Throughout the “old” New England where I grew up, as in much of the rest of small-town America, there were two symbolic pieces of architecture you would expect to see in every village, town and hamlet: a white church with a tall steeple reaching heavenward, and an outdoor bandstand at the center of the village green. I use the word symbolic here in the truest sense of the term’s meaning, because at the heart of this column’s import lies a message larger than its more obvious history lesson.
The people who settled this land we call America carried with them a simple, but highly-personal and firmly-implanted religious faith which anchored them in every pioneering step they undertook, in good times and in bad. At significant expense and great individual sacrifice they usually built a church as their first public structure, and over my years of quiet but thoughtful roaming, I have learned to pause and consider the too-easily-forgotten message intrinsic in every field-stone foundation and hand-hung window frame of these sacred meeting places. I think of one such structure, now more than 200 years old, whose granite steps carry the unmistakable cupping wear of the thousands and thousands of leather shoes worn by generations of parishioners who have worshipped, been christened, married, and wished a final farewell within its white-washed walls and beneath its meticulously-maintained steeple. I love another in which religious services are held only occasionally now, but whose carefully cleaned and trimmed kerosene lamps still light evening vespers which bring together worshippers from far and wide to sing old hymns accompanied on a hand-pump organ. (The mountain town folk promise it will never be electrified.)
Almost as important as their faith to early Americans was their appreciation of drama and cultural expression. With access to the great symphony halls and opera houses of the day only a distant dream for most, they capitalized on the talent in their midst, and concerts in the park or on the village green became a key part of village life. In time, most small towns erected a bandstand as artfully-crafted and dutifully-maintained as their churches, usually open on all sides and situated with a 360 degree audience in mind.
One day, while acting as tour guides for one of our annual New England safaris, we happened – by chance – upon such a gathering assembled on the green sloping lawns fronting Vermont’s capitol dome in Montpelier. We were lucky to find a parking place for our van as hundreds upon hundreds of local citizens arrived from all directions to vie for a place to cast a blanket or lawn chair as band members took their places on a prominent dale. I had cautioned our travel group that we could not stay long without compromising our daily schedule; but that was before the collection of home-grown brass players, fifers, drummers and an age-defiant string section began to play. I was impressed first of all by the unexpected virtuosity of such a random collection of performers, and without a single written score in evidence other than that of the conductor. And then came the recognition of an audience so obviously stirred by the music filling the air that they broke into spontaneous song themselves from time to time, and rose to their feet in an indescribable display of patriotism as the notes of the Star-Spangled Banner capped an hours-long program of surprising diversity. As I wiped the tears from my eyes I noticed that everyone within sight was doing the same thing. And no one, including our tour group was in any hurry to go home.
In a recent article in Down East magazine, I read with sadness how such “concerts in the park” are disappearing from even the most “traditional” of communities as musicians age, funding dries up, and changes in the dynamics of family life place new limitations on that element we call “time.” And in those historic white-steepled country churches, choir seats go too often unfilled for all the same reasons.
: Typical of New England’s country churches is this one in which Al & Shirley Cooper were wed nearly 61 years ago. Al Cooper Photo