I learned each of these traditional songs from the singing of my grandmother, Margaret MacArthur. Originally from the Ozarks, mountains of northern Arizona, hills of Kentucky, and swamps of South Carolina, my grandmother moved, in the 1940s, to an 1803 abandoned farmhouse in Southern Vermont and began seeking, collecting and singing the old folk songs that resided, mostly hidden, in these Vermont hills. She bought herself a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder, and with her two-year-old daughter Megan in tow, began trekking around the back roads and hillsides of this part of Vermont, recording old people singing mostly-forgotten songs. Soon she began performing them in public. In 1962, Moses Asch, then director of Folkways Records, heard her sing and requested she send him a recording of some of her music. Surprised and flattered, Margaret put some batteries into her Wollensak, sat down at the kitchen table after her five children were asleep, and recorded fifteen songs, never imagining anything would come of it. Six months later she received a letter from Moses and a record of the music she had recorded there at the kitchen table. FOLKSONGS OF VERMONT was the first record of what became for her a nine record career.
Margaret was one of my dearest friends: indomitable, passionate, feisty, kind. She died in 2006 in the northwest room of their farmhouse, where she had learned and studied these songs. On her deathbed she was sick with morphine, most of her memory gone, but she could still remember the lyrics to any ballad we asked her to sing. This music had etched itself into her soul; song and landscape and self had twined into a fabric that was lasting, resounding, and full of grace. I knew right then these songs would make their way back into my life as well. Later that year my husband Tyler and I moved back home to Vermont (having lived in New York and Philadelphia) to build ourselves a cabin in the woods below my grandparents’ farmhouse. In 2010 our band, Red Heart the Ticker, received a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts to record an album of neo-renditions of a few of the songs Margaret collected and loved. We immediately set up our laptop and microphones in Margaret’s study—the room in which she died—and started recording “Your Name in Secret I Would Write.”
To my grandmother’s collection of instruments we added our own. They all made their way in: Margaret’s 1961 Martin; her dulcimers; my 1951 Lady Gibson; the fretless banjo my grandfather John built in 1970; his 1890s banjo he gifted us as a wedding present; a turn of the century child-size Estey Organ that a neighbor dug out of a dumpster; a borrowed, drum kit called “The One Nighter”; Ty’s dad’s viola; basses—upright & electric; & the electric fender guitar my dad bought in the 80s when he started playing in a country band. The percussion was ad hoc, mostly consisting of boots on old wooden floors and the accompanying rattle of tambourines, shakers, and drum heads that lay nearby. The house itself added its own accompaniment: creaks of floors and chairs, shedding snow, the reverberations of ancient instruments hanging on the walls. Eventually some of the field recordings themselves made their way in as well.
I consider this record an ode, an elegy, and an attempt to sing along with someone who’s gone. Anyone who has heard Margaret knows she sings these songs better than I do. Her voice reflects the purity and strength and unflagging honesty of her astonishing soul. But to compete isn’t the intent of this record. The intent is to keep these songs alive, and heard, and living, as she would have wanted them to be. It’s a way to inhabit the landscape where we live: through the porous poetry of this place. And it’s a way to bring back the dead. My grandmother, yes, but the others too: the generations who sang these songs around their fires, the women poets who walked these hills; the now-gone folks my grandmother recorded singing seventy-some years ago. These songs teach us that the past is not past if we keep its reverberations in the air; that the dead come alive through our singing. We dedicate this record to Margaret, and to our daughter, Avah, too.
-Robin MacArthur, July, 2011
The creation of this album would not have been possible without the generous gift of a Creation Grant from The Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. We are also grateful to the Vermont Folklife Center for allowing us unlimited access to Margaret’s recordings and papers, and to Andy Kolovos, VFC archivist, for sharing his extensive knowledge. We would also like to thank John MacArthur and the rest of the MacArthur family for allowing us to turn Margaret’s study into our recording studio for as long as we needed. Lastly, thanks to our families for taking such loving care of our daughter while we plucked away the hours.