Two weeks ago I was listening to music that sounded something like this picture.
I was in the Glover Town Hall with maybe 150 other people at a benefit for a woman whose house burned to the ground not long after the New Year. Glover isn’t quite like other Vermont towns because Bread and Puppet, a politically left puppet theater, has been in residence here since the 1960s. In the beginning and for some years, the theater and much of the community were at odds, but today Bread and Puppet is pretty much just another neighbor. Because the victim of the fire had been active in the theater troupe, the show that night was especially rife with talent, but as much or more came from the town: a very old fiddler, a very young fiddler and her guitar-playing little brother, some very funny skits, the singing proprietor of the general store…..
It was one of those nights. Kids ran up and down the aisles; people hugged; they shared homemade doughnuts, cookies and stories. But the most remarkable event for me was the singing of the Sacred Harp.
Twenty years ago, when I first came to this part of the world, I heard my first Sacred Harp music. Not many years later I noticed that a few young people had joined Vermont singing groups and the music had begun to spread. But only begun. A few more years and a dozen or more people had joined Elka Schumann at Bread and Puppet and were singing together every month. But now, suddenly, on a snowy night in Town Hall, half of Glover seemed to be in the front of the room, singing full out, mouths wide open, Elka Schumann, the mother of Bread and Puppet, beating out the rhythm. It was a powerful, throbbing, raw sound. It was amazing.
America’s Sacred Harp music began in the churches of New England more than two centuries ago. Four-part, it is a cappella. Not even a pitch pipe is used. The only instrument is the “Sacred Harp”—the human voice. The singers read a music that consists in “shape notes.” The circles, triangles, rectangles and diamonds correspond with the notes of the scale. They provide visual cues to help everyone sing the intervals between notes.
The music began in England, and the first shape note music in this country was written and taught by teachers of singing schools. They had marvelous names like Supply Belcher (Maine), Ebeneezer Child (Vermont), Timothy Swan (Massachusetts), Justin Morgan (Vermont)….. They were also shopkeepers, school teachers, local government functionaries, farmers—Justin Morgan, for example, is better known as the man who bred the Morgan horse. Not surprisingly, most of the music has a religious bent and was sung in churches.
Sacred Harp music disappeared in New England as another smoother, more formal and mostly more sentimental music replaced it. But it soon took root in the rural South, and by 1900, it thrived there. By the 1920s and ’30s, folklorists began to notice it, and in the 1960s, New Englanders, and especially Vermonters, rediscovered it. Today, it has become popular across the country and singing conventions take place from Seattle to Boston to South Carolina.
In the Glover Town Hall, the music was driving, vital, very physical, very emotional. It filled the room and pushed the walls out into the night and lifted the ceiling up to the night sky.
In the March/April 2011 issue of Vermont Magazine, there are some wonderful comments from singers and listeners of Sacred Harp. Here are a few.
“When I first heard [Sacred Harp], it was like someone hitting me over the head with a frying pan. The four-part harmony just does something in your head.” After he (Paul Gauthier) traveled to a National Convention in Alabama: “It was a real revelation to sing with the old barrel-chested guys who have been singing all their life. It was like being in a pipe organ.”
“It’s very emotive, even cathartic—particularly with a number of people, their voices washing through me while I am singing. It’s a fantastic feeling.” (Ian Smiley)
“Singing loud and high—it’s a moving experience… it’s about life, eternity, the big questions–joy and grief.” (Chelsea Rose Sargent)
You can hear Sacred Harp singing on YouTube. Most of the performances are poorly recorded, but you’ll begin to understand it. And next thing you’ll be singing it.
The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is not like any other place—and it is currently in the throes of an artistic and agricultural renaissance.
The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont isn’t like any place else. While I know that’s true of many places, it’s even more uniquely true of Glover where Runaway Pond ran away some 200 years ago. No matter how interesting the geological incident and human accident are that caused a pond of two billion gallons to make a 26-mile dash to the Canadian border and raise the level of the very large Lake Memphremagog a foot—no matter that I made that excuse for my last quick trip back—what’s really interesting about the Northeast Kingdom is more profound and more dramatic.
