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Folksong Collector and Singer Margaret MacArthur

A man shakes hands with a woman. The woman is holding a stringed instrument.

Margaret MacArthur with her Senator, James Jeffords of Vermont, who came to see her concert at the Library of Congress in 2005. The instrument she holds is a harp-zither, known in New England as the MacArthur Harp. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2005.

Margaret MacArthur (May 7, 1928 – May 23, 2006) was a folksong collector, singer, and player of the Appalachian dulcimer. She performed traditional ballads and songs at the Library of Congress in 2005, one of the first of the American Folklife Center concerts recorded for the web, and the video of that concert is presented below.

MacArthur was born Margaret Crowl in Chicago and grew up in Arizona, Louisiana, and South Carolina. She majored in rural studies at Chicago the University of Chicago, where she became involved in the folksong revival. There she met, and later married, John MacArthur. In 1947 John MacArthur took a teaching position at Marlboro College in Vermont. Margaret’s reaction to the move was to look for books on folksongs of Vermont to learn some culture of what would be her new home. She found Edith Sturgis’s collection with tunes arranged by Robert Hughes, Songs from the Hills of Vermont (1919) and folksong collector Helen Hartness Flanders’s book Country Songs of Vermont.

MacArthur took a job as a music teacher in Vermont and came to realize that the students needed to learn something about their own local music traditions. This led her to a wider interest in the subject and she started asking local people for songs. She met Helen Harness Flanders, and, inspired by her work, she began collecting songs from all over Northern New England. She was especially interested in old ballads and took opportunities to collect them wherever she went. When her parents moved to Kentucky she also collected ballads there when she visited them. She learned to play the dulcimer to accompany her performances of the ballads she learned. She and her husband found, refurbished, and customized an old harp-zither, an instrument with two sets of strings that was invented by Carl E. Brown and sold in the early 1900s. She began accompanying her songs on this instrument as well. Interest in her singing grew and led to a local radio program. In 1961 a manufacturer took an interest in her unusual instrument and replicated it, marketing it as the “MacArthur Harp.” She recorded Folksongs of Vermont for Folkways Records in 1962. When Helen Hartness Flanders died in 1972, MacArthur was given copies of some of her field recordings by the Flanders family, which she used to learn more ballads. In 1986 she published How to Play the MacArthur Harp and all Numerical Harp-zithers so that others could enjoy performing the music she loved. Margaret MacArthur was recognized as a New England Living Art Treasure in 1985 and in 2002 the Vermont Arts Council awarded her the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts.

Her collection is now housed at the Vermont Folklife Center Archive and a copy is in the Library of Congress as the Margaret MacArthur Duplication Project Collection. The Margaret MacArthur Collection (VFC2003-0007) has been digitized and put online by the Vermont Folklife Center at the link.

One important singer she found in her collecting efforts was Fred Atwood and could remember them, although he was elderly when MacArthur began collecting from him. He had learned ballads from his parents, and his father, James Atwood, sang for Edith Sturgis but Sturgis had only published thirteen of the ballads she collected. Sturgis had written down the lyrics, as was common in the time that she was collecting, but MacArthur wanted to record Fred Atwood in order to document the tunes and the way he had learned to sing the songs. As can be heard in the examples below, the elderly singer was not always sure of the tune, his voice, or his memory, but MacArthur coaxed him into performing.

Here are some examples from the Margaret MacArthur collection:

  • “Lord Thomas,”  an example of MacArthur talking with Fred Atwood and persuading him to sing. Also known as “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor” among other names, this British ballad was published by Francis James Child (#73). Vermont Folklife Center Archive.
  • “On Springfield Mountain,” also sung by Fred Atwood, is a ballad from North America, one of the oldest ballads that can be documented in the colonies that became the United States, it recounts the death of a young man from a snake bite just before his marriage. Vermont Folklife Center Archive. The historic event was the death of Timothy Merrick., who died on August 7, 1761 in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. A nineteenth century history of that period reprinted in The History of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, published in 1913, includes a description of the incident found in early records (see pp 79-84 of the copy available at archive.org).
  • “Central Vermont Railway Tragedy,” is a sad song sung by Natalie Bruce about the worst rail disaster in Vermont history. An express train to Montreal jumped the rails and plunged into a gorge in the White River on February 5, 1887. Vermont Folklife Center Archive.

