This is the story of a documentary currently in the making about this festival. The film above is directed and produced by Noted documentary filmmaker Jim Whitney.
The Sweet Chariot Music and Art Festival takes place on Swans Island, in the heart of Acadia National park, a remote island with no restaurant, no general store and no place to stay. The three-day event draws a family of musicians, poets and artists from across the world since two decades.
The opulence wealth of the nearby continent, its chorus charged with history, its notes disembarked from all the old boats, and the scent of the sea, melodies filled with compasses, random voices of the winds…Music on port and starboard.
Several autumns ago, a group of artists have decided to take the sea and with their most beautiful voices, to marry the very traditional American folk with the misty tales of the harbor taverns. Then, the crew became bigger, the water less troubled, the voices louder…to share the adventure, they organized a festival, the Sweet Chariot music and art festival.
Here is what Susan Axelrod from Maine Magazine wrote a few years ago about the festival’s story:
“From in and around the old white farmhouse on Swan’s Island, a melodic hum floats on the warm August Breeze. A fiddle player lounges in the grass, picking out a tune, while someone naps in a hammock on the porch. Inside, the remains of a cold buffet lunch are on the kitchen island, and a group of singers is clustered around an upright piano in the front parlor. In the barn, two young men perch on milk crates—one strumming a dobro, the other a standard guitar—jamming with banjo player Bob Lucas as he sings the refrain of a North Carolina bootlegger’s song: “And the lamb will lay down with the lion, after drinking that old moonshine.”
“Come into my office,” Day says with a grin, ushering me into a plastic chair under an apple tree while he sprawls in a wooden wheelbarrow. Day proceeds to tell us about the event he has put every summer for almost 30 years now. For its relatively large size and proximity to the mainland—six miles—Swans is short on amenities. There are no hotels, restaurants, or even places to camp, just a handful of rooms at bed and breakfasts and one small general store (which does not sell alcohol), with an adjacent snack shack. Working with a small budget, about half from subsidized ticket sales and half from modest gifts, Day makes arrangements for the 30-plus performers to be housed in private homes. Many of them have been part of the festival for decades and see their annual visit as more of a chance to play together than a working gig. “The best audiences for musicians are other musicians,” Day says. “The limits that the remote location impresses, the isolation of the island and the gathering of poets, musicians and artists creates a very powerful, colorful and visual painting of portraits in music, frozen in time.”
A majority of the festival attendees are island residents, and the rest arrive by boat, notably members of Maine’s schooner fleet, which include Swan’s Island on their schedule of overnight stops during festival week. The three nights of performances at the island’s 225-seat Odd Fellows Hall always sell out. mall boats, and kayaks. The remoteness contributes to the soulfulness and the magic of it, the trigger to address the history of sea shanties and its maritime history.
Despite the glamourous aspect of the remote island and its cohort of musicians, the after parties hold the magic of the festival; the acoustic stage outside on the back deck with the banjo players and the fiddlers and the mandolin players; who carry on up to two or three o’clock in the morning. Folkloric music is poetry, is modern literature in sound, we use the festival and its multitalented cohort of musicians, playwrights, poets, painters to talk about its roots, its history and the predominance importance of arts and culture in our lives.
Day calls out to Lucas, strolling out of the barn with his banjo, to contribute to the conversation. “Every year we draw from each other’s collective juice, because it takes a lot to get here—time, money, energy, organization,” says Lucas, who lives in Ohio and has traveled to the island with his wife, daughter, and baby grandson. “Others, like Bob [Lucas], have put serious currency in the soul bank to make this happen,” says Day. “Because soul matters so much to us artists,” Lucas replies, chuckling. “If you ain’t got soul, you ain’t got nothing. Now we got to go sing on a boat.”
The rehearsal gradually breaks up, and we meet an eager group on a dock in Burnt Coat Harbor, where the 32-foot brigantine Redbird is tied up. The ship’s owner and captain, Daisy Nell, and her partner, Stan Collinson, known as Captain Stan, invite us aboard. Both are musicians from Massachusetts, where Nell founded the Gloucester Schooner Festival. We recognize the two guitarists who were playing with Lucas in the barn, Magnus Ferguson and Cody Gibson; together with fiddler Reid Jenkins they make up the Morningsiders, one of the newer groups to join the festival, young Morningsiders are notorious on the NYC new music renaissance scene. Jenkins is a second-generation participant; along with his parents, Richard and Sandy, and sisters, Stephanie and Cassandra, all musicians, he has performed at Sweet Chariot since he was a child – we see him perform on stage as a six-year-old as he reminisce about his first festival. As soon as we pull away from the dock, Nell leads the group into their first shanty, “I thought I heard the old man say, John Kanaka-naka-tu-lai-e,” accompanied by a drum and tambourine. We glide past the crew and passengers of two schooners, the American Eagle and the Lewis R. French, and weave through other boats at anchor. All the while a band of smaller craft—kayaks, paddleboards, and a little gaff rig dinghy— trails us like a flock of ducklings. Standing amidships on the Redbird, Geoff Kaufman, who runs the annual Sea Music Festival at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, pulls out a squeezebox and launches into a rousing version of “Strike the Bell,” with everyone chiming in mightily on the chorus. We wrap up the magical experience with Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” as Nell steers the Redbird back to shore.
