Excerpt of notes written by Peter E. McElligott for Adirondack Songs, Ballads and Fiddle Tunes, a 1964 recording of Lawrence Older by Folk-Legacy Records.
As Harold Thompson says in Body, Boots and Britches, “We don’t have hillbillies in New York State but we have mountaineers who are some of the best and happiest Americans”. Certainly Lawrence Older, York State woodsman and mountaineer, gives every appearance of being a happy and contented man and one gets the obvious impression that a large part of his satisfaction derives from both his affinity with the woods and from his music.
Lawrence and Martha Older and their son, Larry, live in a cheerful, comfortable house that Lawrence built on the side of Mt. Pleasant, Middle Grove, New York. Located in the southern Adirondacks, Mt. Pleasant has been home for most of Lawrence’s fifty years, and he is on cordial terms with it and with its other inhabitants(including nine of his brothers and sisters).
Friendship with a mountain does not evolve suddenly; you have to live on it, work it, and occasionally fight it before you can fully appreciate what it has to offer. Lawrence’s family moved on Mt. Pleasant when he was nine years of age – old enough his stepfather thought, that he should be helping in the family woodlot with the falling and cutting of pulp and cordwood and with the sugaring in early Spring. Education was a sporadic business in the one room school house which Lawrence and the rest of the neighbors attended only when there wasn’t other work to be done at home. Thus, it went, off and on, through the sixth grade when Lawrence first struck out on his own. He got a job just over the mountain clearing land for the Sacandaga Reservoir, bought a fiddle with three dollars of his first week’s pay, got fired when the foreman found out his true age, worked on a farm as a hired hand for a brief spell, and was back cutting wood on the mountain the following winter.
Although Lawrence is currently employed as a machinist, he is a woodsman at heart and spent the majority of his early days in that capacity. The occupational pattern for Lawrence and his people was to work in the woods by preference whenever there was any cutting work available, and to seek short term jobs elsewhere in the summer off season. In Lawrence’s case the part time work was always outdoors and usually as close to the woods as he could get, for example, clearing brush for a new power line going over the mountain. When the snows came, however, and it was possible to get a team and sleigh into the woods, the Olders could always be found somewhere back on the mountain, chopping pulp and cordwood.
As a woodsman, Lawrence Older must be regarded as a “loner”, a worker who preferred to chop and saw by himself or with one or two companions rather than frequent a large, company owned camp. This, despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that his mother worked all her life as a professional cook in the company camps and that his stepfather was frequently employed as a foreman in the same camps.
Though the concept of the lone woodsman may seem strange to one accustomed to the conventional image of the hearty and gregarious lumberjack, it was, in Lawrence’s locale and generation, the much more typical arrangement. In the first place, New York is not especially known for its tall timber which requires a crew to fall and move. Rather, the majority of the state’s wood consumption is in the form of pulp for its numerous paper mills. Pulp and cordwood (used extensively as a fuel because it was cheaper than coal) could conveniently be chopped, sawed, split and skidded by one or two men with a team and a sleigh. Secondly, with the advent of the truck, caterpiller tractor and railroad, the need for a large camp located near a convenient river for driving the lumber was gradually eliminated. Instead, men like Lawrence Older could make a modest but comfortable living by hiring out to sub-contractors for the paper mills and working or chopping not too far from their homes.
The customary procedure was to take a team and sleigh five or ten miles back on the mountain,and,in company with either a relative or a neighbor that you got along well with, erect a bark shanty and a place for the team near the chopping. Domestic arrangements were simple: one of the partners would elect to do the cooking and would break off from work an hour or so early to get the meal started. A patch was broken for the team, and after the wood was cut and sawed it was piled on the sleigh and skidded to the nearest roadside where it was stacked to await eventual transportation to the mill.
It was a lonely life in the woods and a man had to be particular with whom he chose to work for tempers frayed easily in the cramped quarters of the shanty. Lawrence usually partnered with one of his brothers, primarily because the contract was for piecework and he knew they could set a good pace and keep it up the entire day. An efficient natural rhythm on the cross cut saw is pretty important, especially if it has to be maintained throughout the entire winter.
There were breaks in the camp routine. Occasionally, a woodsman from a nearby chopping or camp would drop in for an evening of talk. Other nights, Lawrence would play the fiddle, as he says, “for my own confusion”. The customary Saturday night square dance in a nearby town was a strong attraction, especially for the single man. After his marriage, Lawrence usually managed to make it home at least once a week.
