The first seeds of this project were planted in 1999 while scouring the Seattle Public Library’s shelves for folksong and ballad collections from the British Isles to increase my song repertoire. It began so simply in the pulling of that tattered blue volume from the shelf and reading A Heritage of Songs by Carrie B. Grover on its spine. I had never heard of Carrie Grover before that day, and had no inkling then that my interest would become a multifaceted project.
I was singing mostly traditional music at that time; I loved breathing new life into the old forgotten melodies. I carried home stacks of songbooks from the library, and I can still recall the wonder when I first turned the yellowed pages and played the unusual melodies in A Heritage of Songs. Honestly, it wasn’t the music that first caught my attention. It was Carrie’s words, the short anecdotes she’d inserted in a line or two beneath the songs. Through them I learned that these were ancestral songs, songs that had been learned and passed down orally, and that Carrie Grover had compiled this collection as a sort of keepsake to be handed down to her descendants.
Sometimes she told which member of the family had sung a particular song or where they had learned it. On other pages she told full stories as in the case of Aunt Jinny Hinds-her grandfather’s sister- whom soldiers overheard singing The Gosport Tragedy while milking a cow on her family farm in the early 1800s; or when her sister Bertha took shelter from the rain in a neighbor’s house and learned a song from a visitor who sang it to her. Bertha returned home and promptly sang it for everyone, and Carrie never forgot it. Often Carrie would write: I never heard anyone outside of my family sing this song or I’ve never heard anyone but my mother sing this song, which sent my interest soaring. She wrote the stories her father told her and her siblings of his travels to Virginia in the 1850s during the dark days of slavery and the songs he'd heard slaves singing; and of her great grandfather’s inn near Chester and the old English songs his wife knew; and of her brothers and uncles who went to work in the lumber camps of the northeast and brought home new songs quickly learned by the others. I found all of this quite fascinating. No other songbook I’d ever seen contained anything like this, a glimpse back in time into one family's personal history. I was coming to the quiet realization that I was holding something very special indeed, and I was hooked.
Young Carrie (nee Spinney) Grover was raised in a culture and time when everybody sang. If a visitor came to the house, it was the height of rudeness to fail to ask him or her to share a song before departing. Everyone had at least one song to share, and if they knew only one, it was shared on every occasion. Others knew many more. Both of Carrie's parents came from a long line of singers and drew from a deep well of music. Carrie's eldest brother, Anson, knew so many songs he easily out-sang competitors in local singing competitions in the pubs.
While recording two songs from Carrie’s collection, The Emigrant’s Song and Banks of Inverness on my first album, Cross the Field, I decided to try to find Carrie, or at least learn what had happened to her. I knew she couldn’t possibly still be alive, but I wanted in some way to thank her for the work she had done to preserve her family’s music. I knew she’d attended high school at Gould Academy in 1896 in Bethel, Maine, so I started there. The alumni office took a keen interest in my inquiry and within a day or two had put me in touch with Carrie’s granddaughter, Callie, who in turn introduced me to her cousin, Roy Grover, who happened to live not too far from my hometown in upstate New York. A long friendship began with these two grandchildren, the very people to whom Carrie had dedicated her songbook. We talked about republishing the songbook, the importance of seeing to it that the songs not be lost, but an entire decade slipped by while I raised my sons, taught elementary school in the Seattle school system, and recorded two albums of music, Cross the Field and On the Blessed Road.
In 2013 I became antsy to dig deeper into the project. It had sat on the back burner far too long, and I wanted to make good on my promise to republish it. I felt a burning responsibility for this music and its preservation. My intention at the time was to just republish A Heritage of Songs and get it out there again. But it turned into so much more than a matter of republishing. I wonder if I would have had the courage to even begin had I foreseen all the work that lie ahead of me. I was blessed with excellent help, strange chance encounters, fortuitous episodes of synchronicity, and a passion for these songs and stories.
I took a leave of absence from my teaching job and won a grant from the Helen Creighton Folklore Society in 2013. My plan was to follow in Carrie’s footsteps, to visit the places where she’d lived in Nova Scotia and Maine, to locate her descendants, and to find out if anyone was still singing the old family songs. With my husband I flew from Seattle to Maine, then drove to Bethel in the northwest corner of the state to meet Callie. I knew by her clear blue eyes that she had to be the great granddaughter of George Craft Spinney, whom Carrie had described so well. We spent time discussing the songbook, and acquainting ourselves with the names of other family members still living in the area, and the names on a faded family tree Roy Grover had given me. Callie pointed us in the direction of Mason township. That’s where she had lived in the early 1900s, she told us. We rolled down Grover Hill on winding country roads through deeply wooded tracts of land, until we came to Mason Cemetery where Carrie's parents were buried. It was a tremendous coincidence that Ina Grover happened to be in the cemetery at precisely the same time I was that day. In her early 90s, Ina was a relative of Carrie’s husband. I was stunned to meet someone who actually knew her, and in disbelief I held up a picture of Carrie playing her fiddle in front of a log home, the only picture of her that I had at the time and the one that appears in the first few pages of A Heritage of Songs. Ina told me she had been there when that picture was taken; it was Carrie and her husband’s 50th wedding anniversary party, and that Carrie’s sister, Bertha, had been dancing an Irish jig to Carrie’s playing just before the picture was taken. A few minutes into our conversation Ina’s brother rode up on a mountain bike and invited us to his home for a beer on his sunny porch. His wife appeared with a massive binder of family history and together we filled in a blank page with the Spinney family tree that I'd brought with me. It was a great start to my research. On a subsequent trip, two years later, I spent time with more time with Ina and Callie.