Out of this river of sound, sweet and precious melodies, will emerge the story of the Nouvelle France, its Acadian and maritime history, we will address the history of Maine and its French influence over the past centuries, an influence that is still very present in the folklore tradition of the island.
A short while later, we arrive at the Swan’s Island Odd Fellows Hall, which is festooned with hand-lettered banners announcing the festival. We’ve been invited to join the musicians for a pre-performance dinner, prepared by a brigade of volunteers. It seems as if everyone on the island contributes to the festival in some way, by housing performers, cooking, or driving the school bus that brings schooner passengers and island residents to the hall for the evening shows. Dinner is a colorful buffet of baked cod, red beans and rice, coleslaw, corn, and mango and black bean salsa, followed by one more rehearsal before ticket holders arrive. In the second-floor performance space, local artist Buckley Smith has started painting a mural on a piece of canvas stretched across the back wall of the stage; he will continue to add to the piece, which depicts this year’s festival theme—gypsies and mermaids—as part of the evening’s performance. We give him the stage as images of his poetic and dreamy flying schooners create yet another strong visual enchantment to our narration and approach to the nautical element of the story.
The story continues opening with a Mardi Gras-Esque procession, led by Richard Jenkins on the trumpet. Kaufman swaps boisterous sea shanties for a melodic ballad, accompanied by Eric Kilburn on mandolin. All the performers gather on stage to finish with what Day calls a “final hippie hymn,” led by Dean Stevens and inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Oh children, don’t you weary. Walk together; believe in the dream. When the way gets rough, we’ll make a new way. Let justice roll down like a mighty stream.”
The night air is soft, but it’s dark on the island, the musicians are grateful for the trail of candlelit luminaries lining the driveway to guide them to the afterparty. Musicians are jamming around a piano and on the back-deck jamming, smiling, connecting, and relishing the time together to exchange hymns, poetry and stories from another time. Dillon Bustin takes us on a final journey in the stars with his adaptation of a R.W. Emerson poem “teach me your moods, Oh Patient stars” and delivers a final message on poetry, love and life. “
You can find a few Video Clips of these various films on youtube. Here are a few talented musician who have a presence online.
Jennifer Armstrong is a woman who travels through Art and time. A storyteller, bagpiper, fiddle virtuoso, poet and songwriter coming from several generations of talented performers.
If you have the chance to see her perform, do not miss the opportunity for any reason. More on http://www.jenniferarmstrong.com/
Bill Burnet is a world class songwriter, an award-winning wordsmith and a storyteller. He writes funny songs, love songs, kids’ songs, theme songs, ballads and jingles. Lately, he started a weekly show on-line with a new song/video every week.
Dillon Bustin is a folklorist, singer/songwriter, filmmaker, and playwright. After obtaining a degree in Folklore and Anthropology at Indiana University, he returned to his native Massachusetts with a wealth of great songs from the Ohio River area, including the oft-recorded “Shawneetown,” “Bayou Sara,” and “Cranberry Bogs.” Dillon is also known for his theatrical musicals which include “Walden Pond Revisited,” “Come Life, Shaker Life: The Spiritual Quest of Isaacar Bates” and a number of productions based on characters from the history of Martha’s Vineyard.
The latter form a trilogy called “Tidebook: an Island Rhapsody” which is comprised of “Tallman at the Dock,” “The Captain’s Daughters” and “The Journeys of Joshua Slocum.”
Amongst other activities, Dillon is also a film director. Unfortunately, his work is extremely hard to find. His latest CD is out of stock, his films are not available anywhere and his books are out of print…Where can you find his work? If you are lucky, you could try writing to him and order the new release of “Almanach”, one of Dillon’s album.
Here is a little Video I shot during Sweet Chariot Music festival some years ago.
Liza Constable sails and sings for a living. As a woman of many talents, she can do it all. She has mastered the fiddle, composes beautiful songs, is the mother of two beautiful souls, speaks French, cooks, writes and has an amazing sense of humor.
