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A man sings and plays guitar
Bennett Konesni. Courtesy of the artist.

Homegrown Plus: Work Songs from Maine with Bennett Konesni

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Welcome back to Homegrown Plus! We’re continuing to place the 2021 series of Homegrown Plus online, after interrupting it to premiere the 2022 series right here on the blog. (Find the whole Homegrown Plus series here.) We’re continuing the series with Bennett Konesni, who performs work songs in the context of both farm work and maritime pursuits in his home state of Maine. Like other blogs in the Homegrown Plus series, this one includes a concert video and a video interview with the featured performer, plus links and connections to Library of Congress collections.

A man sings outdoors in a field
Bennett Konesni. Photo by Molly Haley.

Bennett Konesni is a singer, farmer, musician and administrator, based where he grew up in midcoast Maine, and also at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, NY, where parts of his family have lived since 1652. He has been singing work songs while working since he was a teenager on schooners in Penobscot Bay. At Middlebury College, he wrote a thesis based on research into Zulu work song traditions done while studying abroad in South Africa and involving a workshop at the Middlebury College Farm in 2004—one of the first work song workshops on an American farm. After graduating, Bennett studied musical labor on three continents thanks to a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship: musical fishing in Ghana and Holland, singing and dancing farmers in Tanzania, and livestock songs in Mongolia and Switzerland. Since 2007, Bennett has been using work songs at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. He teaches workshops at farms and farm conferences across the Northeast, and in 2011 he and his wife Edith Gawler shared a song at the TEDx Fruitvale conference. His concert included work songs from Maine, including the opening song, which came from one of AFC’s Maine collections. Many thanks to Bennett for taking the Archive Challenge on that first song, and for producing such a fun video–it’s in the player below!

[Transcript of Concert]

In the interview, Bennett and I discussed his career as a singer, student, and scholar of work songs. He told me about his early days singing work songs on schooners, and his research in Tanzania, Ghana, Mongolia, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. He discussed his work in education and in running a community chorus. And he shared his thoughts about work songs and farm labor. Watch in the player below!

[Transcript of Interview]

Collection Connections and Links

Here you’ll find links relating to Bennett Konesni’s songs, as well as links to Library of Congress collection items connected to work songs and traditions.

First of all, find Bennett’s worksongs project online at this link.

Find Bennett’s Duckback Farm website here.

Find a previous Folklife Today blog post featuring a film and and article on work songs, along with other resources, at this link.

Find “A Deep Dive into Sea Shanties,” a previous blog post with many links and embedded songs, at this link.

Here are some notes on the songs in Bennett’s concert:

The Cambric Shirt” was learned from a field recording of Jennie Gray, made by her daughter, Evelyn Huckins. Huckins, who made the recording in 1961, said it was a children’s song the way her mother sang it. The recording is part of AFC’s Maine Folklife Center collection. In general, folklorists define a “work song” as a song sung during the performance of labor. Technically, that means that whether a song is a “work song” is contextual—any song can be a “work song” if you use it to help get work done. That’s what Bennett does with “The Cambric Shirt.” A digital copy of Jennie Gray’s recording is online at the University of Maine. Find the source recording at this link.

Sing Round/ Drink Round” was written by Maine lumberman John S. Springer, who published it in his 1851 book Forest Life and Forest Trees, which is online at this link from Hathi Trust. It was learned from this book by another Maine man, John Q. Dyce, who sang it for Henry Shoemaker, who was later America’s first “state folklorist,” in Pennsylvania in 1900. It was included in Shoemaker’s books North Pennsylvania Minstrelsy (online here from Hathi Trust) and Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania (online here from Hathi Trust) and subsequently in Minstrelsy of Maine by Fanny Hardy Eckstorm and Mary Winslow Smyth. It has never been found in oral tradition except for Dyce’s rendition.

Come Pretty Love” is a Shaker song. Bennett points out that Shaker writings include references to singing while farming, and he plans to research this more in the future. In case you haven’t seen our recent Shaker concert video and interview with Brother Arnold Hadd, Kevin Siegfried, and Radiance, find both videos in this previous Homegrown Plus blog!

A book cover on the left, and a head-and-shoulders portrait of a woman at right.
Joanna Colcord, an important collector of sea shanties, was also a pioneering social worker and photographer. She was born at sea on a ship captained by her father, but her homebase on land was one town over from Bennett Konesni in midcoast Maine. For many years, Colcord wrote to the heads of our archive at the Library of Congress, including Robert W. Gordon, John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax, Benjamin Botkin, and Duncan Emrich, with suggestions for sailors from whom to collect shanties. Her book, originally called “Roll and Go,” was republished under its original subtitle, “Songs of American Sailormen.”

Reuben Renzo,” in Edith’s version, comes from Maine collector Joanna Colcord’s book Roll and Go: Songs of American Sailormen (online at this link from Hathi Trust.) AFC has another version with Maine connections: Patrick Tayluer sang it for William Main Doerflinger. Tayluer often claimed to have been born in Eastport, Maine—though he sometimes made other claims about his birthplace too! The Maryland-based group Ship’s Company Chanteymen performed Tayluer’s version in an Archive Challenge concert, and even played Tayluer’s spoken introduction. Find that video at the link; the song starts at about fifteen minutes and twenty seconds in.

Simple Gifts” is perhaps the best known Shaker song, and comes originally from Maine. Once again, if you haven’t seen our recent Shaker concert video and interview with Brother Arnold Hadd, Kevin Siegfried, and Radiance, find both videos in this previous Homegrown Plus blog!

