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Harp Hero

Endangered instruments tug one musician's heartstrings

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The music MacArthur conjures out of this cheerful clutter is rooted in an American past receding at an exponential pace. Now in Marlboro’s meetinghouse, the audience, perched shoulder to shoulder on long wooden benches, settles into an attentive silence as MacArthur strikes up her harp. She opens with a traditional offering from the early 19th-century that describes the plight of a farm boy laboring as an indentured servant in a blacksmith’s shop: "When I lived in Barnet I lived at my ease, / Now I live in Pucker Street a master to please."

Some of the songs she performs evoke the life and times of individuals, conferring a kind of immortality on figures as various as Charles Swift, who was nearly killed when his skittish horse bolted, or Helen Winslow, a woman facing death and longing to tap maple trees one more season. For some members of MacArthur’s audience, these tunes are familiar favorites; for others, relative newcomers to the village, the folk songs are revelations, interpreted by a master of the form.

And for everyone, the pleasure of listening to an instrument plucked from oblivion is a simple gift. "I’d always wanted a harp," MacArthur muses, "but this one was my heart’s desire."


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