You can sense all of this in her music and poetry.
On her web site, you will find Rumblestrip, her latest album and a CD store to order after you have listened to her pretty voice. http://www.lizaconstable.com
Douglas Day is the captain of many boats. Not only he sail Placentia, a beautiful schooner on the coast of Maine from his house on Swans Island, as the fantastic founder, and director of the Sweet Chariot Music and Art Festival. A song writer, a funny cartoonist and a pirate. Here is a little performance I shot some years ago with my old Sony Hi8 camera, Douglas Day and David Dodson performing a Doug Day Song “What I see”… Unfortunately the quality of video and sound is poor…But still..it’s there…
David Dodson David Dodson writes great songs that run the gamut of American styles-folk, rock, blues, jazz and country. They cover a variety of topics and range from poignant to hilarious. He plays a mean guitar, tells a good story, sings like a bird, and he’s got rhythm. Who could ask for anything more?
He has shared the stage with K D Lang, Bill Staines, Ramblin Jack Elliot, Gordon Bok, Dougie MacLean, The Persuasions, Greg Brown, Joe Ely, Marcia Ball, Sha Na Na, Chicago, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. He was a winner of the “New Folk” contest at the Kerrville Folk Festival.
More on David here http://www.daviddodsonmusic.com
Ritt Henn has played bass for all sorts of famous folks. Among these are Chuck Berry, Buddy Rich, Tom Jones and Margaret Whiting. When I first met him, I was jealous because he was an inch taller than me, then I was jealous because he could play the bass like a master, then I was jealous because he had the coolest friends in the world and everyone wanted him in his band, then I was jealous because he wrote the funniest tunes and he could sing in rhythm. I could go on about the guy and why I love him. Go and check him out for yourself.
Bob Lucas a genius musical troubadour. Bob Lucas is not only a beautiful poet, a multi instrumentalist talented musician, and a soul that commands respect when you are lucky enough to cross his path, hear his fiddle tunes, his banjo rhythm, or his guitar melodies. If you are lucky, you might listen to him master these instruments with Chloe Manor, his daughter or Austin, his talented son.
Bob plays original songs, old-time music, and writes musical plays for his theatre company, Mad River Company. (more on mad river by clicking here).
To listen without moderation. This important song was recorded in 2008 on the coast of Maine :
Austin Lucas. The son of Bob Lucas is no exception. Here you have the same blood, the same talent. It is as simple as that. Austin is a guitar virtuoso, a talented musician and a fun guy! Both he and his father create sticky tunes, melodies that once heard, do not go away. These are songs that stay with you and that you find yourself humming in the street. This is the album that was recorded at Bob’s house in Ohio. It is a masterpiece created by Austin Lucas, his father and Chuck Ragan.
Dean Stevens. Along with the other musicians of this list, Dean has a special place in the heart of everyone who has been fortunate enough to meet him. Not only is he a wonderful songwriter and an overtalented guitar player, but he is also a missionary of love.Dean spends part of his time in Guatemala helping the people of his community to live a better life and writes beautiful hymns to simple life stories. The release of his latest album «At Last» is a beautiful collection of songs that I could only advise the reader to acquire as soon as possible. More on Dean : http://www.deanstevens.com
This song I recorded on Swans Island a couple of years ago is one of my favourite song from Dean Stevens, “Old Man in his garden” :
“Part chanteuse, part comedian, part bona fide pop artist…and a voice that could stop a war”. Teresa Tudury is an absolute original. From her San Francisco roots to the Greek Islands to New York and LA, she wakes up in the music scene. Teresa creates a loyal following and raving reviews wherever she performs. If you are lucky enough to go and see her perform, do not miss the opportunity. http://www.teresatudury.net
Alan Thornhill. Alan’s album was nominated Album of the Year in 2008 and received the Mavric Music award. This is a well-deserved prize for one of the most beautiful guitar players that one can have the pleasure of listening to. “Guitarpenter’s dream” captures the warmth and melody of Alan’s playing along with the occasional crackle of the fireplace of his house in Ojai. http://alanthornhill.com/music/
When Alan plays and you close your eyes, some say that you can share his dreams.
The one and unique Suzy Williams performing on the Sweet Chariot stage.
Mr Bob Willougby.
Not to be mistaken with the famous homonym photographer, Mr. Bob Willougby is his equivalent in the music world. Accomplished fiddler and piano player Mr. Willoughby can play anything from Jazz to soul to folklorist music. He plays guitar and piano and has a voice that is deep and unique
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