Shortly after I moved to the Vineyard, I started volunteering at Wintertide Coffeehouse. It was strictly a winter thing in those days, the mid-1980s. It took place on most weekends, January through March. Wintertide, I was told, was inspired by the old West Tisbury musicales (pronounced “musicals”–I didn’t get the spelling right till later). Gradually, by listening and asking questions, I learned what the musicales were.
In this guest post, Shirley Mayhew describes the musicales and links them to today’s vibrant island music scene, as evidenced at the annual M.V. Agricultural Society Fair. The fair’s in town this weekend. I’ll be heading over tonight to hear some music.
What follows is abridged slightly from the chapter of the same name in Shirley’s recently released and thoroughly wonderful collection, Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard. More about that later.
By Shirley W. Mayhew
In the 1950s, on the day after Labor Day, most of the few restaurants, as well as the four movie theaters, closed for the winter. There were no support groups or theater productions or other means of entertainment between Labor Day and Memorial Day, so it was up to us to make our own fun. We fed each other at dinner parties after the husbands had had a successful duck or goose hunt, or fishing trip, and we got together to play music. This was a male endeavor, as they were the ones who played guitar and banjo, violin and accordion. The wives were the audience, chatting about their babies or a new recipe that had turned out pretty well.
Sometimes we gathered at the Whitings’ house or the Scannells’, and once in a while at our house. Everett Whiting and Johnny played guitar and Willy Huntington was good on the banjo as well as the guitar. Mike Athearn, a self-taught musician, was the only accordion player, though he also played violin in the Vineyard Sinfonietta and tuba in the Vineyard Haven Band. Jack Scannell, who had not grown up on the Vineyard and had never gotten into playing music, tried hard to mix in with a kazoo. Ernest Correllus and Elmer Silva occasionally joined us.
They all played and sang old favorites, some not fit for their children to hear, but it was our only entertainment and we enjoyed it. Some years later my three children confessed that they used to sit at the top of our stairs when we had a musicale in the old church parsonage, into which we had moved after eight months in the chicken coop. And the Whiting and Scannell children hid behind the furniture in their homes so they could listen undetected. The music got into the Huntington boys, as well as into my family (though not from my side). My son, Jack, and my daughter Deborah play the guitar and Deborah has handed down her lovely voice to her daughter, Katie Ann. Jack’s two grown-up daughters are both accomplished musicians.
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I was reminded of those early days on the Vineyard recently when I was watching MVTV as they showed videos of the 2011 Agricultural Fair—the 150th anniversary of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society. The first fair I attended was in 1946, and I haven’t missed one since, although it is increasingly difficult for me to get around.
I went in 2010, with the help of my daughter Sarah, to listen to a performance of the Flying Elbows, because my granddaughter Caroline was joining them with her fiddle for a few songs. And again in 2011 when I met Johnny there—he was living at Windemere by then and they had brought a few residents in wheelchairs to enjoy the music and food.
In 2013 my daughter Deborah took me over and we set up our folding chairs in front of the stage to listen to the Stragglers. I was almost overwhelmed with nostalgia when I realized I was listening to the third generation of local musicians, and what a wonderful tradition had been started more than fifty years ago here in West Tisbury. The Stragglers is one of several groups in town that now play all over the Island.
Peter Huntington is one of the Stragglers. His father, Willy Huntington, was a member of our informal musicales back in the fifties—and in those early days, when the Fair was held in the Grange Hall, with no carnival and no music coming out of amplifiers, Willy and his brother, Gale Huntington, along with Elmer Silva and Ernest Correllus, sat on the front porch of the Grange Hall with their banjos and guitars and provided music for the annual event. Peter’s daughter, Shaelah, plays the violin today and used to enter the fiddlers’ contest at the fair along with my granddaughters, Caroline, Lucy, and Katie Ann.
Danny Whiting, son of the late farmer and musician Everett Whiting, is also a member of the Stragglers. He was four years old when I first met him at that 1946 Fair, and I attended many musicales when his father was playing guitar.
Jimmy Athearn, that famed farmer who started Morning Glory Farm with his high school sweetheart, Debbie, took up the trombone when he was in seventh grade at the Tisbury School. He went on after his schooling to discover a group of Islanders who were putting together a swing band, music from the thirties and forties that was making a comeback in the mid-eighties. This band, a mixture of native Vineyarders and a few wash-ashores called the Martha’s Vineyard Swing Orchestra, began to play at weddings on the Island. As a backup they also had some rock-and-roll tunes to play in case the big band music was too foreign for the young wedding guests. During the nineties they did a many as twenty to twenty-five gigs a year, sometimes three a week during the high season.
That was a busy time for Jimmy. Sometimes, usually on a weekend, he would rise at dawn to spray the corn, then pick it from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., and then rush to shower and change his clothes and step into his role as a musician and play his trombone until midnight.
Tom Hodgson has been a member of the Flying Elbows, a well-known Vineyard group, for more than twenty years. He also plays guitar with the Woods Hole Folk Orchestra and sometimes joins with the Gospel Singalong Concert Series in Falmouth.
His mother, the late Nancy Whiting, and I had known each other since we had met in a Connecticut summer camp when we were fifteen years old. Tom was in the Vineyard high school when he started playing the guitar, as was my son, Jack, who was a member of the Bodes, a high school rock band. Three of the original four Bodes still have a gig every once in a while. They have been playing together for over forty years.
Mark Mazer’s family moved to the Vineyard in the mid-sixties when his father became the Vineyard’s psychiatrist. His parents weren’t musical, but Mark began playing the guitar when he was in high school. Later he became a guitarist and lead singer with the Stragglers. I didn’t know Nancy Jephcote back in the fifties, but she sounds like she was born playing the violin. A member of the Flying Elbows, she is in several groups and can play classical as well as fiddle tunes. All three of my granddaughters took violin lessons in the Suzuki method from her when they were very small, and they all participated in the fiddle contests at the annual Fair. Nancy is very talented and now teaches music in the elementary schools of the Island.
John Early is a guitar player for the Stragglers. He is a well-known builder and was a West Tisbury selectman for many years.
Merrily Fenner, wife of Frank Fenner and co-owner of the Menemsha Galley, is the daughter of Hamilton Benz, who played in the Vineyard Haven Band many years ago. She and Nancy Jephcote are the female members of the Stragglers. Though I never really knew Ham Benz, I would recognize him if he were still living—he was a well-known musician on the Vineyard, and Merrily is carrying on the tradition. Peter Knight, who plays drums for the Stragglers, is married to Merrily’s daughter.
Not long ago I listened to the Stragglers on our local TV station. The program ended with a salute to the late Danny Prowten, builder, volunteer firefighter, and a founding member of the Stragglers. The next day I watched and listened to the Metropolitan Opera’s TV production of Carmen—both were wonderful. But my musical life really began when I sat on the floor of the Whitings’ living room about sixty years ago, tuning out the women’s babble about their babies and new recipes, and listening to Willy and Johnny and Everett and the others singing “Country Road” and “My Pretty Quadroon.” The tradition goes on.