Music and rural living have a long history. Shepherds passed the time playing flutes out in the pastures; country folks came together, linked hands, and danced to fiddle tunes; and often there was singing in the fields. This ancient view of music was integrated into everyday life and was the common property of all. Music accompanied important cyclical ceremonies and helped occupy the mind during drudgeries.
Today, alas, music has been mostly consigned to either life on a pedestal through formal concerts (in designated buildings at designated times) or blared from our truck radios. Music is made by “someone else” for us, and we are mere consumers. The folk idea of making music together is, well, seen as a bit quaint and certainly old-fashioned.
But there are reasons for the folk music process. Rhyme and meter are excellent ways to remember a story, facets of one’s task, or cultural values. Songs like “Bringing in the Sheaves” reminds us of the joy in the harvest—the fruits of one’s labors coming to fruition through the helping hand of nature. It comes from the collective experience of the people, not the market motivations of commercialism.
Bringing in the sheaves
Bringing in the sheaves
We will come rejoicing
Bringing in the sheaves
Music is also incredibly therapeutic and stimulating. Studies recently reported on National Public Radio have shown that even one year of learning an instrument results in noticeable brain development resulting, over time, in the higher amounts of gray matter. Music utilizes a variety of parts of the brain at the same time—even singing reaches across the hemispheres to areas other than the speech center. Therapies that utilize singing have helped some brain trauma survivors (like Arizona senator Gabrielle Giffords) to reclaim their ability to speak. Group music sessions have also gained remarkable results with Alzheimer’s patients.
Some agricultural studies have looked at the stimulus of music with livestock or plants. Dairy parlors might play classical symphonies, while a greenhouse might prefer jazz. Whether or not the particular type of music is preferable to the plants or animal (or really the caretakers) is a continued point of study, but our sheep don’t mind an occasional acapella song during chores. It helps them know we’re coming, so they don’t spook when the barn door opens.
A particular ancient instrument that I play—the harp—has been closely linked with healing. Mayo Clinic has a “therapy harp” program, where trained harpers visit hospital patients to share soothing music. The particular wave frequencies of sound made by harps have a special calming and therapeutic affect for both the listener and performer.
Here are a few stories to share about animals and harps. Even during my first days of practicing this instrument, our small dog Sophie would stop whatever she was doing and try to sit as close as possible to me and the harp and promptly fall asleep. Practicing classical guitar, hammer dulcimer, or other instruments does not produce the same affect. No matter what corner of the house, Sophie has to come and sit next to the harp.
This last winter, we acquired a new household companion—a black and orange cat from the Humane Society named Pumpkin. Sleek and intelligent, Pumpkin is fascinated by everything in our home, from the baby goat in the basement and the chickens outside the bedroom window to the back nooks of the root cellar. Our various projects are also fascinating—the tumbling ball of yarn while Kara knits or the little wooden pieces on the “Nine Men’s Morris” game board.
Projects are everywhere in our house, but this is normal for us. Since my sister and I embarked on a Montessori learning style from an early age, having a house full of creative and imaginative projects from building performance costumes to designing Farmstead Creamery & Café have been an integral part of our daily experience. Currently, our living room and kitchen have been transformed into a recording studio as Tom Draughon of Ashland and I work on our acoustic Christmas album “Season of Delight.” The tangle of microphone cables and speakers are not ingratiating for hosting company or cooking supper—but that’s what Farmstead Creamery is for.
The other day, I was practicing for our upcoming recording session of the Latin carol “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” (O Come, O Come Emmanuel), which is paired with a delightful Shetland air traditional to Christmas morning called “Da Day Dawn.” Sophie had taken up her position in a nearby recliner, fast asleep, when Pumpkin sidled into the room. She sat there, just a few steps away, her green eyes wide and ears perked forward. She watched my hands, looked at me, looked at the harp, looked at my hands. This continued several minutes. Then, convinced she had the whole thing figured out, she began purring loudly and rubbing on the base of the harp and my ankles until the practice session was complete. I was itching with static electricity, but the cat was thoroughly enjoying herself.
A few days later, I was working through recording this same harp part, editing, and then laying down a vocal track over the harp accompaniment. Pumpkin had lain content on the sofa during the harp recording and editing session, but during the singing (when the harp is muted through the speakers), she leapt over and began tussling with the headphone cable, batting at my leg until I would look at her, then reached over and batted the harp, as if to say “Hey, you, play more of THIS!”
Pumpkin had her opinion, apparently. Hopefully it was not a reflection on my singing! When the CD is released later this year, you can take a listen and offer your own opinion.
At North Star Homestead Farms, we work to make music part of the agrarian experience. From our winter season of harvest dinners and concerts, we will be expanding this year to offer a four-part outdoor Locally Grown Summer Music Series, which will feature local, acoustic talent at Farmstead Creamery & Café. Held on Sunday afternoons and open to all to attend, here are the dates to save: June 30th, July 21st, August 11th, and September 1st. Updates and details can be found on our website and the “calendar” feature.
Make music part of your agrarian experience this year by joining us for one of these events or finding ways to encourage musicianship in your area. Dust off your old instrument or learn a new tune this week, and maybe we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. (715) 462-3453 northstarhomestead.com