The Music of One’s Life

In different hours, a man represents each of several of his ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of us rolled up in each man’s skin,—seven or eight ancestors at least, and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is.   –Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love this image of our ancestors as the musical notes that make up our own songs.

My song is the song of the farmer, the maker, the student, the teacher.

It’s an American song, but it was begun here in this land before it was America. It’s a song with Dutch notes in early Manhattan mingling with solemn Puritan hymns in New England.

My ancestors must’ve been adventurers or at least seekers, coming from Europe to an unsettled unknown. They knew how to pick stones to tame unwelcoming soil and to stay warm where warmth was hard to come by.

They must’ve been loners; they seem to have sought isolation. While some lived in New York City and Boston, they did so when those were very small towns. Then they moved on to the reaches of northern New England and New York, barely settled then and sparsely populated even today.

I recently spent a few days with a favorite cousin and learned the source of another note in my personal song.

I always knew that part of my song included the lilt of Ireland. I could feel the Celtic in me but that’s the side of the family about which I knew the least.

My cousin shared what she knew about my paternal grandfather’s line. She gave me a copy of my grandfather’s grandfather’s marriage certificate, from Kilcluney, in County Armagh.

William Agnew was married in 1848, to Sarah Gray. I still don’t know when they came to America or why but I learned something that thrilled me no end.




William was a weaver.

So the special rhythm of the shuttle being thrown is added to my song; I always sensed it was there!

My song is northern European and rural. It is work music, the music of those who live close to the land and make for themselves. It also contains the strains of art music, as so many of my ancestors sought education to improve themselves and the lives of their children, and to teach the children of others.

My song is rare and unique and mine alone.

And so is yours.

What notes make up the music of your life? Can you see how your melody comes to you from your forebears?

Loving Hands and A Birthday to Remember

IMG_7907How would you celebrate your 90th birthday?

My aunt is coming up to that milestone and she chose to throw herself a birthday bash with bonfire this past weekend.IMG_7843

This party had it all. Her guests came from many circles—colleagues from her years as a teacher, church members, people from her swim class, family, and many, many neighbors.

One of my aunt’s long-time friends traveled from England. Her oldest friend was there—they’ve known each other for almost every minute of their lives. Almost 90 years—astounding!

The party was at my aunt’s rural home, on a hill overlooking the Champlain Valley of upstate New York, about a mile from the farm where I grew up. That meant I saw some of the people I grew up with but haven’t seen in forever—my sister’s first puppy love, members of the family with whom my family was closest and with whom I share wonderful childhood memories, kids for whom I used to babysit and who are now growing gray.

The party had a definite “loving hands at home” quality, in the best sense of that phrase. Many people chipped in, to make it happen. Daughters made snacks and worried about the details, a son-in-law chopped veggies and arranged food to perfection.

There was plenty of homemade music—we sang “Happy Birthday” to a bagpipe accompaniment and “Auld Lang Syne” to guitar. The birthday girl was serenaded to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”IMG_7853

Because an enormous bonfire was the focal point of the evening, the campfire theme prevailed. The ladies from my aunt’s church made cupcakes with a campfire motif and a neighbor friend contributed floral centerpieces in campfire colors.11728979_10153592498309901_5267262041501630761_o (1) 11845088_10153592321439901_4960895211403482030_o (1)

The weather was perfect. The evening ended with the enormous, rip-roaring bonfire. Smaller fires provided toasted marshmallows for s’mores. Falling stars streaked across the sky, offering opportunities for wishes made upon them.

Friends. Family. Warmth. Wishes on stars.

How will you celebrate your 90th birthday, should you be lucky enough to reach it?

Forever Young, by Bob Dylan

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.


Made on the 4th of July

IMG_8143What do your “hands at home” make for a special celebration? The decorations? The flower arrangement? The bread? The ice cream?

One day a year, on America’s Independence Day, we go a step further.

We make music.

IMG_8178Two of us have sung together for over 30 years. A little girl grew up singing and joined in. Two of us married and brought new musicians to the group.

We play and sing only a couple of times a year but always, always, on the 4th of July. Most of us never pick up a guitar at any other time.

Because we play together only once or twice a year, we play with no finesse. Self-taught, we play really easy songs and try to avoid F-chords (or those F-ing chords, as a wit among us calls them). We have trouble finding enough capos, let alone the same key. We drink beer and complain about how much the guitar strings hurt our fingers.

We sing songs you may know—of green alligators and long-necked geese, of times that are a-changin’, of Charley on the MTA.

We have loyal listeners who never find fault (mostly because they are related to us!)

Every time we get together and play, I think we should do it more often—there’s something about making music, even not-very-good music, that seems to be at the core of what it means to be human.

When we sit by the campfire and sing, it’s hard not to think of other fires, other songs, other singers who have found warmth and community and harmony through making music.

It may only happen once a year for us, but the feeling lasts. That feeling always makes me think of one of my favorite songs, by John McCutcheon:

And I wish you songs to speed you through the evening,
And I wish you rest at the close of the day,
And a harbor safe till the morning light,
And I wish you good dreams, good morrow, and I wish you good night

So gather `round, you friends and lovers,
Let the darkness come for the fire is bright;
Though the road is long, love makes us stronger,
And I wish you good dreams, good morrow, and I wish you good night.


How Can I Keep from Singing?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve said elsewhere that the music I love best is folk music, music made by people like you and me. The music I love best is made and sung by everyday people in response to everyday events in their own lives. I can appreciate the glory of the highly-trained operatic voice and also love a song that has-a-good-beat-and-is-easy-to-dance-to but I come back, every time, to the grittier, more authentic sound of the folk.