Below is the webcast of Margaret MacArthur’s performance at the Library of Congress on June 21, 2005. She begins with a song collected by Helen Hartness Flanders, “Robin Hood and the Three Squires,” in which Robin Hood meets a woman lamenting that her three sons are about to be executed for poaching the King’s deer and he decides to try to rescue them. This ballad was also published by Francis James Child (#140). MacArthur then sings another song collected by Flanders, “King John and the Bishop of Canterbury,” another famous ballad published by Child (#45) concerning three questions King John asks the Bishop to answer at the peril of losing his life. A shepherd surprisingly takes the place of the Bishop to answer the questions. This is a favorite English ballad dating from the 16th century that has been collected in various parts of the United States, another version can be found online, sung by Warde Ford who learned it in Wisconsin and sang it for collector Sidney Robertson Cowell.

At 39 minutes into the video MacArthur tells the story of meeting Fred Atwood and sings two songs she collected from him. She begins with the ballad “Reynardine,” also known as “The Mountains High.” The field recording of Fred Atwood singing “Reynardine,” which he called “Rin-o-dine,” can be found at this link. The field recording of Atwood singing the next song, “Sailor Boy,” can be found a this link. Teaching music was an important part of MacArther’s life and her passion to pass on song-making to another generation. At 49 minutes into the video, she introduces and performs an entertaining song composed by her students at the Newbury Elementary School about a covered bridge in their town and its history.

So enjoy this performance by Margaret MacArthur.

In her essay for the handout at this event, folklorist Jane Beck wrote “…over the years Margaret has done far more than preserve songs-she has rescued them, recorded them, and sung them, captivating others with this music, stimulating them to both sing and play the songs.” This recording is also an example of the value of the webcasts of past Library of Congress events in adding to the collections. Margaret MacArthur passed away a year after this was recorded. This video documents a performance as well as her work as a collector of old songs and her efforts to keep them in performance. Because her collection is housed in two libraries and has been made widely available online by the Vermont Folklife Center, the MacArthur’s work to share these songs and keep them in living tradition continues.

Resources

Beck, Jane, “Margaret MacArthur,” 2005. Essay for the 2005 concert at the Library of Congress (PDF).

Vermont Folklife Center

7 Comments

  1. S Lissner
    May 24, 2020 at 11:54 am

    ” She majored in rural studies at Chicago University, where she became involved in the folksong revival.” Do you mean the University of Chicago?

  2. Mike Carbonneau
    May 26, 2020 at 6:49 am

    I was ripe and ready to change from a rocker to a folkie when I happened to see the MacArthur Family perform in 1978. I added several of their songs to my repertoire, and changed directions. The voices of Margaret and her daughter were especially memorable to me.

  3. Nora Rodes
    June 11, 2020 at 9:38 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful piece on Margaret MacArthur. Thanks to the Vermont Folklife Center’s annual Flanders Award for Traditional Vermont Music, I was able to come to know Margaret through her materials, recordings, family and friends, while I was at school in Vermont last year. She was such a vibrant and welcoming woman, and contributed so much to the traditional music community. Below is a link to my CDSS Winter 2019 Newsletter short article on Margaret, in case anyone is interested.

    https://www.cdss.org/macarthur

    • Stephanie Hall
      June 12, 2020 at 9:15 am

      Nora, Thank you for sharing your article with the recording of “Single Girl” from the Vermont Folklife Center’s MacArthur collection. MacArthur did indeed inspire many musicians.

  4. udayavani english
    July 27, 2020 at 1:10 am

    nice article

  5. Jean
    September 18, 2020 at 3:06 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful reminder of a fine human being and musician. She was one of a kind.

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