An usual collaboration that took place over many months bore fruit on April 24, in the form of Unsung Heroes: Songs of our elder farmers by local songwriters. Eight different farmers—or significant others—were interviewed about their lives and work by songwriters, who debuted their work at the event, which took place at Rondout Valley High School. The project was a collaboration of the Rondout Valley Growers Association and SageArts, the mission of which is to give elders an opportunity to share their wisdom and stories.
The relationship between the people of the Rondout Valley and agriculture is a strong one, and that came through during this event. The work itself was multi-generational, with high school students providing backup vocals for professional musicians performing songs about farmers now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. The seats themselves were likewise filled with people of all ages, and those people cheered their farmers much louder than they did for the music, rising to their feet several times over the course of the afternoon. One particularly poignant point was after Kelleigh McKenzie sang “Cherrytown”, which told the story of 93-year-old Abe Waruch, last of nine brothers and lifelong resident of the eponymous hamlet. Waruch lost his wife of 70 years just two weeks prior to the concert, and tearfully shared that news with the audience. He said it would have pleased her that he attended anyway, and the standing ovation he received might have been loud enough to hear on his farm.
Loss and sacrifice was a theme of much of the music, but the songwriters touched upon it without turning out soulful dirges. Instead, concertgoers were treated to a wide variety, including folk, blues, ’50s-style rock, and even a poetry reading. The process of “song by interview” appeared to forge new friendships between writer and farmer, even when the farmers didn’t think they’d shared anything worth singing about. It carried with it sacrifice of its own, as well: Mark Brown talked about how he had to meet Jack Schoonmaker at six in the morning in order to work around both of their schedules. “He makes good coffee,” Brown said of his host. The song that came of those meetings, “1680”, was named for the year the Schoonmaker family started farming in Accord, and captured some of that long history.
“The names and the faces of the families before
Their stories and children, the burdens they bore
Are plowed into the soil through the passing years
Now the fruit and the love of their labor stays here.”
Wayne Kelder, another honoree, said that he was asked by an RVGA member if he’d participate before the winter, and worked with Tom Holland over the winter. Kelder saw his family farm transition from dairy to vegetables when a fire destroyed both barn and herd, and Holland’s song “Salt and Smoke” gave a sense of the mix of fun and work that farming was for Kelder, weaving it together with the farmer’s love of flying.
Other farmers whose lives were commemorated in song were Frank Coddington, Rima Nickell, Joyce and Bill Wolklow, and Jackie Brooks; lifelong farm worker Eddie Cantine was honored with a poem entitled “You Catch More Flies with Honey.”