Dig that Island Sound

Three generations of music-making in West Tisbury.

I remember the 1950s as a good decade – the war was over and I had happily settled in West Tisbury on an island I had never heard of before I met and married Johnny Mayhew, who was a descendent of a long line of Vineyarders. We were married in September, 1947, and winter was not the best time to start a life on the Vineyard, especially if you didn’t know anyone except your new husband. But I was twenty-one, and life was an adventure.

In those days, the population was generally optimistic about the future. There were big changes going on, however. Veterans were returning to take up their lives, which had been interrupted by years of war. Women, who had taken over the jobs that the men used to have in the fields and in the factories, were being eased back into their homes with propaganda about how satisfying it was to wax your kitchen floor, how fulfilling it could be to get your clothes squeaky clean with the new bleach products. I don’t know how I managed, therefore, when we moved into a small house – well, a shack, really – a converted chicken coop on Everett Whiting’s farm. I had no linoleum in my tiny kitchen, so I couldn’t wax it, and I had no washing machine to try out the new bleach products. I kept busy ironing my new husband’s boxer shorts.

There was a hospital in Oak Bluffs, but it had no emergency room or maternity ward, so five local doctors took care of all our needs: delivering babies, removing appendices and tonsils, and dispensing what drugs were available. As for entertainment, however, the day after Labor Day what few restaurants there were mostly closed for the winter. The movie theaters likewise called it quits for the season. There were no public activities or facilities for either seniors or the younger set. No support groups. No theater productions. Not much to do between Labor Day and Memorial Day.

So it was up to us to make our own fun. We fed each other at dinner parties after the husbands had a successful duck or goose hunt or fishing trip. And we got together to play music. This was a male endeavor, as they were the ones who played guitar and banjo, violin and accordion – the wives were the audience, chatting about their babies or a new recipe that had turned out pretty well.

Sometimes we gathered at the Whiting’s house or the Scannell’s, and once in awhile at our house. Everett Whiting and Johnny played guitar and Willy Huntington was good on the guitar as well as the banjo. Mike Athearn was the only accordion player, and Jack Scannell, who had not grown up on the Vineyard and had never gotten into playing music, tried hard to mix in with a kazoo. Ernest Corellus and Elmer Silva occasionally joined us. They all played and sang old favorites, some not fit for their children to hear, but it was our only entertainment and we enjoyed it.

Some years later my three children confessed that they used to sit at the top of our stairs when we had a musical in the old church parsonage, which we had moved into after eight months in the chicken coop. And the Whiting and Scannell children hid behind the furniture in their homes so they could listen undetected. The music got into the Huntington boys, as well as into my family. My son Jack and my daughter Deborah play the guitar and Deborah has handed down her lovely voice to her daughter, Katie Ann. Jack’s two grown-up daughters are both accomplished musicians.

I was reminded of those early days on the Vineyard when I was watching MVTV a year ago as they showed videos of the 2011 fair – the 150th anniversary of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair. The first fair I attended was in 1946, and I haven’t missed one since.  In those early days, when the fair was held in the Grange Hall, with no carnival and no music coming out of amplifiers, Willy and his brother, Gale Huntington, along with Elmer Silva and Ernest Correlus and others, sat on the front porch of the Grange Hall with their banjos and guitars and provided music for the annual event. I went in 2011, although it is increasingly difficult for me to get around, specifically to listen to a performance of The Flying Elbows, because my granddaughter Caroline was joining them with her fiddle for a few songs. That year my husband Johnny even joined me there one last time, as Windemere had brought him and a few other residents in wheelchairs to enjoy the music and food.

It was a sweet moment, and I was almost overwhelmed with nostalgia when I realized I was able to listen to the third generation of local musicians, and what a wonderful tradition had been started more than fifty years ago here in West Tisbury.  There in the group called The Stragglers was Danny Whiting, whose father Everett played in our original group. And Peter Huntington, whose father Willy was also a regular. Today, Willy Huntington’s granddaughter, Shaelah, plays the violin and used to enter the fiddlers’ contest at the fair along with my granddaughters, Caroline, Lucy, and Katie Ann. My son Jack was in a high school band called The Bodes, and even after some forty-five years they still get together for an occasional gig. Jimmy Athearn plays the trombone in a swing orchestra, which played forties music at Johnny’s and my fortieth wedding anniversary party. Well, that was our era of music. These boys all grew up together.

Music is a wonderful force in the world. Country music, opera, rock, jazz, swing – it all brings people together and makes them one. One day I listened to The Stragglers on our local TV station. The next day I watched and listened to the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Carmen. Both were wonderful. But my musical life really began when I sat on the floor of the Whiting’s living room about sixty years ago, tuning out the women’s babble about their babies and new recipes, and listening to Willy and Johnny and Everett and the others singing “Country Roads.” The tradition goes on.

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July 31, 2014 - 6:29pm