Saturday, March 13, 2010

Songs from Carmer's Youth in Albion

Count on Carmer to give us a little bit of ethno-musicology!

His Uncle David and the musical Adelaide play Schubert's Marche Militaire and Schumann's Traumerai, but the first tune they teach him is Pop Goes the Weasel.

Of course, down by the Erie Canal, he hears someone singing four choruses of "When I came to this wonderful country..." For the fiddle, his father teaches him Such a Gettin' Upstairs, Nellie Gray and Bright Mohawk Valley. At the commencement dance, The Houghton Brothers play The Irish Washerwoman, with Mr. Minette calling. As they return from the lettuce fields, Bob sings with the workers: Juanita, I Was Seeing Nellie Home, Wait for the Wagon and Sweet Adeline.

Bob dreams of being able to play Portland Fancy, Fisher's Hornpipe and Hull's Victory.

Finally, for Uncle David and Adelaide's wedding, the Houghton Brothers play How Can I Leave Thee, Maid of Athens Ere We Part, and Then You'll Remember Me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Labor of Love for the Town of Albion, New York

     In 1950, Carl Carmer published Windfall Fiddle. It was a prize winning children's book, but it isn't much read these days. "Writing it," he said, "was a labor of love." Frankly autobiographical, the book tells us a remarkable amount about Albion, New York, the Erie Canal town where Carmer grew up, and his father was Superintendant of Schools.

     Story-telling and fiddle playing, Decoration day at the Cemetery, the County fair, the volunteer fire departments, one-tent-circuses and peddlers without licenses constitute the social life of the town as the 20th Century came on and they made an impression Carmer didn't forget, even after a half century. It is the kind of place extolled by my patron saint of Upstate New York, James Howard Kunstler. It had a human scale.

     Carmer's avatar, if you will, is a young man, Bob Carson, anxious to earn money to buy a fiddle. His vocational sorties take him from one side of the town to the other. From the orchards on the ridge to the north near Lake Erie, to the black earth farms of the Tonawanda Swamp, east to the sandstone quarries of Medina, west to the fairgrounds and back to the Canal running through the middle of town, Bob maps Albion or White Spring, as he thinks of it, for the reader. After finishing it, I feel I have a mental map of the town. It's a world as adventure filled as any Narnia or Hogwarts.

     There's a kind of moral geography that runs through Windfall Fiddle, as well. After Bob has earned some of the twenty dollars he needs to buy his fiddle, he meets a mysterious vendor of patent medicine who styles himself an Indian. He's arrested for peddling without a license. If Bob will give him the money to pay his fine, he promises to return from Rochester with twenty gold coins. Motivated by kindness and his desire to have the fiddle without the work, Bob gives the peddler the money. Bob soon realizes that his greed had gotten the better of him.  I guess Carmer would have said that Bernie Madoff is as American as apple pie.

      Besides his father, Bob's chief mentor is a Civil War veteran and florist, a Frenchman, loquacious and sage. Bob enjoys Mr. Minette's stories, which teeter towards tall tales, in spite Mr. Minette's protestations to the contrary: "If it is not true, why should I be telling it to you?" Mr. Minette is Carl's muse; imagine learning the craft of story telling from a raconteur like him.

     The imagined town of White Springs has other characters, based on Albion's citizens. The Erie Canal had brought Italians, Poles and African Americans to the region, and Bob Carson seems to have made friends among all these communities. A fire at the lumberyard brings out three volunteer fire companies who engage in a water fight after their work is complete. The hero is an African American, Jake Garlock, whose full time job is as janitor at the bank. The 1910 Census for Albion lists 71 year old Jacob or Jaboc Carter, Black,  from Virginia,  as janitor at the bank.

     No doubt Carmer remembered Albion. I think it was the basis of his fundamental faith in the ordinary people of New York State. I'm going to visit Albion this March. Who knows what stories I may find?


