Your Lake, Your Newspaper

An Adirondack Journal: The Memory Keeper

An Adirondack Journal: The Memory Keeper April 11, 2024
Marjorie Lansing Porter
Marjorie Lansing Porter

The artist and illustrator Rockwell Kent once suggested that Pete Seeger compose an opera based on Adirondack folk tunes, and that my father write the book.

Despite the fact that  my father was a friend of Seeger’s, it’s hard to imagine him, a lifelong newspaperman, collaborating on an opera. Nevertheless,  the idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds.

In fact, in 1960, Seeger did release “Champlain Valley Songs,” an album based on lyrics and tunes recorded by Marjorie Lansing Porter as she travelled throughout the North Country.

In 1963, another album of folk songs transcribed by Porter, these performed by Milt Okun, who gained greater fame later as a producer and arranger for Peter, Paul and Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Tom Paxton and John Denver, was released.

Porter began collecting tunes in 1941. At a resort on Lake George,  she happened to meet “Grandma” Lily Delorme, who was demonstrating the techniques of woolen-goods production on an old spinning wheel for the resort’s guests.

“Her story of pioneer life in an Adirondack valley was set to a musical hum as she paced, now close to the big wheel, now away from it,” wrote Porter.

“Grandma’s saga continued in lively conversation as she rode home,” wrote Porter. “She spoke of her grandfather, Gideon Baker, and of his muzzle-loader and bullet mold from the War of 1812. Did she, by any chance, happen to know ballad composed by the wife of General Macomb during the battle of Plattsburgh, The Banks of Champlain? Why, yes, it went this way, ‘Twas autumn and round me the leaves were descending…’ Her thin, reedy voice told the whole story in a score of verses.”

Porter said the encounter with Lily Delorme was “the seed for a constructive activity – the collection of folksongs, ballads and lore illustrative of life in the Adirondacks and its adjacent Champlain Valley.”

Thanks in part to the region’s ethnic diversity – New England Yankees, Quakers, French Canadian, Scots Irish from Ulster, Irish Catholics – “songs sung in European countries several hundred years ago are still sung here,” wrote Porter. And to a repertoire of traditional tunes, Adirondack storytellers and musicians  added ballads and ditties about lumbering and iron mining, infamous murders,  boating on the lakes and rivers and cross-border smuggling during Prohibition.

By the time Porter died in 1973, her collection of folk songs consisted of 33 reel-to-reel tapes which have since been digitized and are now accessible through SUNY Plattsburgh’s Feinberg Library as mp3 files. The archive comprises more than 300 songs and includes ballads, songs, early hillbilly pieces, French-Canadian songs and fiddle tunes.

A 2013 collaboration between SUNY Plattsburgh, Mountain Lake PBS, the North Country’s public television station and Canton-based Traditional Arts of Upstate New York (TAUNY), among others, resulted in “Songs to Keep: Treasures of an Adirondack Folk Collector,” an Emmy award-winning documentary, a song book, a series of  concerts and a travelling exhibition.

A North Country Life

Marjorie Porter was born in 1891 in the Champlain Valley, where her ancestors had migrated from New England in the 1790s. Her great grandfather, Wendell Lansing, founded the Essex County Republican in Keeseville in 1839 as an organ of the Whig Party and its anti-slavery platform. Porter herself, who graduated from the Plattsburgh Normal School (later SUNY Plattsburgh) in 1912, edited the newspaper in the 1940s.

Porter appears to have known everyone, including Pete Seeger and Rockwell Kent.

“She has had wide contact with people of this region of all classes, for she has acted as poll taker for the Gallup Poll,” Rockwell Kent wrote in a letter to my father in 1956. “She was for some years Historian of Clinton County but in the last election she was supplanted by a political appointee – to the outspoken indignation of the ‘better’ citizens of Plattsburgh.”

Porter was also the historian for Essex County, where, in 1955, working with attorney Richard W. Lawrence,  the future Adirondack Park Agency chairman, she helped create the Adirondack History Center Museum in Elizabethtown.

“Mrs. Porter has made the past of Essex County a life work and a life hobby,” wrote William Chapman White in in his column for the New York Herald-Tribune. “She is the one person who knows more about this area and the people who lived in it than anyone else around.”

My father called Porter the North Country’s Mnemosyne – its memory.

In the 1950s, North Country Life publisher Glyndon Cole named Porter the magazine’s associate editor. Kent tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade her to buy the magazine from Cole and to recruit an experienced journalist – in this case, my father – to be its editor.

“She appears to have no definite idea about just what the magazine should be,” Kent wrote my father, adding, parenthetically, that she had no objection to his past as a communist and a Daily Worker editor.

“We had expected Marjorie to show some misgivings about your political connections but to our great surprise, and to her credit, she didn’t bat an eye, showing only the greatest enthusiasm at the possibility of having such a collaborator,” he wrote.