First of all, the place is more beautiful than most. This spring the hillsides and valleys are as green as Irish; the gardens and meadows are dancing with lupines. There’s a blue heron nest on the beaver dam. The rain that came down the Saturday of the Runaway Pond celebration was as mammoth as the Pond must have been, turned white water when it broke through the embankment. Lightning stretched the sky wider than the horizon, thunder rumbled like the end time. We were having sugar on snow: two cardboard boxes of snow collected from the winter, syrup from Ted’s maples heated to just the right temperature, raised donuts made by Becky from June’s recipe, the sourest pickles I’ve ever tasted and the first ever made by Sarah, who’s Ted and Becky’s daughter and a medical doctor to boot. She intends to try again.
Rain was promised for the whole weekend, but like most promised rain, it came and it went. On Saturday, it cleared long enough for the celebration on the Glover green. The Bread and Puppet performance of “The Story of Runaway Pond” had just started when we arrived after a superb breakfast at the tiny Busy Bee, the town’s only restaurant, just across from the general store. A few stragglers from the morning’s footrace were still clearing the finish line; we had to dodge through the mud to make sure no one thought we were among them. The Runaway Pond script is based on a many-stanza-poem by Harry Alonzo Phillips, the poet laureate of Glover (c. 1929) and a descendant of Spencer Chamberlain, a half-breed from New Hampshire and the hero of the piece.
“Spencer, the son of brave of yore,
Made this long run at twenty-four;
Descending from a dauntless race,
He met the Devil face to face;
And conquered Death here in the dell,
Which on that summer day befell.”
Chamberlain ran to save the miller’s wife, left to grind at Willson’s Mill while her husband and 59 others dug to create a channel that would bring more water to the Barton River and increase the mill’s production. It’s a run of five miles over fallen trees and through thick underbrush, but he reached the mill just ahead of the rushing water. “Shouts: ‘Woman! Do you hear the roar? The Pond is coming! Climb the hill! Nor prison wall nor granite tower/Could stand against such water-power.’ She stood fearful, “like marble white,” so he grabbed her up in his arms and mounted the hill out of the path of the flood. Since Stefan played the miller’s wife and her son, Cavin, was Spencer in this particular staging, Spencer was a little uncomfortable and fudged the rescue, but just a little.
Of course, over the years the story has been embroidered. Chamberlain stopped to savor a piece of pie. He celebrated with all the diggers with a locally-made beer at the end of the run (and not whiskey as the older accounts report). As he ran around the audience again and again, the cheer went up from nearly every one of us: ” Run Chamberlain, run!”
It’s charming; it’s funny; it’s an honest-to-goodness work of art, and no one from Glover will ever grow tired of it.
People sauntered from one tent to another, buying their Runaway tee shirts, talking to the local entrepreneurs who set up shops on the green. Further down Rt. 16 (that is, Glover Street), we sat with a friend and resident of the Glover Nursing Home to watch the noon time parade sponsored by the Glover Library. The residents were to judge the best of the non-motorized participants (which eliminates those stalwarts of every community parade-the fire engine, old tractors, old cars). Here they came: the cast of the play (the ones that aren’t cardboard): a wheeled contraption depicting the pond (rather abstractly, I thought – the water, two runaway fish, a jug of whiskey….); an old Glover Fire Department wagon drawn by two handsome draft horses; the model of the Old Stone House that’s been in every parade in the county for the last twenty years; a miniature horse named Thomas and two alpacas; two ducks; the twenty visiting descendants of Spencer Chamberlain. Further down the street, at the town hall, was a splendid quilt show with turn-of-the-last-century quilts alongside some contemporary beauties.