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"An Explosive Compound"

            That’s how a 19th Century Quaker described the marriage of William Prendergast: “the fire of the Irish temperament” and Mehitable Wing: “the persistence of Quaker passive resistance.” Perhaps this compound is what has made the tale so worth retelling: Wing and Prendergast, yin and yang. In 1766, Prendergast led an armed revolt against the Hudson Valley patroons. His gentle but resolute Quaker wife, Mehitable assisted in his legal defense at Poughkeepsie, and when that failed, rode in blue and white striped dress to Manhattan to beg for his life. Ultimately he was pardoned by King George III.

            I spent some summers horseback riding near where these events took place, and my father told me the story. For me, Wing was the star, Wing and her horse. Truthfully, I confused Mehitable with our other local heroine, Sybil Luddington, the “female Paul Revere,” who also rode a horse. Never mind that I was later married from the Meeting House where Prendergast held out against the British Grenadiers. New York State Regents History curriculum or no, I didn’t really get the whole Anti-Rent, down with landlords campaign. No matter, now I’m convinced that the story has a life of its own, its meaning changing with each telling.

Not Mehitable Wing! Sybil Luddington, Female Paul Revere, Also of Dutchess County.

            To research the story 1938, my father, Croswell Bowen, had only to drive a few miles from Hidden Hollow, his recently purchased summer home in Sherman, Connecticut.  Just over the Sherman border with New York is Quaker Hill, where the Wings had settled. The Akin Free Library there owns a complete set of pamphlets on the history of Quaker Hill. Or Bowen could have driven north to Lake Mauwehoo and the home of Warren Wilson’s daughter, Margaret Lund, for a copy of  Rev. Warren Wilson’s telling of the story. Warren Wilson was a Presbyterian minister sent to Quaker Hill as part of attempts to better life in rural areas. He became intrigued with Quaker Hill and the curious history of the odd borderland known as the Oblong. It is Wilson’s version of the tale that Bowen recounts. Dad remarks “It is not an unknown story up here,” but doesn’t make clear if the transmission was oral or written. The letter indicates he and Carmer already had already heard something of the tale, and knew the direction they’d take it: “Just as we suspected the story is certainly in her.” 

The Akin Free Library; Research Heart of Quaker Hill, LuceyBowen, 2009

            Meanwhile Carmer, in Manhattan, had access to newspaper accounts of the incident. Carmer puts these sources to use in The Hudson chapter “Without Indecorum of Behaviour.” In it, Mehitable shares the stage with William Prendergast’s activities and his qualities as a leader. Carmer was very interested in that episode; his friend the farmer-poet Henry Christman lived in the Helderbergs, the heart of the mid-19th century resurgence of the Anti-Renters. Although a self professed “Upstate Republican,” Carmer had a deep sympathy for working people, and for the origins of the American Revolution among ordinary farmers. Carmer traces the Prendergasts from their marriage, thru the rebellion and its aftermath. With the success of The Hudson, Carmer’s version brought the tale to a wide audience. Even as redoubtable a historian as Cornell’s Michael Kammen, as recently as 1983, relied on Carmer’s version.

            As a child I failed to see the significance of some of the details that Carmer brings forward in “Without Indecorum of Behaviour.” The first concerns Robert Noble’s anti-rent action farther upriver on the Van Renselaer Manor. Prendergast was leading a movement that threatened two very large patent-holders and their commercial interests. This was no dinner party. Robert Noble’s title to his lands, which Van Renselaer disputed, came from the Mohican John Van Guilder. Van Guilder and other family members came to the aid of Robert Noble in his fight against the patroon. Neither my father nor Carmer seem to have been aware that Van Guilder was the patriarch of the “border people, independent, primitive,” who finally settled in Guilder Hollow, north of Albany on the Vermont border, whose ilk Carmer labels “sociological islands” and writes about in “Witches Make Star Tracks,” elsewhere in The Hudson. I wonder if Van Guilder’s assistance provided the model for later Anti-Renters adopting “tin horn and calico” garb and masks. 
            Speaking of dress: Carmer includes the detail that Mehitable borrowed her sister’s blue striped linen dress to wear on her equine flight to appeal to Gov. Moore. This detail recalls the theme of songs and stories from around the world in which the witty and beautiful wife saves her husband or lover from some terrible fate. Mehitable is an archetype of English balladry, no wonder she made such an impression on judges and governors and gained Prendergast’s reprieve.

