Peter and Mary Alice Amidon
Courtesy photo
Peter and Mary Alice Amidon

‘Unsung heroes’ use music to bring people together

Peter and Mary Alice Amidon will be honored with award from Compassionate Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO — Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, local performers and teachers of traditional music, dance, and storytelling, are the 2023 recipients of the Brattleboro Unsung Hero Award from Compassionate Brattleboro.

The ceremony will be held on Tuesday, June 13, at 5:30 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church on Main Street.

The citation describes them as “two remarkable musicians“ who have “sung so often and so beautifully for the living and the dying, for justice, love and compassion, for members of our community, both new and long-standing, and for children of all ages.”

The Amidons' story as a couple begins with a chance meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a contradance.

“In 1975, I was working as a mental health worker at McLean Hospital in Belmont, just outside of Cambridge,” Peter said. “I had been introduced to contradancing a few months earlier by my then-girlfriend, Annie O'Brien,” and he had been going to dances with her regularly.

She also introduced him to “the whole Cambridge/Boston traditional music scene: Irish tune sessions, group singing sessions, Morris dancing, folk music getaway weekends,” he said.

“The night I met Mary Alice was the first contradance I had been to without Annie,” Peter said.

The previous year, Mary Alice was studying for a master's degree in education at the University of New Hampshire in Durham when she was taken to her first contradances in Unity, Peterborough, and Nelson, New Hampshire. In the fall of 1975, she had the opportunity to work at a preschool in Cambridge, and she went to the contradance at the YWCA.

“Peter walked in ahead of me,” she said. “When I saw him, I said, 'He's the one,' and I've been insanely happy ever since.”

In spring of 1976, Mary Alice and Peter were on a three-month cross-country tour with Peter and Elka Schumann's Bread & Puppet Theater in collaboration with Larry Gordon's Word of Mouth Chorus, performing a puppet show that was set to the Josquin Mass, Ave Maris Stella.

“We were doing a show in Ann Arbor when Tony Barrand and John Roberts were in town performing,” Peter said. “Our shows were at the same time. Tony visited Mary Alice and me after our show.”

The Amidons said they were looking to move but were unsure where. Barrand nominated Brattleboro, “because there is so much great music there.”

By 1978, the year the Amidons married, “We put everything in our car and came to Brattleboro,” Mary Alice said.

“Days after Mary Alice and I first moved to Brattleboro,” Peter said, “we went to a shape note sing at Tony Barrand's house in Marlboro, where we met many of the people who became our first group of friends.”

The group held Sacred Harp sings at each other's houses “and did as much chatting as singing, as our young children ran in and out and played around our feet,” Peter said.

“When Tony stopped organizing and leading sings in 1980, I picked them up,” said Peter, who continued to do so until 2010.

Their focus and their passion

To support themselves in their new hometown, at first the Amidons took what jobs they could. Mary Alice worked at the Brattleboro Food Co-op for four years, and Peter worked in a print shop.

But studying and creating traditional music and dance - and sharing it with others - continued to be their focus and their passion.

As time passed, the Amidons became music teachers in local elementary schools, where they were able to share the traditional songs, games, stories, and dances they had learned. They started a weekly all-school community sing.

Before too long, they were giving summer library programs and teacher workshops, and they were leading residencies in traditional dance, music, and storytelling.

Music to heal

The Amidons reached out to the community through music after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Susan Dedell, who was music director at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Brattleboro, joined Peter to lead singing at a public gathering at Centre Congregational Church on the evening of Sept. 11.

“After that, I was asked to gather a choir for a Sept. 11th commemoration the following Sunday at the Brattleboro Common,” Peter recalled. “A chorus of 300 singers sang This Is My Song, based on Finlandia by Jean Sibelius, for the hundreds more attending the commemoration.”

The Amidons were also part of the initial group that became the Hallowell Singers, trained volunteers affiliated with Brattleboro Area Hospice, who, as stated on their website, “practice the therapeutic art of singing for the dying.”

First explaining that Fred Breunig has given him permission to tell this story, Peter recounted the genesis of Hallowell.