Next, we drove through New Brunswick to Nova Scotia where we were welcomed by descendants of the Spinney, Long, and Schofield families right there beside Sunken Lake. We had lunch at the Long’s home, seated around a large table that looked out across a scattering of white trunked trees and trails leading to the lake, the very paths Carrie had walked upon as a child. They told us stories and what they remembered as children, and of family connections and branches they had lost track of. As we were leaving I was given a spiral bound booklet filled with typewritten stories and memories Grover had told written in longhand which her daughter had later typewritten and compiled into a memoir. It was an absolute treasure trove, filled with details of daily life throughout the nineteenth century and family stories that brought it all to life.
I read and reread that document, time and again. Through it I was introduced to her parents, George Craft Spinney, born 1837 and Eliza Long, born 1840, and her eight siblings, and a host of relatives and neighbors with whom she interacted and remembered long after she’d left the rural community at Sunken Lake in the late 1800s. It was a specific history in its purest form, through the eyes of a child living amongst a large, robust, musical family; an oral history laced in story and song.
Around this time I made contact with the American Folklife Center in Washington, DC. They were delighted to learn of my endeavor and generously sent me their recordings of Carrie singing and playing her fiddle. The recordings were made in the early 1940s by song collectors Elouise Linscott, Sydney Robertson Cowell, and Alan Lomax.
Meanwhile back at my desk in Seattle, things just kept trickling in: a copy of a land grant from 1811, archived newspaper articles, land grants and loan records handwritten in eloquent 18th century script, land deeds, baptismal records, a relative who had some pictures that shed more light on things, batches of letters Carrie wrote to her cousin Bessie back in Nova Scotia when she couldn’t remember the words to a song, letters to both Alan Lomax and Helen Creighton, and also, a diary written by Carrie’s 15 year old daughter, Ethel, in 1915.
I received expert help from historians and authors. John Wilson was instrumental in securing copies of land grants, loans, bills of sale, and old surveyor’s maps. They told the story of Grover’s great grandparents and the inn they built in 1811 along a trail connecting the two port towns of Chester and Windsor.
I was forever sending out queries, questioning people at folk clubs and historical societies, persistently digging for more information on Carrie and her family. I wrote to the Louise Cary Folk Club in Gorham Maine where I knew she had sung in the 1940s asking if they had any information on her. A few months later, a floppy manilla envelope arrived on my doorstep. Inside was a 99-page unpublished manuscript Carrie had written 18 months before her death. It was identical to the layout of A Heritage of Songs, divided into Mother’s Songs and Father’s Songs and contained more stories and greater depth to the ones I already had. The music was notated on hand written staff lines on squares of cardboard that were then scotch-taped above typed lyrics. It was a relic, and an incredible find. The collection of songs now topped off at 242, more than a hundred more than the contents of A Heritage of Songs.
I had the utmost fortune to be introduced to Joe Hickerson in the early months of my work. As the former folklore archivist at the Library of Congress, he was well acquainted with Carrie Grover and the material housed at the American Folklife Center. He introduced me to Norm Cohen, author of Long Steel Rail, The Railroad in American Folksong. Since they both lived in Portland, Oregon at the time, I’d catch the 9:00 am train from Seattle, meet them for lunch and be back in time for dinner. These two gentlemen scholars set me on course. Their guidance was invaluable, and it spurred me on.
I spent months reading about Nova Scotia. I read books on its timber history, ship building, sawmills, the indigenous mi’qmac, the early system of trails and roadways, and regional agriculture in an effort to gain a deeper historical insight into the Spinney family's situation. I learned all kinds of interesting things, like which vegetables grew best in their gardens, the copper toed shoes worn by children, hardwoods and softwoods that grew in the forests, sailing terminology and lumberjack terms, and the religious fervor that swept the province in the mid 1800s that established the Baptist church and ultimately led to Carrie's grandfather deeming his old songs sinful and burning his stack of ballad sheets.
I so appreciated the readiness of authors to talk with me and answer my questions. Joan Dawson’s text,The Lost Highways of Nova Scotia, was most helpful, as was her assistance in locating old maps of the roads and trails Carrie and her ancestors walked and rode upon.
Throughout the years I kept up a correspondence with Roy Grover, Carrie’s grandson. He and his wife Jinnie welcomed us to their home in Schenectady, New York several times. He remembers his grandmother playing her fiddle, and connected me with other members of the family. From the beginning I looked forward to the day when I could hand him the newly published version, complete with stories and all the songs I’d collected. Unfortunately, he passed away in April of 2018 and did not live to see the fruition of this project. It has been a delight spending time with Callie, Carrie’s granddaughter, and pouring over old letters and pictures with her. In the first podcast, you can hear her voice reading her grandmother’s words.
My love for and commitment to these songs and this family's story has never dimmed throughout the years I have worked on this project. I hope you enjoy reading and listening a fraction as much as I have reveled in pursuing it.
In her writings, Carrie included this poem, The Songs of our Fathers, by Felicia Hermans. She said she thought it quite fitting, and I agree.
Young children teach them round the hearth
When evening fires burn clear
And in the fields of harvest mirth
And on the hills of deer;
So shall each unforgotten word
When far those loved ones roam
Call back the heart which once it stirred
To childhoods' holy home
The green woods of their native land
Shall whisper in the strain
The voices of their household band
Shall sweetly sing again
The heathery heights in vision rise
Where like the stag they roved
Sing to your sons those melodies,
The songs your father loved.