Only the Message Mattered: Songwriter Bob Warren brings Susan B. Anthony to life
Back in 2006, between the Town of Greenwich bicentennial (2003) and the village of Greenwich bicentennial (2009), librarian Claudia Blackler and educator/singer Debi Craig had an idea. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have local singer/songwriter, Bob Warren, write a composition about Susan B. Anthony, her life in Battenville, and her suffrage activities? Funds were obtained, research was conducted, and Bob began writing.
On August 8, 2009, at the VFW pavilion on Abeel Ave in Greenwich, I got to hear Only the Message Mattered: A Song Cycle Honoring Susan B. Anthony for the first time. As a suffrage historian and singer myself, I was so excited to be at this performance. I was also the appointed Historian for the Town of Greenwich at that time. I was so moved at the music, and the sentiment, and the activism. Plus, some of the songs are so singable! Seriously, you will walk around singing the title track, or catch yourself humming "A House On the River".
“Bob Warren delivers a poignant musical exploration into the life and spirit of Susan B. Anthony with Only the Message Mattered. Mr. Warren takes listeners on a journey that is as significant spiritually as it is socially. With its breathtaking harmonies and hauntingly beautiful melodies, the music is seamlessly interwoven with historical dialogue that leaves audiences of all ages and genders informed and enlightened.” Katie Horn-Scarpulla, Program Director, TriCounty Arts Council, Cobleskill, NY
OTMM has been performed a handful of times since its debut in 2009, and I was lucky enough to see it performed again in 2011 at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY where Anthony spoke at an 1894 suffrage rally. But, being that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, we at the Folklife Center thought it apropos to feature a performance of the song cycle in our Spring 2020 round of Live! Folklife Concerts. Thank goodness the performance went off without a hitch on March 5, 2020 just before the New York State lockdown for COVID-19!
Bob asked me to say a few words to open the evening. I decided to quote Islay V.H. Gill's book The Greenwich Community of 1850 which was published in 1953 by The Greenwich Journal, setting the scene for song cycle to begin. The final paragraph is my own.
"The Greenwich community is not to be bounded by town or village lines... A Practical definition of the area is: the townships of Greenwich and Easton with such part of the township of Argyle as lies south of the Street road, and such parts of the townships of Jackson and Cambridge as lie westerly of the summits of the Colfax range of hills which divide the Battenkill valley from the Cambridge valley. All of this area has some of its social relations with Greenwich. As these boundaries are determined by natural obstacles, the Hudson river and the Colfax hills by distance and by availability by road, they are the same today as they have been from the beginning of the community.
"Greenwich lies in a backwater of upstate New York close to the Vermont border. It is off the main lines of communication and has no outstanding importance in the American scene. But it is typical of thousands of other rural, small communities throughout America in which reside a large fraction of the population of the United States. Such communities are slow to change, their population alters but gradually, the old families persist...
"Such communities are not backward for they are alert to learn new ideas, and new ways of doing. However, they weight the new ideas, and new ways of doing before accepting them, and have thus avoided much folly. Their influence has been conservative but not reactionary. They tend to preserve the best of older standards of ethics, political philosophy and good manners. This has not been their only contribution to American progress for, besides providing food and factory products, they have been a seed-bed for leadership. Continually the best of their youth is skimmed off to the larger centers. From such small communities have some leaders in all lines of activity in numbers far greater than their population would warrant." (Gill, 1953)
We are here tonight to honor one such leader who, as Islay Van Horn Gill so put it, "skimmed off to the larger centers". From the hamlet of Battenville where she spent most of her childhood, Susan B. Anthony moved on to the larger centers, travelling the country, first lecturing on temperance, but turning to women's rights and equal suffrage by the mid-1850s. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Anthony's birth, but more importantly, marks the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, her main purpose for over half a century. In her honor, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution is often referred to as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
As with all of the Live! Folklife Concerts, Kevin Rogan & Todd DeGarmo filmed the performance, and it is now available to view in its entirety, on our YouTube channel. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. This performance features: Bea Roman (voice), Iris Rogers (voice), Brittany Toth (voice), Olivia Weeden (cello), Bob Warren (piano).
And now, Bob Warren's Only the Message Mattered.
0:00 Tisha Dolton's Introduction*
3:48 Bob Warren's Introduction
6:52 Only the Message Mattered performance
44:52 Patricia Nugent's Closing
*The Champlain Valley Suffrage Auto Tour mentioned in the beginning has been rescheduled to Summer of 2021 due to large gathering restrictions set by NY State due to COVID-19.
Gill, I. V. (1953). The Greenwich Community of 1850. Greenwich, NY: Greenwich Journal.
Tisha Dolton is Librarian/Historian at The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, NY. Her areas of interest are suffrage music, suffragists of Warren and Washington Counties, local women and minority populations, and embroidery.
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