I’ve learned so much about the history and culture of my state (NY) and local communities in which I reside (Buffalo NY and Piercefield NY in the Adirondack Mountains) through the traditional music of these places.
Similarly, my interest in local and state history has informed my understanding and appreciation of the music of our forebears. Before mass media came into the home, you got your music as you got your food – from someplace local, mostly. The newspaper, perhaps. Travelling shows, yes. But also from people in your community. Family members, neighbors, coworkers. What did they sing about? And what can those long-forgotten songs tell us about a community?
The passing earlier this week of my treasured friend and mentor Ermina Craig Pincombe (1930-2014) of Benson, NY in the southern Adirondacks has given me the opportunity to reflect on the intersections of local history and music, and on how much I’ve learned as I’ve researched the music of our local communities in New York State.
You might get a bit of a sense of this woman in this little remembrance that recently aired on North Country Public Radio.
In this short feature, you’ll hear her singing parts of a song called “The Woodsman’s Alphabet” (always referred to in her family as “The Lumberjack’s Alphabet”). It’s a song she learned from her grandmother Grace Craig in the 1930’s; Grace Craig in turn had learned it from others in her Adirondack woods community.
The song describes life in a typical northwoods lumbercamp, with a different logging term for each letter of the alphabet. Many Adirondack kids report learning their A-B-Cs to this song, not because it was a children’s song but because it was what was being sung in their homes and communities.
I spent a good deal of time visiting with Ermina over the past seven years, asking her lots of questions, hearing family stories and playing music together, and I treasure each of those sessions. Back in 2009 I culled hours of recorded interviews with her into an eight-page essay on her life and music which I’m happy to send to anybody who is interested. Just say the word.
Photo of Ermina Pincombe by Martha Cooper, courtesy of the Traditional Arts in Upstate New York archives.