Harp Hero

Endangered instruments tug one musician’s heartstrings

As the clock struck two in the Marlboro, Vermont, town meetinghouse, a crowd began to gather for an afternoon concert. Soon, the austere interior of that 19th-century landmark, flooded with light from tall windows, would fill to capacity. The audience, numbering among its ranks children and college students, thirty-somethings and graybeards, had been drawn by a singer and musician recognized as an American folk music legend. Her contribution to that rich heritage has proved, in the words of one music critic, "no less than mighty."

Many of the songs Margaret MacArthur performs—traditional tunes evoking the lives of ordinary women and men in the 18th and 19th centuries—soldiers and farmwives, apprentices and peddlers—would be lost to history had she not collected them. Even more remarkably, the instrument she plays this day, a cunningly scaled-down version of a harp, has also survived largely as a result of her singular passion for our collective musical past.

MacArthur, a handsome, silver-haired woman in her early 70s, champions a range of endangered musical species, rescuing both instruments and music from likely oblivion. Among the scores of rare and antique instruments she has acquired, one remarkable treasure is a diminutive 100-year-old harp-zither. It came her way in 1961, on a winter evening when providential forces mysteriously converged.

"It was terrible out there," she recalls, describing that night four decades ago. As a near blizzard swirled outside her mountainside farmhouse, MacArthur phoned Putney, Vermont, about a classified advertisement offering an Irish harp for sale. But the asking price was more than she could afford: $500.

Just as she hung up the phone, MacArthur was surprised to hear a knock at the door. "I wondered," she remembers, "who would be crazy enough to come out on a night like this."

The intrepid visitor proved to be Win Landman, a local carpenter who had managed to drive over from his father’s farm, some 30 miles away. Shaking off snow as he stamped inside, he drew an object out from behind his back. "My dad," he announced, "sent you a present." With a flourish, he presented MacArthur with a small harp.

Landman’s family, it turned out, had spent the better part of several days clearing rubbish from a long-neglected corner of their barn. They had retrieved the instrument from where it hung on a post, nearly concealed under matted grapevines, and immediately recognized it as being of great rarity. So much so that a visit to MacArthur could not wait.

An Exquisite Artifact

As a folksinger well known throughout southern Vermont, MacArthur had traveled to many farmsteads in the region, recording songs handed down within rural families. Only a year or so before, she had transcribed lyrics sung by Landman’s sister, Phoebe.

The harp that Win Landman gently laid out on MacArthur’s kitchen table that bitter night turned out to be the only one of its kind known to exist. (Over time, a few more would turn up.) Though scarred by neglect, the 18-inch-high instrument was nevertheless an exquisite artifact. Its four-sided sound box had been fashioned of unpainted willow. No one could say exactly how or when this treasure had come to be discarded. It had lain silent for at least 50 years.

At the same time that MacArthur was devoting her considerable energies to saving an instrument disappearing from the American musical landscape, treasures in other parts of the world were also beginning to face extinction. As various as Siberian shamanic frame drums or the Central-Asian dotâr, some are hundreds of years old. "Certain sounds," laments Gage Averill, an ethnomusicologist and chair of the music department at New York University, "cannot be replaced."

Each of these instruments has need of a savior. The harp unearthed in that Vermont barn garnered two—MacArthur and her husband, John. As a professor of physics at Marlboro College as well as an accomplished amateur carpenter, John MacArthur was uniquely suited to take on the task of restoring the instrument.

"A lot of pieces were missing," he recalls. "There were just enough left so you could figure out the shape of what they were." John painstakingly traced the remnants of the sound box in order to cut out templates and re-create various structural elements.

Completion of the framing led to another challenge: configuring the strings and determining how to tune the instrument. Sitting at his battered wooden desk, John set down a series of equations, working from a formula for calculating the relationship between tension in the strings and pitch. "You had to invent a way to tune it," he explains, "because there was no way to tell how it was originally done."

Within a few weeks, John was able to present his wife with an instrument restored to life: reconstructed, polished, strung and tuned. When she sat down to pluck the strings, the sounds that floated into the room were akin to bells: delicate, clear and soaring.

Music has bound the MacArthurs together since they met as students at the University of Chicago in 1946. When John played guitar for a dormitory sing-along, he heard an extraordinary voice rising from the crowd and waded through the throng to find Margaret. They married the following year.

The couple moved to Vermont in 1948, when John accepted his faculty appointment. Over the years, the post-and-beam farmhouse in which they raised five children has filled with music and the instruments that make it: a Pennsylvania Dutch zither, an early 20th-century dulcimer, a fiddle hand-hewn from a log.

A Farm Boy’s Lament

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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