Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On the Mountains High

One of the reasons I felt compelled to return to this blog (erg, eek, hiccup) is that I’ve been working on a deeply satisfying project of late that I find myself wanting to write about, extensively, at all hours of the night. I could have pitched it as a story to various publishers, but this material, I realized, is too personal to surrender to the whims of distant editors. Which means YOU, dear nebulous reader, are the one to which I offer this babble of words, story, and thought. Thank you so kindly for reading.


In 2006, I sat in the room in which my grandmother, the Vermont folk-musician and folklorist Margaret MacArthur, lay dying and listened to her sing, “The Ballad of Marjory Gray.” My grandmother had lost her ability to remember most things on her death-bed, but she knew every word of all twelve verses of that 19th century Vermont ballad about a pioneer woman who gets lost in the native woods, and her voice, which had thinned to nearly nothing in her last days, suddenly swelled into the deep and warm vibrato that it had become in her late life. Of course we sat there crying, her husband, four children and five grandchildren, but there was wonder as well: we sat witness to the astounding way in which the music of this place had etched itself into her soul; to the way in which the landscape, her two-hundred year-old farmhouse in Marlboro (in which we sat, facing the hills where Marjory had died), and the stories contained in that landscape had become entwined into a fabric that was lasting, resounding, and full of grace. My grandmother was leaving us, but those songs were not. We could hold onto them, and carry them with us, and through them, her.

A “song-catcher,” Margaret moved to Vermont in the 1940s and immediately began seeking out and recording the traditional folk music buried deep in the Vermont hillsides. Over the next fifty years she collected hundreds of songs and recorded nine albums worth of them. She worked in elementary schools throughout the state writing contemporary “folksongs” with children, won a New England Living Arts Treasure award in 1985, a Vermont Arts Council Cerf Award in 2002, and performed these songs nationally, including at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

In the summer of 2010, four years after my grandmother’s death, my husband Tyler and I (Red Heart the Ticker) received a Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant to re-record some of those very same Vermont folksongs. This past September we set up our instruments and microphones in my grandparents’ house (in that very same north-facing room in which my grandmother died) and began to record our album, “A New Almanac of New England Folksongs.”

It has been astounding. We found that these ancient melodies and stories, many of which had crossed the Atlantic ocean sometime in the 18th and 19th centuries and lived, often quietly, in the deep nooks and crannies of the Vermont hillsides, etched themselves into our brains and would not leave. We came home at night and sang them to our daughter; we sang them to our neighbors and friends; we sang them in the car. And the stories transformed the way we saw the Vermont landscape on which we live.

“Stratton Mountain Tragedy,” a 19th century poem my grandmother set to music about a mother and child who become adrift in a snowstorm, changed the way I saw the seemingly benign mountains outside my kitchen window. “The Lakes of Champlain,” an Irish ballad re-set, sometime in the 19th century, to the locale of our own Green Mountain lake, tells of the “deep and dark water” that resides in our picturesque waters. "Marjory Gray" made me hold the child at my breast a little tighter as we looked out on the trees outside our kitchen window.

But the songs, I found, had another, equally astonishing quality: the power to bring back the dead. Not only my grandmother, whose voice I could hear singing in my own, but the heroes, heroines, poets and five-plus generations of Vermonters who have lived on these hillsides before us, singing them around their fires. The songs brought to life the ghosts of this landscape, and all that we still have in common with them, reflecting the essential nature of what it means to be human: to love, to lose, to fear, to grieve, and to tell (and sing) stories in order to make sense of our lives and the places in which we live.