The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #42477   Message #3219318
Posted By: Desert Dancer
06-Sep-11 - 10:35 PM
Thread Name: Margaret MacArthur article
Subject: RE: Margaret MacArthur article
Having some Vermont connections, I've been tracking the news online about the Hurricane Irene damage, and I spotted this: I don't know why, but the Burlington Free Press currently has up on their website an article from an interview with Margaret MacArthur (who died in 2006 - Mudcat Obit thread). There are a couple of audio links. (And a lovely picture.) There's no indication of when the interview actually took place.

Margaret MacArthur : 'I'd never heard any New England music and I just knew I wasn't gonna like it'

As Margaret MacArthur notes in the interview excerpt below, prior to moving to Vermont from Chicago she had no knowledge of the region's musical traditions. In an effort to learn something about them she purchased two books, one of which was Edith Sturgis's 1919 work, "Songs from the Hills of Vermont." Here Margaret explains how she learned more of the story behind "Songs from the Hills of Vermont."

Margaret MacArthur: When I found out we were moving to Vermont I was not happy because the only thing I knew about New England was all the horrid University of Chicago kids from Boston that I didn't have anything in common with. And I'd never heard any New England music and I just knew I wasn't gonna like it. But I did buy these two books: "Songs from the Hills of Vermont " and Flanders' "Country Songs of Vermont." So, and I don't know what year it was. It was probably around 1960 that I was talking about the "Songs from the Hills of Vermont" because I guess I'd been learning all the songs in it, and there are 13 songs in it. And in the preface she says that she'd gotten some 70 songs from this man, from James Atwood and from the Atwood family. And I sort of said to Steven Green, "I sure would like to find the rest of these songs, but I don't know where the Hills of Vermont are." And he said, "Well, that's Dover." Which is right there, where I sang three days ago. And I said, "No kidding?" And he knew Edith Sturgis' daughter, Susan Goodale, who was married to a doctor in Cambridge and he said, "Why don't you call her up and see if you can find them?" So I did. I think he gave me her phone number in Cambridge, 'cause he lived next door to them in Dover. And she was so nice. She said, "Well, we're coming up Labor Day weekend. Why don't you come over and we'll look in mother's desk." And we opened her mother's desk and there were all these typed words to these songs, the rest of these songs. And there were six little pieces of music, paper with staffs on them, that had tunes for six of them. And the rest of them, no tunes. But I was delighted. So I learned those six tunes.

Sturgis, Edith Sturgis, got interested in James Atwood because he was a Mason and they'd owned this mansion since before the Civil War. And they came back, I suppose, after the turn of the century and hired a mason to restore the house. It all needed plastered and everything. And new chimneys. And he sang while he was working and he sang these ancient, ancient ballads. And she was an educated woman and realized that this was important, so she set about collecting. And they hired a man named Robert Hughes to come and write down the music, because it was before any tape recorders. So he was the transcriber. And these little pieces that I found were his transcription.

In this selection, Margaret MacArthur describes her search for the descendants of James Atwood. The reel-to-reel tape recordings Margaret made of James's son, Fred, are now in the collection of the Vermont Folklife Center Archive.

Margaret MacArthur: And I kept thinking there were still many, many songs that didn't have their tunes. And I asked the Town Clerk if she knew if he (James Atwood) had any descendents, and he had two sons and a daughter. And she said, "the one who would sing would be Fred, and he's in Connecticut." So I wrote to him. I got his address and wrote to him, and I sent him all the list of all these songs that I had the words to, and he sent back, checking off most of them. And said that once a year he went to Brattleboro and his brother, Clarence, came from Northern Vermont and they met in Brattleboro for the day and then they went back on the bus to their homes. And if I would come and meet him and bring him out to Dover to the burial plot where his parents were buried, he'd sing these songs for me. So I invited him. And I didn't have a phone and he didn't have a phone, so this was all by letter. And he described what he looked like. He was tall and skinny and would have on a gray hat and he'd meet me at the corner where Brooks' Hotel is at four o'clock or something like that on such and such a date. I still have his letter. And I did go down and there he was. And quite deaf. In his 80s.

Jane Beck: I'll be darned.

Margaret: Yeah.

Jane: Well, were you able to get some of the tunes?

Margaret: Yeah! Yeah. I have all those on tape.

Jane: Marvelous!

Margaret: On Wollensak. Wollensak tape. Yeah. No, I have—

Jane: What a wonderful collection!

Margaret: Yeah, it is. There are dozens and dozens and dozens. Not all of them in what I regard as important songs, but very important to know a person's repertoire.

Jane: Absolutely! And a Vermont repertoire.

Margaret: Mhm. And very British oriented. Very few local songs. He sang a song of Jim Fiske, who was a boy who was born in Pownal and then was a peddler out of Brattleboro, back and forth to Albany, before he became the great railroad baron. So that's — those things became very important in my life. Now it's sort of receded into the past, but at the time this was extremely important to me. And then when I was asked to make another record for Living Folk, this very record ("On the Mountains High"), in 1970's, I was very anxious to put some of the, to bring some of that forward, some of the Atwood stuff forward.


That's it.

~ Becky in Long Beach