Margaret MacArthur, "Folk Songs of Vermont." I remember seeing that listing among the hundreds in the Folkways Records' catalog in the early 1960s — along with recordings by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, music from indigenous communities around the world and even the sounds of frogs.
As a rabid young Philadelphia folkie, I had just come under the spell of the southern Appalachian and Deep South roots of the folk revival and was not particularly interested in music from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But the name stuck.
It wasn't long after I moved to Vermont some years ago that I discovered the richness of the state's music traditions and why Margaret MacArthur was not only the first folk singer to issue an album of Vermont songs, but why she was Vermont's first lady of folk music as well.
First, there were the songs. I say first, because to Margaret it was always the song, not the singer, that mattered most. She saw herself as a vehicle for the musical stories she told with grace and directness. She never drew attention to herself; she always made sure her audience understood the significance of the song. Never pedantic, Margaret seamlessly combined the roles of performer and educator. "I don't regard what I do as entertaining, except as the stories themselves are entertaining," she once told me.
Margaret is best known for her performances of rural songs from a time before mass transportation and mass communication transformed Vermont life and culture, a time when songs and stories were transferred through contact with friends and family.
Margaret wrote songs as well. There, too, she followed a traditional approach – writing about rural life, events and people – not about herself. She even viewed the melodies she composed for locally written poems as part of the "folk process." "New tunes," she said, "are just fragments of old tunes put together."
Margaret's love of old songs began during her peripatetic childhood. Born in Chicago, she grew up in rural Missouri where she developed a lifelong love of country ways and traditional folk songs. She was especially attracted to long story-songs, or ballads, which she researched as a student at the University of Chicago. In 1948, she moved to Vermont and soon settled with her husband, John, in Marlboro, in an old farmhouse where she began raising a family and living the kind of rural life she had begun singing about.
That lifestyle, in turn, brought home the reality of the songs.
"Our time spent fixing up the house," she wrote in the notes to her 1982 album, "An Almanac of New England Farm Song," "gave us insight not only into building techniques of the early 1800s but into the ways of life of our predecessors."
When a neighbor gave her an unusual, broken harp-zither, John repaired it, and Margaret began using it, along with the Appalachian dulcimer, to accompany her songs and pick old-time tunes. Today, this instrument is known as a "MacArthur harp."
Living without electricity for the first six years in Marlboro, the MacArthurs did what many old-time families had done at night: They sang by the light of kerosene lamps. "Something about those dim lights in the winter really inspired me to learn a lot of long songs," she once remarked.
But Margaret did not confine her passion for old ways and music to the home. She began seeking songs from her neighbors as well as from the Middlebury College collection begun by Vermont's pioneer folk song collector, Helen Hartness Flanders, who encouraged Margaret's singing and collecting.
As a teacher at the two-room Marlboro schoolhouse, Margaret began introducing the children to songs that she was learning, often from their parents and grandparents. Later, she developed thematic programs for schools. She also began writing songs with kids based on oral history interviews the students had conducted in their families and communities. (A collection of those songs, "The Vermont Heritage Songbook," and companion CD are available from the Vermont Folklife Center.)
Margaret's public performances were often thematic as well. And they were always informative. She was "rigorous about the antecedents and legacy of a song," according to Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council. "She had such an influence, not only on people, but on the way traditional music is carried from generation to generation."
For this, as well as for her talents as a musician, Margaret, who toured nationally and internationally, received major recognition in and beyond Vermont. In 1985 the University of Massachusetts named her a New England Living Art Treasure. In 2002 the Vermont Arts Council presented her with its Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. In 2005 she was invited to sing at the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center.
Margaret accepted those honors with characteristic modesty.
"She was so unassuming," said Jane Beck, executive director of the Vermont Folklife Center. "She never really accepted the impact she had on Vermont. She was so down-to-earth."
That brings me back to Margaret herself. Far more than a singer, collector and preserver of songs, Margaret was a mother, wife, friend, baker of bread, and tender of gardens, a person absolutely dedicated to nurturing and living in harmony with both the natural and human environments. Warm, genuine and inclusive, Margaret dedicated her life to preserving old songs and ways not simply because they are old and quaint, but because they help remind us of where we've come from, who we are and the fundamental value of transmitting culture directly from person to person.
And now she's gone. Margaret became ill about a month ago with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare, incurable brain disorder and died at home on May 23. She was 78. It's a terrible loss for us all.
The last time I saw Margaret was at last summer's Champlain Valley Folk Festival. I was running a workshop featuring some of the old Pony Boys, central Vermont's preeminent radio cowboy band from the 1930s to the '50s, and Margaret showed up. She had appeared with some of these folks in "The Unbroken Broken Circle," my own video documentary about Vermont traditional and country music and came to the workshop to support them, even though their music was influenced by popular, post-electronic culture and, some would say, stretched the boundaries of "folk."
But to Margaret it all came from the same roots and was all part of Vermont's musical heritage. Spontaneously, I asked if she'd start things off by singing "Fifty Years Ago," a 19th century song that speaks of such then-modern improvements as horse teams replacing oxen. She did, her voice true and clear with just a touch of grit: "How wondrous are the changes since 50 years ago … ."
Just over 50 years ago Margaret MacArthur moved to Vermont. She knew of the wondrousness of this place and helped to make it more so.
Mark Greenberg is a musician, writer and producer. He currently teaches courses in American vernacular music at UVM.
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