Margaret MacArthurMargaret MacArthur. Photo courtesy of Megan Littlehales.

by Nora Rodes

Many people first think of and credit prominent male collectors—such as Francis Child, Cecil Sharp, Phillips Barry, and John and Alan Lomax—for the preservation of American folk song. Yet women have always played an essential role in collecting and sustaining traditional music. Between 1920 and 1960, it was the life’s work of many New England women, including Fanny Hardy Eckstorm, Mary Winslow Smythe, Helen Hartness Flanders, and Eloise Hubbard Linscott. And for several decades thereafter it was Margaret MacArthur’s work as well.

I’d heard Margaret spoken of with deep affection since I was 11, but knew little more than that she was an important musician and collector; and that like me she loved ballads. The first CDs I could obtain were not the Child ballads I was expecting, but songs of Vermont, often sung with her family. And the first article was her granddaughter Robin’s, in Orion Magazine, in which Robin wrote that Margaret sang because she “wanted a taproot—a means to a vertical sense of place.” So when I visited the American Folklife Center to listen to the interview from Margaret’s performance there in 2005, I was already wondering about her connections between music and place. Why was Margaret so dedicated to preserving and sharing the traditional music of Vermont? And why did she become such a beloved and influential member of a vibrant, extensive community?

In that AFC interview, Margaret speaks at length about her mother’s second marriage to a forester, and the many different states she moved through in her transient childhood: Arizona, the Midwest, South Carolina, Missouri, and California. But she also talks about all the music she heard in her 1930s through 1940s travels; and her five years in the Ozarks, where traditional music was an important component of community. It seemed that music—like her mother’s lullabies and her Missouri neighbors’ songs—gave her a place to feel loved and safe.

When she eventually returned to her birthplace, Chicago, Margaret married; and in 1948 she and her husband John moved to Vermont for his professorship at Marlboro College. With two young children and very little money, they began to restore what the porcupines and weather had left of a remote and abandoned 1803 farmhouse with views of the Dover Hills. And Margaret began to know her newest home from two songbooks: Edith Sturgis’ Songs from the Hills of Vermont and Helen Hartness Flanders’ Country Songs of Vermont. When she learned that Edith’s hills were also hers—the Dover Hills—it was “an eye-opener.” She sought out more Vermont ballads, tunes and source singers. Two of her most important relationships were with Fred Atwood (then in his 80’s), whose father had sung for Edith Sturgis; and Helen Hartness Flanders, the preeminent New England collector who became her friend and mentor.

In 1962, Moses Asch, then director of Smithsonian Folkways Records, asked Margaret to send him some music; the recordings became Folksongs of Vermont—the first of her nine CDs of traditional music. For over four decades, until her death in 2006, Margaret continued to collect, perform, and teach folk music. She frequently performed at folk programs and festivals, often with her own children—Dan, Gary and Megan—and often original songs of life and events in Vermont as well as traditional ballads. She shared music at informal song circles and other gatherings. As a visiting artist, she taught children songs she learned from their grandparents and how to write songs of their own.

But Margaret didn’t just enthusiastically join and contribute her talents to the folk community. Perhaps most uniquely and importantly, she provided a new place for that community to be: the homestead she’d create for herself and her family. Margaret was warm, friendly, joyful, vibrant—a beacon for the music community around her and traveling past her. And as her daughter Megan’s accounts of growing up amidst expected and impromptu visitors, and the letters sent to Margaret, attest, the homestead itself became a vital component in the preservation and continued organic evolution of Vermont folk music.

Margaret’s childhood, and multiple experiences of adapting to and attempting to embrace each new place as home, gave her a unique perspective on what it means and why it matters. Many folk collectors have undertaken field work asking: “What songs have traveled here, have settled into this place? What can we find here?” Although she loved ancient ballads, Margaret approached her understanding of Vermont asking, more primarily: “What songs have grown from this place, what is it as itself, and what more will we sing?” She brought her own attention, appreciation and enthusiasm for the indigenous—of all the cultures she’d needed to embrace with presence and immediacy before the next relocation—to everything she did. Margaret fostered an engagement with identity and community; and in response, friends and neighbors shared not only their own collecting and referrals to source singers, but their own poems and songs as well (sometimes with notes about how Margaret “inspired” them).

As I told those at the close of a recent evening of music in Marlboro: I found Margaret in her music in a much richer way than I expected, because she was embracing. Visiting her home helped me see that. It is like a tapestry, a quilt, the art women make. Margaret created the home she yearned for by picking up all the things that spoke to her along the way and giving them a place to be: bits of her childhood, things gifted and repaired like her harp, bits from family travels and later her children’s. Everything that found its way there was loved. And she created a home for Vermont folk music—old and new— because Margaret herself and her home were inclusive and welcoming. It’s what we all long for, my generation at least, I know: belonging. And it’s what we can give to each other. And that seems more important than ever to remember today. Margaret put down deep roots; made her family farmstead an enduring home for generations; and filled every life she touched with grace, joy and music.

Margaret’s collection of songs, poems, books and recordings is now housed at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, and her field recordings are all accessible digitally here, with a duplicate of the physical tapes now at the American Folklife Center. The concert she performed for the Library of Congress is available here, although the accompanying interview is only available at the AFC.

Single Again musicClick here to download a PDF of the sheet music.

Single Again

May Nichols gave this song to Margaret MacArthur in Guilford, Vermont in October, 1961 and said she had it from her husband’s mother, Nellie Nichols. Although a few Southern folksong collections have different versions of a related song (most with drunken husbands), none contain these final two stanzas. Thanks to Bob Coltman, I’ve learned that Mrs. Nichols’ Single Girl is most like “I Wish I Were Single Again” - a song popular in the late 1800s and printed in a Wehman’s Songster. Margaret’s recording of May appears to be its only collection in the folk tradition. Now both Margaret and her granddaughter, Robin, have recorded Single Girl, or Single Again as they title it, for their own CDs, although this song remains a little-known treasure.

At 16, Nora Rodes is an aspiring ethnomusicologist, developing a specialization in women folk collectors. Nora began learning ballads when she was ten and began visiting the American Folklife Center the next year. In June 2018, following a year-long project, Nora presented on Helen Hartness Flanders at a University of Sussex symposium on Women in the Folk. Last year she completed a paper on the AFC’s Eloise Hubbard Linscott Collection. With the generous support of the Vermont Folklife Center’s 2019 Flanders Award for Traditional Vermont Music, she was also able to visit the VFC and AFC MacArthur holdings and come to know Margaret MacArthur through her words and music. Thanks to Megan MacArthur, that project culminated in an October house concert at the MacArthur homestead.

Nora combines her love of folk scholarship with her love of folk music by studying voice, ballads, and clawhammer banjo, and participating in programs and festivals from North Carolina to Montreal. She hopes to continue discovering and giving voice to the traditional music that arises from and sustains community.

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