BRATTLEBORO -- When the Northern Roots Traditional Music Festival kicks off at noon this Saturday, Brendan Taaffe will be one of the first voices heard -- he shares leadership of the Song Panel with John Roberts, Tony Barrand, Flynn Cohen and Maeve Gilchrist.
The next weekend, Taaffe will share a local stage again, this time with a little more of the spotlight to himself.
On Friday, Feb. 3, the Bright Wings Chorus, a group of 10 strong singers Taaffe organized, will perform a CD release concert at Headroom Stages on Elliot Street at 7:30 p.m.
Though not part of the Northern Roots Festival, the show is a perfect follow-up, great for people for whom the festival wasn’t enough, and a great glimpse at a kindred style of traditional music that is alive and well and growing, thanks in part to Taaffe and the singers he’s gathered around him.
The CD, titled "Here Below," features 14 songs in the shape note tradition, 11 of which Taaffe composed.
Which begs an interesting question -- with hundreds of great traditional shape note tunes to draw from, why compose more?
"That’s the essential dilemma of creation. ... We’ve got plenty of great rock and roll songs and plenty of great sonatas, so why would we write new ones?" said Taaffe in a phone interview Tuesday, quickly answering his own question. "I don’t know exactly where they come from. I didn’t compose them ...they just sort of
Perhaps the real moment the songs on "Here Below" were born came in 1998, when Kate Brinton, Taaffe’s adoptive grandmother, took him to a Sacred Harp Convention in Chelsea, Vermont. There, in an old white clapboard church, with the sound ricocheting off the old tin walls, Taaffe’s world was rocked.
"We walk in, and there are 200 people singing for all their worth. What drew me to it was how participatory it is. ... To sing shape note music, you just need to show up."
So Taaffe did and found himself singing with Northern Harmony, and pursuing other musical interests -- he plays fiddle and guitar for listeners and contra dancers, has a master’s degree in traditional Irish music and leads Turtle Dove singing camps and workshops for adults.
In 2003, Vermont musician Pete Sutherland suggested he try writing a shape note song. Taaffe did, and that first one, "Chasm Lake," is one of the tracks on the CD.
Others followed, 10 of which appear on "Here Below."
"I think that’s an important sign of health for a tradition -- that people are still trying to play with the boundaries," he said.
It’s also why "Here Below" is not merely a CD, but part of a larger story of what’s happening in traditional music, particularly in Vermont, where people like Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, Tony Barrand, Mary Cay Brass, Larry Gordon and many others settled, crossed paths and breathed new life into old musical traditions.
"I’m just so aware and appreciative of the work that people have put in. Brattleboro has been this real focus point of not just maintaining but reviving the tradition of community singing," said Taaffe.
Now he and others in their 20s and early 30s, who spent time learning from these folks and singing together through Village Harmony camps and other gatherings have now joined in the work of breathing life into the tradition.
"Now it’s time to say we’re part of this. We’re going to carry it on," Taaffe said. "I don’t feel it’s an obligation, I’m doing it because I want to. It’s yet another sign of how valuable it is. ... I do feel both honored and proud to be part of carrying it on."
That work is also lots of fun.
To record "Here Below," Taaffe gathered 10 singers he knew from Northern Harmony, Village Harmony and other groups, including The Washed Up Beulah Band, The Starry Mountain Singers, Renewal and Mayfly, in a meetinghouse in East Montpelier last August. For two days, the singers rehearsed and enjoyed themselves thoroughly over fine meals with the wine flowing. On the third day, they recorded the songs in the church, usually needing no more than three takes to get it down.
"Those were some of the best days I’ve ever had," said Taaffe.
The result is a CD which hews close to the true spirit of shape note singing -- pure voices, raised joyfully together. There’s a plain, soulful sincerity to the songs, which stand solidly in place, like a good post-and-beam barn.
Bright Wings members include Adam Jacob Simon, Mason Gohl, Gideon Crevoshay, Wheaton Squier, Brendan Taaffe, Rachel Gordon, Addie Rose Holland, Katie Trautz, Julia Wayne and Emily Thompson.
Catch them for yourself at the CD release show on Friday, Feb. 3, at 7:30 p.m., at Headroom Stages. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors. Visit www.brendantaaffe.com.