The Memory Keeper: Marjorie Lansing Porter’s Legendary Collection of Adirondack Folk Music is Now Accessible to the Public
Rockwell Kent once suggested that Pete Seeger compose an opera based on Adirondack folk tunes, and that my father write the book.
Although it’s hard to imagine my father, a lifelong newspaperman, collaborating on an opera, 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 traveled throughout the North Country.
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 a 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.”
By the time Porter died in 1973, that collection consisted of 33 reel-to-reel tapes that held folk ballads, lyrical folksongs, early hillbilly pieces, French-Canadian songs and fiddle tunes, all taped on a Soundscriber Recorder.
“Her interests in grass roots history, and her methods of learning the history and collecting the lore found her to be in many ways ahead of her time,” says folk singer Lee Knight, whose album, “Adirondack Ballads and Folk Songs” includes songs from the collection.
The collectionis housed in the Feinberg Library’s Special Collections at SUNY Plattsburgh. Earlier this summer, the Library announced that the Soundscriber discs have been digitized and are available as mp3 files on a new Audio Station computer at the library.
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 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 she helped create the Adirondack Center Museum in Elizabethtown.
My father called Porter the North Country’s Mnemosyne – its memory.
In the 1950s, North Country Life publisher Glyndon Cole made Porter the magazine’s associate editor. Rockwell Kent tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade her to buy the magazine from Cole and hire 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 him. “She is a hard working woman but so like a shrinking violet in her approach to the people that she strikes us as being thoroughly incapable of promoting the enterprise.”
Shrinking violet or not, Porter has had a huge influence on contemporary Adirondack folk music.
“Marjorie Lansing Porter’s music collection is an extremely significant resource for anyone with an interest in traditional music or the cultural heritage of the Adirondacks and Champlain Valley,” said Hannah Harvester, the Program Director at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY), which is located in Canton. “It was very helpful for us at TAUNY when we created our Adirondack Music website module, as it contains songs from diverse groups such as loggers, miners, Irish, Iroquois, and French Canadian groups, as well as oral histories recorded with many of the singers. Many of the songs were recorded just in time, before the tradition bearers passed away.”
According to Debra Kimok, the Special Collections Librarian at the Feinberg Library, the files include more than one hundred songs sung by Grandma Delorme, versions of “The Three Hunters,” “A Lumbering We Shall Go” and “Adirondack Eagle,” by Yankee John Galusha, and songs such as Francis Delong’s “My Adirondack Home” and “Peddler Jack.”
“Porter’s collections have impacted the tradition, and have affected all of us Adirondack songsmiths,” says Chris Shaw, a Lake George native whose repertoire includes traditional Adirondack songs.
Of course, Porter’s collection is of more than musical interest.
In an optimistic scenario of the Adirondack Park’s future, one called “the Sustainable Life” and presented at the Common Ground Alliance Forum on July 18 in Long Lake by Dave Mason and Jim Herman, “The old divisions between natives and newcomers (will fade) as the values they share become more apparent.”
According to that scenario, 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.