Old songs for a new audience
Tony Barrand and Keith Murphy team up for a benefit concert at Brooks Memorial Library.

Old songs for a new audience

Tony Barrand and Keith Murphy dip into 19th century music in a benefit for Friends of the Library

BRATTLEBORO — Two eminent performers of traditional folk music will be joining forces to sing “Jubilee Jim Fisk,” a song about Brattleboro's own Jim Fisk, the notorious Robber Baron of the Gilded Age.

It's one of the highlights of a very special concert that celebrates the folk music composed by a remarkable family in Southern Vermont.

In a benefit for the Friends of the Library, Tony Barrand and Keith Murphy, on Friday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m. in the Main Reading Room of Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro will perform songs and ballads composed by James Atwood and family members during the mid-19th century in West Dover.

The Atwood collection of folksongs includes dramatic ballads, romantic and funny songs about domestic life and marriage, and children's songs.

Barrand, professor emeritus of anthropology at Boston University, is a musician who studies and performs traditional folk dances and songs.

Born in England, Barrand earned his Ph.D. from Cornell University, where he also formed his ongoing music partnership with John Roberts, a fellow graduate student. As Roberts and Barrand, they perform a cappella and accompanied performances of traditional English folk music.

The duo is also half of the related act Nowell Sing We Clear, which, in addition to a number of albums, performs an annual yuletide concert series.

Barrand is also an expert morris and clog dancer, having taught across the United States, and written several books on the subject. He has edited the journal Country Dance and Song and founded the Marlboro Morris Ale, an annual national gathering of morris dancers in Vermont.

His partner for the Friends of the Library concert, Keith Murphy, is an accomplished composer and arranger in the realm of traditional music.

A native of Newfoundland, Keith's traditional song repertoire is based in Eastern Canada and Quebec as well as his current home, Vermont. A faculty member of the Brattleboro Music Center (BMC) and the artistic director of the BMC's Northern Roots Traditional Music Festival in Brattleboro, which he started in 2008, Murphy is a founding member of the traditional music trio Nightingale and is a mainstay of the Boston fiddle extravaganza, Childsplay.

Murphy has also composed for theater and film. Several of his compositions have been featured on the recent Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts.

Neighbors on Washington Street in Brattleboro, Murphy asked Barrand after he retired from Boston University in 2010 what he was going to do next. Barrand was not sure, so Murphy proposed that they collaborate.

Barrand and Murphy began their musical collaboration by finding and performing works composed by Jim Atwood and other members of his family.

”Three years ago Keith and I made a CD, On the Banks of Coldbrook: Atwood Family Songs from the Hills of Vermont, a collection of folk music from a family who lived in West Dover,” says Barrand.

On the Banks of the Coldbrook is named after the land the Atwoods owned. The family, originally from England, moved to their Dover property because of its good trout fishing on Coldbrook Stream, after which they named both their house and their property. Remarkably, the Atwoods still live there after 100 years.”

The title also alludes to a very popular English folk song, “On of the Bank of the River Dee.” “There are four rivers Dee in Scotland and England, so the song was sung all over, even though in different places it would refer to different rivers,” explains Barrand.

The Atwood songs were initially published by Edith Barnes Sturgis and Robert Hughes in 1919 in a volume entitled, Songs from the Hills of Vermont, a collection of New England folk songs that was first of its kind.

Edith discovered the songs when James Atwood, a mason, repaired the Sturgis's chimney. As he worked, Atwood would sing the songs that he composed, which were variations of traditional folk tunes.

A poet herself, Sturgis was impressed with with what she heard. There was a real variety of ballads and story songs. Some were poems about the town where Atwood lived. Others reflected stories from the past, such as work situations like coal mining or raising the mast while sailing.

Many were on basic universal themes, such as songs about end of life events, like dying, burials, and such.

Sturgis wrote down the words and persuaded Hughes, a music teacher at Groton School in Massachusetts where her husband taught Latin, to transcribe the tunes and write down piano accompaniment.

Initially most folk songs were sung a cappella, but later many were accompanied by a piano.

“When the English composer Vaughan Williams scored his renditions of traditional folk songs in the early part of the the 20th century, his were settings for piano and choir,” says Barrand. “At that time most every home had a piano, which functioned as a musical accompaniment, rather like the guitar does today. There were no guitars before the 19th century. Only after Sears and Roebuck put guitars and fiddles into their catalog did the instruments take off in America. But even then fiddles were mainly used to accompany contra dances rather than songs.”

Atwood's songs were English in origin, but versions can be found elsewhere in New England.

“Atwood is a fine example of the artistry of transforming traditional songs sung by ancestors for many generations,” says Barrand. “Many of Atwood's songs (like the work songs) originated in the 19th century, while others can be traced back to the 18th century. How? Most songs leave a trail, which can be followed through various other versions of similar pieces. Folklorists look for the ways that dance and song change from generation to generation as well as place to place. Each version reflects its timed and geographic location.”

As James Atwood's son and grandson continued his tradition of composing folk songs, Barrand and Murphy have tracked down additional tunes and lyrics to perform through connections of descendants and friends of the Atwoods and Sturgis families, as well as 50 more Atwood songs collected by Margaret MacArthur, a folk musician who devoted much of her life to collecting, preserving and performing traditional music from the American Northeast, focusing on Vermont.

“I came to live in Vermont because of Margaret MacArthur, whom I met at a singing festival,” says Barrand. “I was then finishing my degree at Cornell and was looking for somewhere to work. Her husband John was dean of Marlboro College and invited me to join the school's faculty. I taught at Marlboro for 10 years, before moving to Boston College, where I taught folklore for 30 years.”

In the early part of the 20th century, many folklorists worked to discover and preserve the folk song traditions of New England and elsewhere.

Barrand says, “For instance, in the 1930s, Helen Hartness Flanders, the wife of a U.S. Senator from Vermont, got interested in preserving the local folk song tradition and went all over the state finding songs to save.”

But the goals of preserving folk traditions have evolved over time.

“It used to be, say a 100 years ago, that what mattered to academics was to find the original form of the song,” says Barrand. “Such an approach is no longer the only valid way. I believe that each folksong is true to the person currently singing it. When the great Australian composer and arranger Percy Grainger collected folksongs, he was fascinated that the people who sang these songs were still alive. He used the songs as they were sung by the people then, with no concern about discovering any original, whatever that may be. These are songs that survived to become re-created by people as it related to their experiences at that moment.”

Folk tunes were the popular music of their day.

“Even when I grew up in England, songs like these were sung in the pubs and bars,” says Barrand. “Even now, every fourth Saturday of the month, a lot of folks gather for a pub sing at McNeil's in Brattleboro.

“Nowadays, people may learn pop songs from recordings. And although the referent is more rigid, this shows how people are still drawn to the stories in songs.”

We may think of the past as a simpler time, but things haven't changed all that much.

Barrand explains, “A lot of today's music, like county music for instance, still tell stories about things that mean a lot to people: Americana, like apple pie and holidays and the joy of good food.”

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