The Working Waterfront

The magic of music

A seemingly miserable day remade

By Phil Crossman
Posted 2024-05-13
Last Modified 2024-05-13

I keep misjudging people. Last month an elderly woman, four years my junior, put in an appearance at the Vinalhaven Library to sing songs and tell stories.

The event had been scheduled weeks before and announced repeatedly in our island newsletter, so as the day approached and it became increasingly apparent that the weather was going to be about as miserable as it has been in some time, I kept looking for a sign that the event had been postponed or canceled, because I couldn’t bear the thought of her showing up to a room full of empty seats.

But there was no such announcement. I checked even as late as a half hour prior. Still nothing. Apparently, they were determined.

She spoke of her relationship to the musical alliances that have thrived at or sometimes just beneath this island surface…

My own home being less than 100 yards from the library, I decided to bundle up, put on cleats and walk over so she’d have at least one person in attendance and, sure enough, I was one—one, that is, of the many that filled every seat and all available standing room.

Clearly, everyone knew it would be worth it and it was. It was as perfect an hour as I’ve enjoyed in some time. She spoke of her relationship to the musical alliances that have thrived at or sometimes just beneath this island surface forever, and to the critical importance of that intimately communal harmony in her own life and in the lives of so many of her devoted and companionable island musicians and their equally devoted and attendant fans.

As has been the case since man walked on this island, arrangements—purposeful compositions—of sound could then have been, could recently be, and certainly can now be heard emanating from gatherings on the shore or modest shelters, from the first homes and barns, from island fish houses, and more recently of course, from larger venues constructed for just that purpose.

I’ve been involved with some, but many more are and long have been intimate gatherings of folks so familiar with one another that they’re quite clearly families unto themselves, their conclaves often unknown to the rest of us and, while not usually reclusive, still somewhat solitary.

My friend talked of her involvement with one or two of those families and spoke generally to the circumstances in which they flourished while discreetly acknowledging the presence of two or three of those who were there in attendance.

The assemblies she described were not unlike those in which I participated; two or three, maybe four musicians, all string players, and a very appreciative audience of six to ten. Most arrived, often every day, as soon as their individual routines allowed, each assembling the drink of their choice from among the bountiful ingredients arranged on the workbench.

Conversation quickly ensues, bad jokes, old memories or maybe contemptuous commentary on what’s going on in the government, here or in the state or nation.

Meanwhile, guitars and banjos, maybe a fiddle, are being tuned and at some point, without regard for things mid-conversation elsewhere, the music begins, everyone settles in, and quiet appreciation reigns. Perhaps it’s February, in which case we’re all around the wood stove.

For decades a men-only environment prevailed, not so much because women were not allowed but because it hadn’t occurred to anyone they might be interested or feel welcome and in many instances the latter was certainly true. Nowadays the more enlightened gatherings are of men and women, much to the benefit of all concerned.

Interspersed with my friend’s very personal tales were her own profoundly beautiful compositions. As I confessed earlier, I keep misjudging people. I apparently misjudge weather too. It was not a miserable day.

Phil Crossman lives on Vinalhaven. He may be contacted at