Concert celebrates folklorist Sandy Ives

Posted Aug. 23, 2010, at 7:20 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:53 a.m.

John Cousins was 12 years old when a man from Maine visited his home on Prince Edward Island to collect old songs from his mother.

“Most of the local people, including my family, had no idea that the old songs and stories were in any way special or interesting, especially to anyone outside the community,” Cousins said.

Today, the people of his home area and others across the Maritime Provinces and Maine have a deeper appreciation for their own cultural heritage because of that man from Maine — Sandy (Dr. Edward D.) Ives, professor of folklore at the University of Maine.

“Sandy knew, of course, and I knew from then on,” says Cousins, who traces his career as a teacher of folklore to the day of Ives’ visit to Campbellton, West Prince. “With wit, kindliness and an incredible perceptiveness, he enriched our knowledge of the island past.”

It has been a year since Ives’ death, but his spirit was alive July 31 when musicians from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Pennsylvania, Maine and elsewhere gathered to perform songs he had collected in a tribute concert honoring his work as a folklorist.

Friends and members of the Ives family filled Britannia Hall in Tyne Valley, Prince Edward Island, birthplace of Larry Gorman, a songwriter Ives immortalized as “the man who made the songs.”

Roy Dyment, who grew up in that community, took the audience back to the time he first read Ives’ book, “Larry Gorman: The Man Who Made the Songs.” Dyment had heard there was a book that mentioned his hometown and, being interested in local history, went to the library to pick it up. When he started reading, he learned about members of his own family.

“Dr. Ives’ books allowed me to look at my family and allowed the community in general to further our cultural identity,” he said in an interview. “Without that piece of literature, we would not have these things to carry into the future.”

Tyne Valley is just one of many places affected by the dogged research that brings tradition to life through the work of folklorists such as Ives. Larry Gorman had been dead for years before Ives tracked down his legacy, traveling from town to town with his tape recorder and notebook, piecing together the music and stories that would add a chapter to the heritage of the community. And Gorman is just one of the song makers he immortalized.

I met Sandy shortly after moving to Maine in 1974. I had organized a group of young people from the towns of New Sweden and Stockholm to record and photograph their elders, transcribe their interviews and process their photos for a publication inspired by Eliot Wigginton’s “Foxfire” in Rabun Gap, Ga. They called it “Silver Birches.”

They drew the name from one of their first interviews, which was with a man who lamented the loss of the trees from which the Swedes once made skis.

“Hereabout, oh it must be 20 years ago,” he said, “come a worm through here that killed our birches — our silver birches.”

The young people compared the stories they were collecting to those silver birches, and adopted the words for their title, “because they symbolized what we were reaching for.”

“We are trying to find the remnants of the ‘silver birches’ of our community heritage and keep them from being lost,” they wrote in the introduction to their first edition.

When those young people met Sandy Ives at an oral history conference in 1976, they discovered they were part of something much bigger than their little project in Aroostook County, Maine.

Sandy represented a vast community of folklorists dedicated to preserving the qualities and traditions that give a community its identity. “Silver Birches” connected local people to their roots in the same way Sandy’s books on Larry Gorman and others enriched communities throughout the Northeast. Folklore was not just about the past. It was a source of enduring pride in place.

As people featured on the pages of “Silver Birches” began to die, the mission described in the first edition became more poignant. Twenty years later, when the group gathered for a reunion, members described how they had used the three booklets they created to pass on their heritage to their children.

“I never suspected, and don’t think anyone else did either, that we were reaching out to our own futures,” said one.

“I realized that the interview I had done with my grandmother all those years ago would be a great way for my children to [know] their great-grandmother,” said another.

Sandy Ives not only enriched the cultures of the communities in which he worked, but also inspired countless students and colleagues to do likewise. His and their work is contained in the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History, maintained by the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine.

The collection Sandy began in a shoebox under his desk in 1958 has grown to include thousands of tapes, transcriptions, songs and photographs that give a future to the cultural heritage of places like Tyne Valley and New Sweden.

When folklorists — amateur and professional — take the time to record a community’s stories and traditions, people in those communities have a stronger sense of who they are and where they come from.

I thought I knew Sandy pretty well, but being in a place where and among the people with whom he conducted re-search gave me new insight on the significance of his work. Everyone I met was not only familiar with the legends of Larry Gorman’s songs, but also maintained that Sandy was the reason they knew them and gathered regularly for Larry Gorman festivals. He had given the community a gift that will live for generations.

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