Kent continued, “She is a hard working woman but so like a shrinking violet in her approach to the people that she strikes us as being throughly incapable of promoting the enterprise.”

Shrinking violet or not, Porter has had a huge influence on contemporary Adirondack folk music. 

“Porter’s collections have impacted the tradition, and have affected all of us Adirondack songsmiths,” says Chris Shaw, a Lake George native and recording artist whose repertoire includes traditional Adirondack songs.

A People’s Music, A People’s History

Of course, Porter’s dedication to the preservation of the region’s folk songs is of interest to people other than musicians.

By preserving the region’s music, she was also preserving its history, at a time when it was in danger of being altogether erased.

By the early 1950s, Richard Lawrence and Harold Hochshild, who founded the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, among  others, were concluded that dude ranches, kiddy theme parks and roadside attractions would endanger both the character and the landscape of the Adirondacks. In response, they promoted local and regional history so that both visitors and the region’s own residents would come know something about the authentic Adirondacks.

As Porter herself noted in 1963, the economy that had sustained life in the Adirondacks for the past two centuries was in decline.

“Nothing has stemmed the tide of encroaching woodlands on upland farms where dilapidated barns and farmhouses… give wistful proof of cultivation in past years. On one mountainside where sixteen farms in the early 1900s, not one maintains cleared and tilled acres today,” she wrote.

Moreover, “Grist mills and saw mills, tanneries, brick yards, forges and furnaces which were once ‘going’ community enterprises… have gradually disappeared,” she wrote.

She acknowledged that by the 1950s, the Adirondack region had exchanged its natural resource-based economy for a tourism one.

“The tourist and sportsman invasion of the area has spelled life to numerous communities and seasonal prosperity, at least, to their people,”  she wrote,

Porter sought to document everyday life in upstate New York before  all traces of it disappeared. That same impulse drove Glyndon Cole to publish North Country Life magazine, Harold Hochshild to write Township 34 (out of which the Adirondack Museum emerged) and Carl Carmer, Harold Thompson and Louis Jones to collect folk tales.

The Persistence of Folkways

While the Adirondack Northway, which was completed in 1966,  stimulated growth in one sector of the economy – tourism – it can be blamed for eviscerating other sectors, such as the Main Street economies of towns like Warrensburg and Elizabethtown. Travelers on the new interstate were encouraged to hurry past these towns on their way to their vacation destinations. Local residents found it easier than ever to do their shopping at the plazas being constructed on the margins of Glens Falls and Plattsburgh.

One can also make the case that it eliminated whatever space remained between the cities that people like my parents had fled and the refuge they sought in the Adirondacks.

But in some corners of the Adirondacks, the old ways – and the old music – survived into the 1970s.

The novelist Christopher Shaw (no relation to the folk singer) has said he had some sixth sense that the old timers drinking away an afternoon at the Stony Creek Inn,  those who still lived on hill farms, working horses in the woods were anachronisms, people whose way of life was already passing beyond his grasp.

“Listening to these men, guys who had been born in the 1890s, talking about their lives, I could see that something on its way out was hanging on into my time, and that I had direct access to it,” Shaw said in a recent interview.

The owner of the Stony Creek Inn, by the way, was Art Pratt, who had sung and played fiddles for bands, his own father’s included, since the 1930s. When the musicians he had known for decades stopped by the inn, as they frequently did, he took out his instrument and played  tunes Porter would have heard in her travels.

The young founders of the Stony Creek Band -which is now more than half a century old –  were there to absorb it.

“A lot of musicians came through that place, people playing true country music, blue grass and French Canadian fiddle tunes,” the Stony Creek Band’s Hank Soto once recalled.

“There were square dances every Saturday night, with Art Pratt playing the fiddle and calling the dances,” said co-founder John Strong. “If we didn’t have a gig, we ended up in the dance band.”

The Legacy of Marjorie Lansing Porter

Shaw has preserved much of what he remembered from his days in Stony Creek in a novel and a memoir – The Power Line and Crazy Wisdom – and the Stony Creek Band continues to play its Adirondack-inflected roots rock throughout upstate New York.

The documentary “Songs to Keep: Treasures of an Adirondack Folk Collector,” is available through streaming services, and a Marjorie Lansing Porter song book may be purchased through on-line retailers.

 But the legacy of Marjorie Lansing Porter survives in other ways as well.

For the past 17 years, the Common Ground Alliance has convened an annual forum in the hopes that “the old divisions between natives and newcomers (will fade) as the values they share become more apparent.”

In that optimistic scenario of the Adirondack Park’s future,  natives and newcomers alike will recognize that “our cultural human values are just as important as our natural values.”

But how are newcomers to become acquainted with the values that have shaped life in the Adirondacks, let alone learn to share them?

They could do worse than by listening to the old songs in the Marjorie Lansing Porter collection.

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