Roll the Woodpile Down” came to Bennett from Stan Hugill’s book Shanties from the Seven Seas. Hugill, who was an English sailor and shanty singer, said he learned it from a Black West Indian sailor. The song was popular with American sailors as well. At this link, AFC has a version recorded on a wax cylinder in San Francisco by Robert Winslow Gordon, circa 1924.

Roll and Go” came to Bennett from Maine collector Joanna Colcord’s very important book of sea shanties, Roll and Go: Songs of American Sailormen (online at this link from Hathi Trust), which was titled after this very song. Colcord, the daughter of a sea captain, was born and raised aboard ships and grew up to be an important folksong collector, photographer, and social worker. From the founding of the Library of Congress folksong archive until her death, Colcord corresponded with the archive’s staff and helped them locate sea shanties. In particular, she guided Alan Lomax to the retired sailor Richard Maitland, whom Lomax recorded extensively. Find one of Maitland’s songs at this link.

Rolling Home” was generally sung by English sailors on the start of their homeward-bound voyage. It has been adapted here for New England. AFC has a good version of this song sung as a capstan shanty by Leighton Robinson and friends, online at this link.

Thanks!

As always, thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. The idea of the Homegrown Plus series is to gather concert videos, video interviews with the musicians, and connections to Library of Congress collections together in one place for our subscribers. (Find the whole Homegrown Plus series here!)

For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress.

Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Winick,

    Regarding your recent “blog” of May 10, 2023 “Homegrown Plus: Work Songs from Maine with Bennett Konesni”, I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Konesni’s misleading and inventive interpretation of the Maine song tradition.

    My partner, Fred Gosbee, and I have been deeply researching the traditional songs of the region for over 30 years. We were both inspired by our own multi-generational roots extending into both the sea-faring heritage and the lumbering legacies of our ancestors here. Fred was a colleague and friend of Dr. Edward (Sandy) Ives who founded the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine. We have listened to and transcribed several thousand songs collected by him and at least five other scholars archived in varying institutions, These recordings and journals show the region’s songs to be largely a ballad tradition, i.e. story songs, mostly without choruses. “Work songs” as Konesni uses them, were/are not the norm here.

    The maritime work songs, known as sea chanteys, are international by nature. To say that the songs he is using are from the Maine tradition is not accurate except that they may have been used by Maine sailors who were working in an international crew. The sailors were from many different homelands, though the songs were generally in English. Chanteys tend to be an improvisational amalgam of songs sung at the whim of the current chanteyman for a specific purpose. Joanna Colcord’s book documents the (admittedly expurgated) songs which she heard on her father’s ships which ranged world-wide. In addition, these ships were full-rigged vessels which required many different tasks to function unlike the Maine schooners which plied the coastal trade. The songs sung by the men who worked these vessels are described by Fanny Hardy Eckstorm in her book “Minstrelsy of Maine” (p.242) as “local fishermen’s chanteys, and short because the small sails were quickly hoisted”. Indeed, the current crews of Maine’s schooner fleets use a kind of shorthand crying “Two, Six, Heave!” while hoisting sail. Neither authors say anything about rowing songs, nor have we ever observed local fishermen singing while rowing. None of the extensive collections made by Horace Beck, Phillips Barry, Eloise Linscott nor Helen Hartness Flanders describe any kind of meaningful “work songs”, used to coordinate labor except the shipboard chanteys. Those chanteys were collected from sea-faring men who worked internationally on large complex sailing ships, not lobstering, trawling or hand-lining.

    Roland Palmer Gray was an academic, a professor of English at the University of Maine who, without permission, drew from other collections to assemble his book “Songs of the Maine Lumberjacks”. Even the word “lumberjack” is a misnomer as the actual men who worked the woods called themselves “woodsmen” or “lumbermen”. Eckstorm says in “Minstrelsy of Maine” p 174, “It was not introduced into the Maine woods until the time of the World War, and is still little used and less liked by woodsmen. It was first used in Maine, so far as known, by Mr. Holman Day, who took it from Stewart Edward White’s Western stories and made it familiar, though not popular, in his books. The word was a sure sign of an outsider.” Notwithstanding this, Gray’s primary source was Fanny Hardy Eckstorm who did, in fact, travel the Maine woods for several years with her father, a fur dealer. She heard songs from the lips of the people working there. Regarding the use of chanteys in the wood, she clearly says that they did not use songs for working except when warping the logs across a lake. This was an interminable job and a song was used to ease the boredom rather than coordinate the labor. Indeed, in chapter 1 of “Minstrelsy of Maine” titled “Every man his own poet”, Eckstorm describes people “making up songs” while working to entertain themselves and others however, most of the songs were sung in the evening at the camp as a storytelling activity and often contained personal commentary about the work or the boss. Similarly, the some 3800 field recordings made for the Helen Hartness Flanders collection do not reveal work songs as Mr. Konesni promotes them.

    In our examination and transcription of these collections, we have not found any songs to coordinate farm work. Most are narrative songs describing relationships, social commentary, events or folk tales some of which include farmers. People no doubt sang in the field or while performing household tasks, but these would have been familiar songs to help pass the time not as a device for coordination of work.

    Suffice it say, although his intentions may be to encourage singing as a joyful accompaniment to labor, I am dismayed that Mr. Konesni is presenting his work as a Maine tradition which it is not.

    Sincerely,

    Julia Lane

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