In the afternoon when the rain returned, guides recruited from the area’s naturalist élite, took intrepid hikers into the woods, through streams and up bluffs on geological jaunts to the dry bed of the pond. There was a self-guided tour as well. But I was doing sugar on snow with family and friends on a hilltop farm. So much for science, said I, as I watched the rain from the window.
That evening at Glover Graded School, after a church supper, the school kids presented their version of Runaway Pond. Not brilliant theater, but their parents were proud and everyone yelled “Run Chamberlain, Run” as the star of the production raced around the gym. Then, the MacArthur family (the three surviving children of Margaret MacArthur) sang. Margaret died almost four years ago now, but twenty years ago she worked with neighboring Craftsbury Graded School kids, to write a song about Runaway Pond. The MacArthurs sang songs from rural New England, and especially Vermont—songs about family, snails in the garden, peace- “O had I a golden thread.” A door was open on the other side of the stage and outside, children were swinging on swings-up, up, higher and higher. That’s when I understood more profoundly than I usually do that one of the reasons all of this was so compelling is that they’re all here—great grandparents, grandparents, parents and kids. Glover is one of the few places left in the United States where the children come back, where the generations have rooted themselves so deeply in the seasons, the land and the history of the place that they come back, and most of them stay.
The next day, the deluge could no longer be held back and it was pouring when we arrived, but they were there, one hundred or more people. The shape note singers had finished their hymns and gypsy tunes; the Bread and Puppet band was playing jazzed-up renditions of the old songs that are so deeply part of us we forget we know them word for word until we hear them again. “The Story of Runaway Pond” was presented once again. There was a competition among newly baked cakes and pies. Everyone was drinking coffee from an old copper kettle that was first used at the centennial 100 years before. I dipped my cup in and was surprised at how good the stuff tasted, especially in an interminable rain. Vermont’s fresh-faced governor showed up. He’s Republican and most of the people present were Democrats or Progressive party people, but we were polite and he pulled it off nicely, reading the history, saying all the right things while his aides held an umbrella over his head. He pulled the rope to unveil a new plaque, and looked on as the Chamberlains were introduced—as well as a surprising number of descendants of the original diggers. All these people with all this history.
The rain was still coming down as some children dug up a time capsule.
But there’s far more to the Northeast Kingdom than Runaway Pond. Add it to what’s happening at Parker Pie in West Glover. Until seven or eight years ago, it was a failing general store. I used to stop at its single pump for gas on the way home. Today, Parker Pie has become a first class deli and restaurant (its specialty pizzas are to dream about), a meeting place for every age, and a music venue whose popularity is spreading across the state and into a few others, and Canada besides. It’s wall-to-wall people on Thursday nights when bands of every variety show up. I didn’t stay long enough to see him, but Johnny Rodgers, a stone mason and the local Assemblyman, my used-to-be neighbor, debuted a comedy routine there last Saturday night. Local artists exhibit on the walls and sell their goods in the deli.
At the same time art galleries and new artists are springing up all over the region and, while dairy farms die or turn into mega-dairies, small organic vegetable farms, sheep and goat cheese makers, maple syrup producers, honey bee farms, Christmas wreaths, apple orchards, breweries and wineries are happening everywhere.
All of this and more is happening because years ago the back-to-the-land movement of ’60s and ’70s hippies and the funky political pageantry of Bread and Puppet joined with the energy, creativity and down-to-earth hard work of local people: Scots-Irish, French Canadian, German, you name it…. The result is a renaissance of horticulture and animal husbandry and art and literature that has grown like the wild lupines and this year is exploding into bloom all over the Kingdom.
Some of the young people who migrated to the region four decades ago are gray-haired now, but still creating, still making, still changing this part of the world, alongside their children and their children’s children, and all those people whose roots go back for generations. Old artists are flourishing in the Northeast Kingdom.
I’m heading off to Glover, Vermont to visit the Runaway Pond celebration. Be sure to come back next post for the beginning of a 12-part murder myster, The Aquacizers Murder Club.
