Thursday, May 25
MARLBORO -- Margaret MacArthur, renowned musical historian of Vermont traditional song, died Tuesday in her home. She was 78. See obituary, Page 14.

MacArthur grew up hearing traditional folk music, first in northern Arizona, later in Missouri, then in southern California. MacArthur moved to Vermont in 1948, and devoted much of the rest of her life to collecting, recording, preserving and performing this genre.

She was the recipient of numerous awards and commendations, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Vermont Arts Council in 2002 and was named a "New England Living Art Treasure," by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1985.

She was invited on several occasions to perform in Washington, D.C., by Vermont Sen. James Jeffords, most recently to sing at the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center last year.

"I am deeply saddened to learn that Margaret MacArthur has passed away," Jeffords said Wednesday in an e-mail. "Margaret was a wonderful teacher, collector and performer who helped us better understand and appreciate Vermont's musical history. Liz (Jeffords) and I will not soon forget Margaret's beautiful performance at the Library of Congress last summer. Vermont is lucky to have benefited from Margaret's great work."

MacArthur moved to Newfane in 1948 when her husband John took a teaching job at Marlboro College.


When she arrived, she bought two books about Vermont folk songs, the first of many she would collect.

By 1951, the couple had moved to Marlboro, and MacArthur and a friend had a weekly, live folk music show on local radio station WTSA.

In 1961, she was singing at local parties when Folkways Record Co. asked her to make a recording. While most of the songs she had been collecting were British, there was "one great, local song," she told the Reformer in a 2002 interview.

The lyrics to that song were written by a Brattleboro man and dated 1718. It indicated that it should be sung to the tune of "Black Joke."

MacArthur set the words -- lists of wares that peddlers brought into the colonial village of Marlboro -- to the tune. "The Marlboro Medley" became the backbone of her first recording, "Folksongs of Vermont."

"Now comes the Baskets & the Rakes/ Enough to supply the Thirteen States/ Besides a large pile of new made Chairs/ Pails, Pipkins & Tubs for washing and brewing/ Great wooden-platters to take up your stew in ..."

She went on to record eight more albums and compile two books, "How to Play the MacArthur Harp and All Numerical Harp-Zithers," which offered instruction starting with "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and moved on to more difficult pieces. She also authored "The Vermont Heritage Songbook," 40 songs about Vermont history, with the help of the state's schoolchildren.

MacArthur preferred not to be called an "entertainer." She called herself a "musical historian." She sang, accompanying herself on dulcimer and zither, but wanted the songs -- the stories -- to be the entertainment.

"I want (audiences) to see the songs as meaningful," she said in the 2002 interview. "It's a long thread of history."

Andy Kolovos, a folklorist and archivist at the Vermont Folklife Center, said Wednesday that there is not anyone right now who is carrying on her work in the way that MacArthur continued, in some ways, the work of Helen Hartness Flanders.

MacArthur, he said, was unique.

"She skirted that line of performer and researcher," he said.

But also, said Kolovos, "This kind of singing was deeply embedded in her family history." Contemporary folklorists like himself, said Kolovos, sometimes come at traditional art and music from a suburban background.

MacArthur was a friend of the FolkLife Center since its inception, said Kolovos.

"Our kinship with her was more than just performer and organization," said Kolovos.

In addition to collecting and performing songs, MacArthur made field recordings of Vermonters -- all this while raising five children.

Kolovos said the voices of her children could sometimes be heard in the background as she recorded someone in her kitchen. But by 1971, most of them were accompanying her in earnest; 1972's "On the Mountains High," featured he husband and all but one of her children.

She considered playing with her children one of her greatest and proudest accomplishments, she told the Reformer in 2002.

One son, John, lives in New Mexico; another, Patrick, died in 1995. But three of the children, Dan, Gary and Megan have raised their own families in Marlboro.

"She wasn't from Vermont," said Kolovos. "But she certainly is of this place."

Darry Madden can be reached at, or (802) 254-2311, ext. 273.