By and large, the music of Lawrence Older derives from two somewhat overlapping sources: family songs and songs popular in local tradition. A survey of Lawrence’s repertoire indicates that the majority of his songs, perhaps as high as 75% of the songs he sings today, were at least originally learned from his parents. Of these songs, somewhere between one third and one half also appear to have been sung on a local level with varying degrees of popularity. The remainder of Lawrence’s songs, those of non family origin, have been acquired for the most part through oral transmission over the course of the years. A visiting woodsman (occasionally from Canada), local square dances (especially for the fiddle tunes) and people met and warmed to on the road; all of these and the other numerous opportunities for hearing someone sing a song have helped to enrich Lawrence’s repertoire and increase his appreciation for the music of his people.
Since the majority of Lawrence’s songs came to him through the family, it is of interest to examine this source in some depth as an example of a specific element of tradition. The Older branch of Lawrence’s family has been traced back to Thomas Older, a British Regular who arrived in the State in 1749 from Morden, England and who later served in Washington’s army during the Revolution. The first evidence of a musical tradition apparently begins with Theodorus Older the first, Lawrence’s great grandfather, who settled on Pucker Creek in the town of Horicon, Warren County, in the early 1800’s.
Theodorus the second, Lawrence’s grandfather, was apparently a natural musician who learned songs from his father and absorbed others wherever he traveled. He served in the Civil War(joining twice in four years at the minimum legal age of eighteen) and is known to have brought new songs home with him after th fighting. An interesting story is told concerning his arrival in Keene Valley, New York, where he settled about 1870. At dusk of a winter day a powerfully built stranger stopped into Crawford’s Store and, without saying a word to anyone, walked to the stove and began to warm himself. After a few minutes, with his back to the stove, he began softly singing to himself. In short order more people were enteing than leaving the store and those who had business to transact did so in lowered voices. The tall stranger remained singing until 10 or 11 o’clock at night when he finally spoke to ask: “Any work around here? I’m a chopper.” A job was quickly found for him in the area. Evidently his songs remained popular for a later anecdote relates how, at the completion of a barn raising, Theodorus climbed up on a newly placed beam and sang for several hours to the assemblage below. Grandfather Theodorus, who remained a woodsman almost all of his life, apparently had more luck with his songs than with his sons, for Lawrence’s father, Ben Older, and his uncles Thede and Will left home at very early ages. Not so early, however, that Ben and Thede were unable to take with them many of the family songs.
The three strongest musical influences on Lawrence Older were his parents and his Uncle Thede. Each has added a different component in the evolution of Lawrence’s style as well as contributing towards his repertoire. It is from his Uncle Thede, who worked on the Erie Canal for a spell before traveling down river to operate tugboats in New York Harbor, that Lawrence seems to have acquired the strong sense of family tradition and propriety in his singing.
“Uncle Thede only sang two kinds of songs: the family ballads and hymns. He’d never sing a song with a swear word in it. He must have learned lots of songs on the Canal and in the Harbor but he never sang them for us”.
From his father Lawrence has obviously inherited the ability to communicate with his singing. As Lawrence says: “Father always sang to an audience, even if it was only one little kid. He could kinda enclose you in a song – you were actually part of the thing”. Strangely enough, however, it is from his mother, a person with almost no traditional musical heritage, that Lawrence acquired one of the strongest traditional traits: the ability to make music soley for himself. According to Lawrence: “Mother was a reversal of everything her family stood for.” Her family, the Lanes, were of Scotch-Irish descent and apparently felt that appearance mattered most. His mother left home at about the age of fifteen, primarily to escape the life of sham and pretense(“They said they’d had it once, but they didn’t have it then.”) and went to work as a menial or scullery maid. She picked up songs wherever she went, but she had no family songs since the Lanes were seemingly above the common music. When she sang them to her ten children, she had somehow acquired the traditional manner and “even when she was holding you on her lap, she sang detached, to herself.”
Thus, a composite picture of Lawrence Older emerges. As a woodsman, his background, occupational pattern and his natural affinity for his environment seem to be fairly typical of his people. As a singer, Lawrence Older also emerges as representative of a particular tradition and certain of the traditional characteristics appear to be especially strong and valid in his case. For example, in so far as it is possible to speak of a traditional manner of singing, one gets the impression that Lawrence, like his mother, sings primarily for himself. With an audience, Lawrence communicates his music and establishes a close rapport, but the audience is not sung “at”, rather, it is permitted to join Lawrence in a mutual appreciation and affection for the music. The distinction is subtle, but real. The proprietary interest which Lawrence takes in his songs may be partially understood in terms of the functional usage which the traditional singer makes of his music. The woodsman has few worksongs since, for the most part, his work does not require concerted group efforts. The woodsman however does have songs for his dancing, his bragging and for his more introspective or reflective moments. These songs comprise the repertoire of Lawrence Older, and these are the uses he makes of it. And finally, the sources of Lawrence’s music, especially his strong family heritage, in terms of method and extent of transmission, must be regarded as predominantly traditional in the strictest sense of the term.
Peter E. McElligott
Schenectady, New York
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