In 2006, I sat in the northeast corner of my grandparents’ two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in Vermont and listened to my grandmother, who was dying, sing “The Ballad of Marjory Gray.” She had lost her ability to remember most things on her deathbed, but she knew every word of that nineteenth century Vermont ballad about a pioneer woman who gets lost in the old-growth woods. Her voice, which had thinned to nearly nothing in her last days, swelled into a deep and warm vibrato.
We sat there crying—her husband, four children, and five grandchildren—but there was wonder as well: my grandmother was leaving us, but the songs she sang and collected throughout her lifetime were not. Her life, her landscape, and the stories contained in that landscape had become a fabric of song that was lasting and full of grace. We could carry them with us, sing them ourselves, and come to know the place where she had brought us all to live.
My grandmother—Margaret MacArthur—moved to Vermont in the 1940s, the twenty-year-old wife of a professor. Near penniless, with two babies and another on the way, she and my grandfather bought an abandoned 1803 farmhouse and 130 acres of overgrown pasture on a road without neighbors or electricity or telephone. The windows were broken and the floors eaten by porcupines. “I love it!” my grandmother exclaimed, and it was true. She loved the house—its reverberant history and overgrown lilacs and the view, which faced the far-off hills of Dover.
But once settled, she found herself feeling adrift. She had grown up in rural places throughout the country: the Mogollon Rim of Arizona, the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in California, the Ozarks of Missouri, and the Suwannee Swamp of South Carolina. Each of these places was physically isolated, yes, but they had rich musical cultures that merged with their landscapes and thus made her feel at home. In Arizona, her family had lived in a canvas tent amid cowboys who sang nightly around their fires; in Southern California, she worked in the lettuce fields with Mexican immigrants who passed the hours in song; in the Ozarks, her heroes were the fiddle-playing boys, and the best nights of the year were when the medicine shows came to town.
But in Vermont, in the 1940s and ’50s, all she could find was what she called “church music,” songs which taught her nothing about the land or the people who had lived here before her.
My grandparents lived without electricity or running water for seven years, planted a quarter-acre vegetable garden, cut fifteen chords of firewood by hand, and watched their herd of three children blossom to five. Finding herself living a pioneer lifestyle in the mid-twentieth century, my grandmother needed to hear the voices of others who had lived similar lives in these same hills. She needed to find the poetry of her place. So she went looking.
In the early 1960s, she bought herself a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder and set out, combing the back roads and hollows and nursing homes, looking for folks who knew “the old songs.” She found them and recorded their singing and learned their songs: Appalachian courting songs stripped of their southern rhythms, old British Ballads adapted to fit the New England landscapes, local tragedies (train wrecks and women lost in snowdrifts) turned to poetry and then to song. The lyrics were stark, wordy, meant to entertain children through the long evenings of long winters; the melodies were dry and unembellished. In 1962, Moses Asch, director of Folkways Records, heard of her singing and released Folksongs of Vermont, the first record of her nine-record career.
Despite her relative success, my grandmother never conceived of her music as something separate from the landscape from which it came. She sang because she wanted a taproot, a means to a vertical understanding of place—one which sees not just green, picturesque hills, but that feels and hears the reverberations of past lives in fields and houses and barns. Those reverberations had made her life both more meaningful and less acute.
I knew, sitting in that room, listening to her sing “The Ballad of Marjory Gray,” that I would have to do the same myself—find my own vertical taproot to this Vermont landscape that I, too, had chosen to settle.
Last fall, in that same northeast facing room, my husband and I set up our instruments and microphones and began to record our own versions of a few of her songs. A eulogy, yes, but it quickly became more than that: the melodies and stories etched themselves into our brains and would not leave. We came home at night and sang them to our daughter; we sang them to our neighbors and friends; we sang them in the car. We sang about deep and dark waters, fickle men, true loves, pastures wild, bitter winds, drifting snow, darker hours, mothers wandering in the night.
I discovered that those songs have the power to bring back the dead. Not only my grandmother, whose voice I can hear singing in my own, but the heroes, heroines, women poets and five-plus generations of Vermonters who have lived on these hillsides before us. They bring to life the ghosts of this landscape and all that we still have in common with them—the subtle beauty and isolation of these small rolling hills, the cold, dreary length of winter, the raucous beauty of spring. They reflect love, loss, fear, sadness. They help us make sense of our lives and our homes.
Listen: “Stratton Mountain Tragedy”
Robin MacArthur lives in a small, self-built house on the land where she was born in Marlboro, Vermont. She performs and records, with her husband Tyler Gibbons, as the indie-folk duo Red Heart the Ticker. Their new record of traditional New England folk songs, Your Name in Secret I Would Write, will be released on September 20th, from Augerdown Records. Read more about the project, and listen, at yournameinsecretiwouldwrite.com.