             Carmer observes “If this were not a true tale it would end here,” that’s to say, with Mehitable and William back on their leased acres, living happily ever after. But that was not to be. Another telling of the story is needed. Seeking information about the Prendergast revolt, Irving Wood, a professor of comparative religion at Smith College, claimed to have spoken with one beautiful older Quaker in 1881. “I do not know the story well,” she told him, “and I do not think thee will find many who do.” The story haunted her fancy, and she tried to imagine the conflicting emotions armed rebellion raised as Mehitable waited its outcome at home. “By and by, when she went out at the sound of still another hoof-beat, she found it was an old neighbor from Quaker Hill. And when she asked him, he only looked solemnly at her and said sternly, ‘Mehitable, thee is beginning to see the fruits of they sowing when thee married out of meeting. Only beginning to see. Those that take the sword shall perish by the sword,’ and he went on.”

            Woods added, that in addition to the disapproval of the Quaker community,  “The disappointment of his failure, and the stigma of a sentence of death seems to have weighed on William Prendergast.” The William Prendergast remained a customer of a store at Quaker Hill in 1771 but then the family moved, north, then west. While the Prendergasts are remembered in Chatauqua, where they finally settled, they were forgotten on Quaker Hill. As the old woman of Quaker Hill, observed, “Friends are not fond of keeping memories of wars and fighting.”

            Although one historian claimed that in the 18th Century, the “Story of Mehitable Wing was often told in Dutchess County, and she was called the heroine of Quaker Hill,” Michael Kammen found no reference to her in the 19th Century histories of Dutchess County. I am not surprised. Although Prendergast attempted to ally himself with the nascent revolutionary movement, the Liberty Boys, they would have none of it. The Revolution itself did not bring an end to feudal tenantry in the Hudson Valley; landlords like the Livingstons and Van Rensalaers took the patriot side and retained their power in the new government and courts. The armed resistance which had pitted neighbor against neighbor was quieted until 1844. The confrontations that took place then, between landlord’s agents, sheriffs serving eviction notices and down-rent tenants morphed into a political movement. In 1846, New York State amended its constitution to discourage the system of land rents. The landlords gradually loosened their hold on the land. Yet it was not until 1914, that the Wing Family association attached, to a boulder near the Wing homestead, a plaque telling Mehitable’s story. In 1940, Carmer took Mehitable’s story to the airwaves, as part of the DuPont sponsored radio broadcast, Cavalcade of America

            10 years later Carmer published the material again, as part of a series, "Winston Adventure Books," to which he was also consulting editor. Entitled Rebellion at Quaker Hill, A Story of the First Rent War, the tale is recast to suit the taste of pre-teen boys for adventures involving guns. Here the protagonist isn't William Prendergast or Mehitable, but Andy Wing, Mehitable's nephew. With her assistance he rides out after Prendergast and witnesses the events of the rebellion and Mehitable's intervention. Carmer gives to him the internal dialogue between his Quaker pacifism and his fears for his uncle. 
            In the most recent telling I’ve found, published in 2002, the story is emphatically Prendergast’s, and it is a tragedy. In an article “Crowd and Court, Rough Music and Popular Justice in Colonial New York,” historian Thomas J. Humphrey provides a detail of Prendergast’s rebellion that isn’t mentioned in Reverend Wilson’s or Carmer’s account. Prendergast and his group seized two tenants favorable to landlords Philipse and Beverly Robinson and subjected them to a mock trial in an outdoor court. Prendergast is briefly the master of political theatre. He presides and successfully intimidates the two. Inevitably, he is reversed, he surrenders and finds himself on trial for treason. Mehitable’s decorum and bravery are credited with saving him from a gruesome death, but the King’s mercy displays where power resides, and humbles Prendergast and his followers. 

