BELFAST, Maine — When the smiling young woman with a banjo and the man with a guitar started to play some tunes on Saturday night during the Free Range Music Festival in Belfast, the audience started tapping their toes.
Then they started to sing along to the call-and-response songs that workers on boats in the Caribbean, on the railroad in West Virginia and in Zulu villages also sing — much to the delight of Edith Gawler, 25, and her husband and musical partner Bennett Konesni, 30. The couple dream of spreading their love of work songs to people everywhere, and were thrilled that the Belfast audience filled up the room at Waterfall Arts with their own voices.
“We grew up singing as we stacked wood. We sang while we worked,” Gawler, who grew up in Belgrade, said Sunday. “We weren’t consciously practicing work songs. Bennett recognizes how special and unique and rare they are. He’s very actively bringing them to our family now … It’s a really incredible way to connect with people.”
According to Konesni, who grew up in Appleton and on Islesboro, where his mom ran the health center for many years, work songs are the music that people have long created to turn hard labor into something else. He first got into the idea of singing on the job when he toiled summers as a deckhand on Schooner J&E Riggin out of Rockland.
“We would sing while raising the sails and raising the anchor,” he said. “It’s a way to transform that drudgery somewhere between work and play. I love that idea — of productive fun. You can find that middle ground, of doing useful, productive work and having a great time doing it.”
When Konesni went to Middlebury College in Vermont, his love of work songs grew as he learned about different cultures. One of his roommates was from Tanzania, and taught the young Maine man and others how to sing while running, a tradition in that country. Then, in 2005, Konesni won a $25,000 Watson Fellowship, which allowed him to travel around the world for a year to learn work songs. He went to Africa, Europe and Asia, diving in to the traditions of the people he met in those places.
“I’m not native Zulu, I’m not native Swiss, I’m not native Mongolian,” Konesni said. “I went to those countries because I wanted to learn how work songs work. What is a good work songs leader like? What’s a good follower? Which songs work well in big, open spaces?”
His continued interest in the work songs tradition has led him to start teaching it to students at the non-profit educational farm he founded five years ago on land his family has long owned on Shelter Island in New York.
“I just started trying it out at the farm, and it worked!” he said of getting others to sing. “It’s really great. People just react well to it. It’s a very universal thing. We all have to work … it’s less about creating a perfect sound, and more about creating a joyful noise. That, to me, really captures what I try to inspire people to do out in the fields — to get away from perfection and start embracing fun and joy, and realize you can just turn the switch in your own brain to have a good time again.”
Since then, he and Gawler have traveled far afield teaching work songs, from leading workshops at the Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival in Mystic, Conn., to giving a TEDx talk in Fruitvale, Calif., to a tour of upstate New York next week with workshops and concerts.
Gawler said that she first spotted Konesni several years ago while he was leading a group of kids at Maine Fiddle Camp in a singing-while-jogging outing, during which they were “grinning like fools and having so much fun.”
“Who is that guy?” she remembers wondering.
The following year, they began dating.
“We’ve been jogging and singing together and playing and singing together ever since,” Gawler said.
They’ve been busy with the farm they’re starting this summer in Belfast, Allemande Farm, located on 17 acres of overgrown cow pasture on Jesse Robbins Road. They’ll be planting specialty crops, including garlic, and making a homestead, she said. Music and art will be central to their new enterprise.
“Work songs — it takes the whole idea of passive entertainment and flips it on its head,” Gawler said. “We all make music together. That’s my favorite part — people who think they can’t sing coming and having a really good time. It’s transformative in a really exciting way. It’s an old art. We’re bringing it back to a new way of doing things. It’s fun to think that we’re going backwards and forwards at the same time.”
For more information about the couple’s project, visit www.worksongs.org.