed the way that I feel and relate to the landscape around me."
(Zind) MacArthur says Red Heart the Ticker recorded their album in the room where Margaret MacArthur worked, and where she died.
(Zind) In the early 1900s local handyman James Atwood liked to sing to himself as he did odd jobs around the Dover home of a woman named Edith Sturgis.
Sturgis was fascinated by the songs Atwood and other members of his family liked to sing.
She wrote them down and in 1919 a handful of them were published in a booklet called "Songs From The Hills Of Vermont".
Years later, Margaret MacArthur tracked down James Atwood's son, Fred, and recorded his versions of those old songs.
Now, Brattleboro musicians Tony Barrand and Keith Murphy have released a new recording of the Atwood family songs on a CD called "On the Banks of Coldbrook."
Barrand first met Margaret MacArthur in the 1960s and they became good friends.
(Barrand) "The project to focus on these songs was partly that these, I knew, were very good songs. But it was also a way, for me, of honoring Margaret. She had died and she had sung these songs, and then who was going to sing the songs?"
(Zind) As with Red Heart the Ticker, location was important for Barrand says he and Murphy: The album was recorded in the house where Edith Sturgis first heard James Atwood sing a century ago.
Despite the passage of time, Keith Murphy says the music still resonates. Murphy's young son took an interest in one song on the album called "The Shining Dagger". It tells the story of a young couple whose marriage is forbidden by the woman's parents. In the song, the young man laments that all he has means nothing without love. "I can climb the tallest tree," he sings, "And I can reach the highest nest..."
(Murphy sings) "...and I can pluck the sweetest rose, love, but not the heart that I love best..."
(Murphy) "I explained that what he's saying is that he can have anything that he wants except the thing that he wants the most, which is to marry this young woman. There was a pause, and then he said, ‘Whoa!'."
(Zind) Murphy and Barrand acknowledge that in the era of the singer-songwriter, it's difficult to engage audiences with traditional music. The stories and even the language can sound quaint.
But themes like unrequited love and stories of families shattered by war or struggling to make ends meet are universal and can always be reshaped to reflect a new time and place.
For VPR news, I'm Steve Zind.
Note: You can hear a sampling of two versions of several songs recorded by Margaret and her granddaughter, Robin via the listen link at the top of the page. The cut is called "Margaret MacArthur-Red Heart the Ticker Mashup". The piece was mixed by Tyler Gibbons.
Red Heart the Ticker will perform at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury on October 28th.