I’m about to take a week’s trip to the village of Glover in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to visit friends, but also to celebrate the bicentennial of Runaway Pond. It wasn’t that important an event in U.S. history, although it was the first man-made environmental disaster in the country’s history. (It ended more happily than any of our current disasters!) Some of the same people who will be celebrating next weekend have suggested that the much ado about it along with its scientific, historic and cultural research and documents may be more significant, and certainly more fun, than the historical event itself.
Runaway Pond has nothing to do with old artists, the theme of this blog, although there will be some wonderful old artists celebrating it: for example, Peter and Elka Schumann of Bread and Puppet whose base of operations is right down the road from Glover, and The MacArthur Family, a splendid family ensemble of folk singers – Margaret MacArthur wrote the “Ballad of Runaway Pond” and the group will perform it.
This is the story of Runaway Pond in brief:
In the spring of 1810, northern Vermont was experiencing a drought . On June 6 of the same year settlers from Glover, Sheffield, Barton and Wheelock – all of them tiny underpopulated villages – decided to divert some water from a lake called Long Pond to another called Mud Pond, and thereby increase the flow of water to Aaron Willson’s grist mill on the Barton River (which flowed north as Mud Pond’s headwaters). There were sixty of them altogether, men and boys, who met early in the morning, locating each other with blasts from tin horns. Around 8 a.m. they began to dig a trench approximately 1200 feet long, 4 feet deep, and 6-8 feet wide. At noon they broke for lunch and fishing. Shortly after they resumed digging at 1 p.m., they broke through a last crust of earth and water began to rush from one pond to the other, but they had no sooner stood back to celebrate their success with a drink of whiskey, when the water disappeared; there was a noise like thunder; and the ground where they stood began to give way. They had, unintentionally, let out all the water of Long Pond — close to two billion gallons. Like a tsunami, it knocked down huge trees (some are still visible!) and pushed boulders for miles, laying down a thick trail of mud, sand and debris. The flood reached Lake Memphremagog 25 miles away, in about six hours, raising the level of the 35 mile-long lake by a foot.
Soon after the letting out of Long Pond, legends began to form. None was more popular than that of Spencer Chamberlain. About the same time as the water broke through, Aaron Willson’s wife, (some say his daughter), was grinding grain for a customer who had tied his horse to a post. One of the diggers, Spencer Chamberlain, a 19-year-old half-breed, raced for six miles ahead of the flood to rescue her and pulled her to safety in the nick of time. The customer scrambled up the bank but the horse was swept away. Chamberlain’s descendants will be at the celebration to brag on their wonderful ancestor, while others at the event may continue to claim that a man called Solomon Dorr was the actual hero, not Spencer. I’ve never met Dorr’s progeny’s progeny, and I don’t know if they know, or even care, that he figures in Glover legend.
Because there were so few settlers, no human beings – only a few sheep, cattle and horses – died. Crops were ruined and the mud that was left was littered with dead fish and the broken eggs of water bird nests. All of it smelled of dead fish. Law suits were pursued by some landowners, of course, but everyone had to agree that it was a good thing in the long run – the land was leveled out and improved and a way was made clear for a better road.
I used to work with both the Orleans County Historical Society and the Glover Historical Society (and still do the design and layout of their newsletters). I and my partner in a local venture called Little House Desktop Publishing, helped lay out and print the first compilation of documents about the event. So this is more than just a peculiar historical happening to me. The celebration will include walking tours of the site, graveyard ghosts, a quilt show, a concert, running race, parade and ceremony with the governor of Vermont in attendance. Details about the schedule can be found on Glover’s website (www:gloverhistoricalsociety.org)
COMING NEXT – THE AQUACIZERS MURDER CLUB
I don’t want to leave this blog postless while I’m gone. I imagine it lost in the vast coils of the world-wide web, like a rudderless ship at sea. And so I hope to put up a murder mystery whose characters are almost all old. The Aquacizers Murder Club will begin Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, with a new chapter nearly every day, though I can’t promise that I’ll be exactly on the money where the time is concerned.