“In 2003, when Fred's wife Dinah was dying of cancer, the Rev. Lise Sparrow asked me to gather some singers,” Peter said. “I called a group of people who knew each other from Morris dancing, Sacred Harp singing, and the Guilford Community Church choir to gather to sing for Dinah.

Forty people showed up and sang with Dinah Breunig for 40 minutes.

“The second time we gathered, Dinah was very close to dying, almost in a coma,” Peter said. “But as we sang, her lips were moving.”

From that experience, Kathy Leo, who had been Dinah's hospice volunteer, formed the Hallowell Singers. She asked Peter Amidon and Mary Cay Brass to serve as music directors of the group. They still are today.

In 2011, Peter gathered a group of about 50 singers to lead Brattleboro's Fourth of July parade.

“I chose songs that would work for a parade,” he said. “We sang the South African song Siyahamba, Faya Rose Touré's gospel song I'm Gonna Lift My Sister Up, and a couple of other songs.”

Four decades of music

For more than 40 years, the Amidons have immersed themselves in the musical tradition that they love and that they love to share with children and adults.

As one can learn on their website (, they did three tours in the late 1970s with Larry Gordon's Word of Mouth Chorus, “singing Sacred Harp and Balkan Village songs, and vocal music from the Renaissance.”

Folk music legend Pete Seeger “hired the Amidons to create and run a new participatory group singing stage at his Clearwater Festival from 1991 to 1993.”

By the 1990s, the Amidons were spending summers at Pinewoods Camp, run by the Country Dance and Song Society, and at Jay Ungar's Ashokan Northern Week, where they have been regular leaders of choral singing.

“This year, though, we're attending Pinewoods as campers, with our grandchildren,” Peter said.

The Amidons are proud parents of two sons, both musicians: Sam, who lives in England, and Stefan, who lives in Brattleboro. The boys first performed with their parents at the ages of 7 and 4, respectively, at a teachers' conference.

“When Stefan was 12 and Sam was 15, we took the boys out of school for the year and toured the United States, England, and Ireland as a family band, giving concerts in four-part harmony, and leading contradances,” Peter said. “We've been in every state except Louisiana and North Dakota.”

“The boys learned you can live by touring,” Mary Alice said, “and that's what they do now.”

A spiritual home

When their second son, Stefan, was born in 1984, Peter and Mary Alice decided they needed a church to attend.

“We 'church-hopped,' trying out some of the churches,” Peter said. “When we went to Guilford Community Church, where Shirley Crockett was pastor, we both felt swept up by the spirit in the church; we were both in tears by the end of the service.”

He described Crockett as “deeply spiritual.”

“She spoke from the heart in plain, accessible language,” he said. “The congregation, diverse and multi-generational, was very welcoming to us.”

Crockett retired from the Guilford Community Church in 1997, as did her husband, Larry Crockett, assistant minister and choir director. Tony Barrand, Andy Davis, and Peter Amidon took over as choir directors.

“All three of us often did our own arrangements of songs for the choir,” Peter said. “Most of Mary Alice's and my choral arrangements that are now sung here, there, and everywhere, were first written for the Guilford Community Church '9 O'clock Choir.'”

According to their website, “the Amidons have sold over a thousand copies of each of their two book collections of their choral pieces, Fifty-Five Anthems for the Small Church Choir and Twenty-Five Anthems for Interfaith and Community Choirs. Their online choral sheet music download library/store includes over 100 of their choral arrangements.”

“We have sales every day,” Peter said.

Although Peter and Mary Alice have retired from school assembly programs, residencies, and workshops, they are still actively involved in choral singing, arranging, and publishing, as well as with both the Guilford Church choir and the Hallowell Singers.

Mary Alice Amidon and Peter Amidon, Mary Cay Brass, and Andy Davis, known as the New England Dancing Masters, the group they formed in 1991, are the recipients of the 2023 Country Dance and Song Society's Lifetime Achievement Award “for the past four decades they have spread the joy of traditional music and dance across North America.”

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