By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
It’s hard to say if Boston-area native Jeremy Carter-Gordon chose folk music, or if it chose him. But, ultimately, that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Carter-Gordon has made folk music an integral part of his life since childhood – which wasn’t all that long ago – and it has taken him on quite a journey, literal and otherwise.
Folk music is bringing Carter-Gordon back home this month, where he will perform as a member of close-harmony vocal quartet Windborne in the annual “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” production, which takes place Dec. 12-22 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College and other venues [see separate article].
“Sojourn” will be as much of a homecoming for Carter-Gordon’s fellow Windborneans, Lynn Mahoney Rowan, Will Thomas Rowan, and Lauren Breunig. All four were nurtured in the tight-knit, far-reaching New England folk music and dance community, which provides no shortage of mentoring and inspiration as well as opportunities to develop and showcase one’s talents.
“It’s very exciting for us to be part of the show – we all grew up listening to ‘A Celtic Sojourn,’” says Carter-Gordon, referring to Brian O’Donovan’s long-running radio programs, the template for the Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day “Celtic Sojourn” stage productions, both of which O’Donovan masterminds as well. “Brian is a great personality I’ve admired for a number of years, and we’re really looking forward to working with him and the other performers.”
“We’re delighted to have Windborne with us this year,” says O’Donovan. “There’s the generational aspect, for one thing: Jeremy, Lynn, Will, and Lauren all come from families actively involved in folk music and dance, and who passed along their love of those traditions to their children. And these four young people took it all to heart and have made something all their own, while retaining a deep respect for the music and what it represents.”
What’s more, O’Donovan points out, there is breadth as well as depth to Windborne’s reverence for folk music. They can call up songs from the British Isles or American folk traditions, and their repertoire also extends to Corsica, the Republic of Georgia, Quebec, Bulgaria, the Basque region of Spain, and other parts of the world. And they’re folklorists as much as they are folk singers: Not only do they sound perfectly comfortable and natural – without affectation or histrionics – in performing the songs, no matter the origin, they are able to explain the nature of these various kinds of music and the cultures from which it emerged.
But there’s another, crucial dimension to Windborne. They are adherents to folk music’s longtime association with social activism, in particular its ties to the labor and civil rights movements and others that champion the poor, the working class, and the disenfranchised.
Furthermore, Windborne sees its mission as education, not simply performance: They have given workshops and classes around the world in singing and vocal techniques, all the while putting the songs they teach in full historical and cultural context.
Their most recent project was to produce a CD, “Songs on the Time,” that features traditional and contemporary songs – including “Which Side Are You On?,” “Bread and Roses,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and the Rowans’ “Slave to Time” – that speak to social struggle. Accompanying the CD is a booklet with illustrated lyrics and sheet music for each song, along with essays penned by O’Donovan, filmmaker John Sayles, and retired Boston University faculty member and folksinger Tony Barrand, among others.
For the members of Windborne, performing, teaching and related activities are a way to pay forward what they received growing up from their parents and others in the folk community. Carter-Gordon, for one, cut his teeth in Revels, contra and morris dancing, and music and dance programs offered through the Country Dance and Song Society, Village Harmony and other, mainly New England-based organizations. In these kinds of settings, you learn almost as much during the “off-hours” – late-night jam sessions, singarounds on long walks or car or bus rides, or just a few hours with a friend or two relaxing by a serene pond.
“Growing up, just about everyone I knew seemed to be involved, or at least interested, in folk music and dance,” he says. “It just seemed perfectly natural to me. Then when I got into my teens, I began to realize that this was really a passion for me, and I wanted to get into it more.”
Carter-Gordon went on to study ethnochoreography in college, and at one point spent a yearlong fellowship doing a comprehensive survey of European sword dancing, eventually earning a master’s degree in dance anthropology.
Over the course of his manifold activities, naturally enough, Carter-Gordon got to know the Rowans and Breunig, all of who had their own youthful immersion in folk music and dance (Breunig’s father Fred, for example, is a well-known contra and English folk dance musician, as well as a performer in Nowell Sing We Clear, a long-running yuletide concert series). The Rowans formed Windborne as a duet and released their first album in 2008, a year before they married, with Breunig as a guest singer; over the next several years, Breunig and then Carter-Gordon joined the ranks – their first album as a quartet was recorded live in 2013.
The following year saw one of Windborne’s foundational experiences, as through the American Music Abroad program and the US State Department they embarked on a month-long odyssey as cultural ambassadors to Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Angola, touring with internationally known artists, performing at sold-out national theaters, and collaborating with traditional musicians in each country. They also taught music and dance workshops to schoolchildren, English-language learners, dance schools, choirs, and music conservatories.
“That was definitely an important part of our development as bandmates as well as friends,” says Carter-Gordon. “Will said that we had done not just really cool work, but good work – we could see that we had made a positive impact on people that we met. We just learned so much about music, and about ourselves.”
Another milestone for Windborne came earlier this year, through social media: They recorded a brief video of themselves singing “Song of the Lower Classes” (a populist song originating from 19th-century England) in front of Trump Tower, about a week before Donald Trump’s inauguration; it generated several thousand views on YouTube and caught the attention of O’Donovan, among others.
Windborne, however, does not define itself by the politics of the moment, says Carter-Gordon, who notes that their “Songs on the Time” project was coming together well before the 2016 election.
“Like everyone else, we four certainly react to what’s in front of us,” says Carter-Gordon. “But the issues of social, economic and racial equality, and justice have been a concern for many, many years, and you can hear that in a lot of the songs we sing. For example, take ‘A Song on the Times’ – it dates back to the 1840s, but the words resonate today: ‘The world seems upside down/They scorn the poor man/As a thief in country or town.’
“In a way, it might seem depressing that, after all this time, we’re still singing about these things. But there is such power in the music – it can comfort, it can give hope, it can inspire. That’s what we try to get across to people, and they respond very positively to the music and what it’s saying.”
Performing at “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” will be a very pleasant hearkening-back to Revels and other holiday-themed events for Carter-Gordon and his Windborne mates. It also will be an interlude of sorts before what figures to be another busy year of touring, performing and teaching for the quartet.
“We’ll have all sorts of opportunities to build connections and collaborations around the world,” he says. “And that’s how we look at ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn,’ too – we’re very excited to be part of this event.”
See wgbh.org/celtic for more details on “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.”
By Sean Smith