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.
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!
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!
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!
“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.
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.