The radio … the phonograph … now the Internet. They make us think of music as something that comes to us from somewhere else. But beneath the screech and rumble of the media, people have gone on making their own music with their family, friends, and neighbors. It’s nothing special, just people pulling out guitars, banjos, fiddles, or simply their voices and singing old songs they learned at their mother’s knee or new ones they just heard from the guy down the street. Cornwall has had plenty of it over the years – and it still does.
Cornwall has long been known for its writers, artists, and famous seasonal residents and visitors. But from its founding, Cornwall has been built on a bedrock of people whose main source of livelihood was the sweat of their brows and the skills of their hands. They formed, and continue to form, a rural working community. Music has been a central element of the continuity within that community.
Lorraine Choiniere Hammond, nationally-known folksinger, teacher, and songwriter, grew up in Cornwall amid its ballad singing, fiddle playing, and square dances–some even in the Covered Bridge! Lorraine returned to Cornwall to interview and record the musicians she had known as a child and has helped pass the music on in the Cornwall community–our well-known “Still, The Homegrown Band” was inspired by her Cornwall homecoming performances.
Lorraine remembers: My childhood was rich with people making their own music. There were square dances at Hart’s barn, and families and friends gathered to sing and play. Twins Pat and Biddy Bierce played mandolin together. Their sister-in-law Sylvia Bierce played organ and directed the choir for the Second Congregational Church. I loved singing in that choir, loved the choir rehearsals at the Bierce’s little house. The traditional delivery style of Oscar Degreenia’s unaccompanied ballad singing, the soaring voice of Comfort Starr’s fiddle, and the cheerful pluck of Pat and Biddy Bierce’s mandolins were all part of the musical soundtrack of my childhood.
There are many other traces of Cornwall’s homegrown music of the past. In an account of her childhood in North Cornwall, Harriet Soule recalled: We went to the neighborhood Sunday night sings in the long front room of the [Scoville] farmhouse. When we were all seated, with Mrs. Hedden at the piano, the well-worn 1886 Gospel Hymns were passed around. They might have been heard a mile away. And must have ripped to rags everyone’s tensions for the whole next week.
But Cornwall’s homegrown music is not just something of the past. There are still contradances in the town hall. Cornwall Bridge hosts a regular sing with guitars and banjos. The Yelping Hill community often earns its name with sings and jam sessions.