            I was inspired to consult some of Humphrey’s sources. At about the same time as Carmer was writing The Hudson, the social historian Oscar Handlin, examined the court record of the trial in the archives of the New York Historical Society, and published them in the New York University Law Review.  Ah, original sources! I’m a huge fan of crime procedurals, and this document is a treasure of a script. The attorney general, John Kempe, questions each witness, and their testimony is recorded. Not a lawyer, but William Prendergast himself cross examines them. We can almost hear Mehitable, who accompanied him, prompting his questions. She’s a Quaker, committed to non-violence; the questions constantly force the witnesses to acknowledge Prendergast’s previously peaceful reputation, and his continued statements that the dispute was only with the landlords over rent and all other debts should be paid. Yet, as Handlin observes “The notes were made while the trial was in progress, and therefore do not form a finished narrative.” It was to Carmer, with his story teller’s magic, to do that, and to do it in a number of different fashions!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Carmer, Jesse Cornplanter and the Anthropologist Fenton

Carmer Conducting Fieldwork Among Shad Fisherman, Croswell Bowen, 1938

In his author’s note to Listen for a Lonesome Drum Carl Carmer writes “I have described the events narrated here substantially as they occurred.”  I pointed out earlier in this blog that Carmer’s narrative stance is akin to an anthropologist’s or an ethnographer’s. But not quite. William N. Fenton, who introduced Carmer to Jesse Cornplanter, was an anthropologist, trained at Yale University. Consider here how Carmer constructs his accounts of Jesse Cornplanter and what Fenton has to say about it.

Not Jesse Cornplanter Carving! Iroquois and the New Deal author Laurence Hauptman says this is Kidd Smith. Photo from National Archives.
        As in his earlier Stars Fell on Alabama, Carmer draws us into the scene with his description of traveling, this time through winter’s snow to the Tonawanda Reservation. Cornplanter’s house, the Long House and later the Cattaraugus reservation, are the setting for Carmer’s telling of the stories and description of the ritual performances of the Seneca. Four chapters cover The Faces, The Dark Dance, Seneca beliefs about witchcraft, and the Maple Thanksgiving. Much of what happens is quoted in direct speech, and some of the conversations deal with Seneca political concerns, not ritual. Once again, Carmer is a gracious guest, and wins the reader’s sympathy to his sentiments: “And I felt ashamed that the people of my native state had not long ago realized the wealth that lies in the literature of the tribes of the Iroquois Union.”

Fenton is quick to acknowledge that Carmer’s work cleared a path for him. When Fenton began his teaching career, the popularity of Listen for A Lonesome Drum, in which Fenton is mentioned, guaranteed his celebrity with both academics and students. I’m intrigued by Fenton’s account of Carmer’s methods. Fenton wrote “I would soon learn that creative writing marches to a different drummer than historical ethnology.” Fenton saw that Carmer altered chronology, shifted scenes and characters. He had seen the chance to work with Carmer as an exchange of field work methods. He discovered that Carmer never made any notes, but had the ability to recall whole conversations. Fenton describes himself as an “inveterate scribbler.” His notebook system used right hand pages for observation, and left hand pages for questions, comments and additions, to be followed by transcription. In spite of borrowing Fenton’s notes, Carmer doesn’t get all his details right; to Fenton’s disappointment, but not to the Tonawanda Senecas, who liked Carmer’s writing.

William N. Fenton

When Fenton reviewed Carmer’s Dark Trees to the Wind, which contains additional material on the Iroquois, Fenton observed “Neither a proper folklorist not a true historian, Carmer belongs rather to the belles letters.” Seems a bit harsh to me. Fenton grants anthropologists and historians the privilege of investigating and representing the Iroquois, and writers like Walter D. Edmonds, Edmond Wilson and Carmer the same, but based on their knowledge of world literature. But he criticizes Carmer for adhering to aesthetics rather than educational or informational standards. What I’ve learned about Carmer’s writing, particularly from examining his use of my father, Croswell Bowen, as a collector, is that the story is primary. Listener or reader expect a shape, and know that the writer or teller may play within that shape. My sense is that Carmer saw himself as a teller of tales like those he’d listened to with his father in upstate New York. Fenton was an expert in discovering underlying ritual patterns yet didn’t privilege Carmer to do on the page what oral storytellers always do on the porch, which is swap lies.

(Fenton’s comments can be found in “The Iroquois in the Grand Tradition of American Letters: The Works of Walter D. Edmonds, Carl Carmer, and Edmond Wilson,” in American Indian Culture and Research Journal 5:4 (1981) 21-39.)