- Music in Rural New England: Family and Community Life, 1870–1940
Jennifer Post's Music in Rural New England: Family and Community Life, 1870– 1940 is a milestone in the literature on America's far northeastern corner. Addressing the need for a historical overview of the region's vernacular music and dance traditions, Post deftly applies ethnographic rigor to the telling of a story whose details offer insightful commentary on a familiar premise: continuity and change.
Previous works focusing on New England music have emphasized the region's early psalmody, Boston's musical life, or art music. While a 1953 book, Music and Dance in the New England States, Including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island & Connecticut, edited by Sigmund Spaeth (New York: Bureau of Musical Research, 1953), is a collection of essays chronicling the folk music and dance traditions of the entire region, Post's book is the first monograph to provide an account of these traditions in northern New England, a sub-region that excludes the urban centers of Hartford and Boston. (Louis Pichierri's Music in New Hampshire, 1623– 1800 [New York: Columbia University Press, 1960], is the most recent work to cover similar geographical territory.)
Beginning with a general definition of northern New England, which includes the states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, as a distinct social and geographical region, Post's book focuses on the Anglo-Celtic musical traditions found in the area, although Quebecois and Franco-American musical practices are briefly acknowledged throughout the text. The types of music Post discusses are those that [End Page 369] formed the canon for practitioners of folk music in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The core of this repertoire consists of songs, including ballads, religious songs, "social commentary" songs, work songs, and local songs, characterized by their incorporation of a community's shared history, knowledge and experience into the songs' text. Dance music, which Post feels "[has] been shaped by the location and the residents' willingness to accept influence from a broad spectrum of sources" (p. 76), evolved along a similar trajectory, incorporating the types of nuances and inflections that result from social interaction within a geographically isolated area. Befitting a true ethnography, Post supplements her musical analysis with commentary on the two generations of people who made this music during the period under consideration. Chapters devoted to music and gender, family song sharing, and community traditions provide snapshots of both individual and collective sentiment concerning the role music and dance, as forms of entertainment and communication, played in a society that was one of the last to be touched by mainstream media.
Post's book thoroughly documents the bibliographic evolution of the region's folk and dance song traditions, transforming the work into a veritable songbook and addressing longstanding questions surrounding the sources of these songs. Northern New England's song repertoire as it existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a syncretic one, characterized by the ongoing cross-fertilization of local, national and international song forms as practiced by the region's many British, Irish, and Scottish immigrants. As curator of the Helen Hartness Flanders Collection of Folk Music at Middlebury College, Post devotes considerable attention to describing the song collecting efforts of a number of New England residents, including Phillips Barry, Fanny Hardy Eckstorm, Eloise Linscott, and Flanders. The work of these collectors, Post argues, was modeled on that of Francis James Child (1825– 1896), who gathered and classified the narrative songs of the British Isles during the nineteenth century. Post claims that the Child ballads became "the primary expressive form sought by collectors in rural America" (p. x), and that between 1920 and 1965, when the collection of New England folksongs reached its zenith, these regional collectors "found the evidence they sought: many of the Child ballads were known in rural northeastern families...