I especially love the music of protest and resistance. I wrote a Master’s thesis on the spirituals sung by African-American slaves and published a book about the protest songs of the American Civil Rights Movement. I’ve also studied Irish songs of rebellion and the protest music of the American New Left and of the turbulent 1960s.

The best songs, to my way of thinking, are not sung by an individual performer while others sit and listen quietly. The best songs are shared in the fullest sense—shared words, shared voices, making together a sound and a covenant that could not be made by one person, alone. And the best songs transcend the moment in which they were created, to speak across generations, about the human condition.

This is all by way of providing you a preview of coming attractions! I just know I’ll be writing more about this music and the songs and singers/songleaders that have moved me most. I’ll start, in the next week or so, with my thoughts about what I would call the greatest folk song of all time, “We Shall Overcome.” I hope you’ll come back and follow along!

Music Made at Home


Where do our musical tastes come from? Are they something we pick up from family and peers or do they reflect, somehow, a personal philosophy or mindset?

Well, of course, I’m sure it’s some of each. I know, for me, my tastes cannot be explained simply by pointing to what I was exposed to as a youngster. The musical stew I grew up on had three main ingredients—a heavy broth of songs from the Wesleyan Methodist hymnal, large dollops of opera stirred in by my mother, and everything spiced with the recordings of comic genius Tom Lehrer. And then when I was a little older, we can add in a healthy serving of camp songs from riding the bus to YMCA day camp.

It was a strange stew. “Bringing in the Sheaves” (or “Bringing in Chinese,” since it was a fervently evangelical crowd!) meets “Nessun Dorma.” Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” sung in quick succession with “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.” It’s a wonder I still like music at all!

Weirdly, the music that I am drawn to has little to do with anything I was exposed to early, except for one faint memory. The music I love best is folk music and the memory is of a man playing the fiddle in our living room at the farm.

The man was Vic Parrotte (or Parrott); he was an occasional hired hand on the farm when I was very young. As I recall, he would work for a while then take his pay and go on a “toot,” as my grandfather called it; he’d go off and get drunk. Then he wouldn’t show up for chores for a few days and my grandmother would urge my grandfather never to let him come back.

Then Vic would come back and my grandfather would hire him and the whole cycle would begin again.

But Vic could play the fiddle. I wasn’t allowed to stay downstairs and watch him play much—this wasn’t really considered appropriate music for a good girl to hear. But I would lie in bed, upstairs above the parlor, and listen to that incredible sound coming out of his instrument. As I recall, he put the end of the fiddle on his knee, instead of under his chin, and, boy, could he play!

And, it turns out, we weren’t the only people who knew about Vic’s fiddle. Vic was always a sort of tragic-comic character at our house, a rambler who couldn’t hold his drink and played wild music. But years later I mentioned his name to an expert in Adirondack roots music who responded, first with stunned silence and then said, “Vic Parrotte was your hired hand?! He played the fiddle for you?!” Vic was famous in some circles—imagine my surprise!

But I wonder if Vic had anything to do with forming my musical tastes. He made his own music and it was spell-binding music. It didn’t sound anything like the piano I was supposed to practice, or the organ at church, or the orchestras backing up the opera singers. Vic’s music was raw and elemental and individual. I doubt he ever had a lesson and certainly couldn’t read music.

And ever since, I’ve been drawn to the music of the folk—untrained musicians and untrained voices, singing songs that speak of the trials and joys of everyday life. And as I’ve been thinking about this “hands at home” theme, it’s clear that my musical tastes are consistent with my interests in art and crafts. It’s been pretty neat to become more aware of the connections among the things that speak to me.

What do you think? Can you trace your tastes back to your formative years and experiences? Are your tastes across different art forms consistent in style? Do they reflect a key element of your personality or philosophy? Or do you simply think that I am REALLY over-thinking things?! I’d love to hear!


Busy, busy hands . . . and not enough time.


Retired people always talk about how busy they are. I could never figure that out. They don’t have to get up early and take a shower and put on grown-up clothes every day. They don’t have to drive to work and find a place to park. They don’t have to work for 8 hours! And then drive home and get ready for the next day at work. Just how busy can they be?

Then I retired, pretty much the minute I turned 55, from my career as a college professor. And now I am SO busy, I truly cannot find the time to do everything I want to do!

I want to do what you want to do—make things.

10 things I wish I could fit into every day:

1)   Quilting—I have a beautiful quilt that needs about two days work to be finished. I’d love for you to see it!

2)   Making jewelry—You should see my studio! I have everything I need to make pretty things.

3)   Baking—I used to bake bread. I love to bake cookies . . .

4)   Getting the dirt out—I get the weirdest thrill out of soaking a stained and smelly old tablecloth, made by someone else’s loving hands, and seeing it come back to its shining glory!

5)   Ironing—no, really. I love to iron. I can explain it and someday I will.

6)   Making music—my husband plays his guitar and sings almost every day. I should, too. It’s just good for the soul.

7)   Gardening—I actually do get into the garden almost every day. Those pesky weeds insist.

8)   Trying a new candy concoction—Last year, I developed new recipes for mint meltaways and peanut butter meltaways and they are FAB, if I may be so impertinent as to say so. What can I make next . . .?

9)   Getting out of the house—all these projects keep me home but when I go out to look at what other people are doing and making, I get a huge creative jolt!

10)  Trying something new—I’d love to learn to weave. And hook rugs. I’d love to learn to play the banjo or the fiddle. But, the problem is I don’t have time for the things I already know and love, so I tell myself I shouldn’t start something new.

So many creative outlets, never enough time. I imagine you feel the same way, too. Right?