"This man John Brown is real," said the comedian and social critic Dick Gregory addressing the nearly 300 people attending John Brown Day 2013 commemoration held at the State Historic Site on Saturday, May 11.
"Every year on my birthday October 12th I go to Harper's Ferry, and every 2nd of December I go to Charles Town, West Virginia and hug the tree next to where John Brown was hung. I hug the tree for the white man who gave up his life for a black man. John Brown took his two sons with him. Then the whole world changed thanks to John Brown. I came here to say thank you. On the ride up from Albany my driver pointed out all the trees you have here, this vast forest that surrounds us. There are trees all over the world. Lots of other places have trees. What they do not have that you have here is John Brown."
The 2013 commemoration began the night before for an audience of over 550 attending the world premiere of "Voices of Timbuctoo: An Abolition Oratorio" composed by Glenn McClure and performed by the newly established Northern Lights Choir directed by Helen Demong. Held at St. Bernard's Church in Saranac Lake, the 65 plus member choir was pulled together especially for this event. The lyrics were based on research conducted by historian Amy Godine on the African-American Free Blacks who moved here to accept land offered by Gerrit Smith as a down payment towards their earning the right to vote. This research laid the foundation for the now traveling exhibit Dreaming of Timbuctoo, recently installed at the Adirondack Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison located in Ray Brook.
Alan Weeks leads the S.T.O.P. dancers on May 11 during John Brown Day 2013 at the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid.
Photos/Naj Wikoff/Lake Placid News
The research, exhibit, oratorio, and commemoration at John Brown's Farm were all inspired, facilitated and made possible by the vision and energy of Martha Swan, founder and director of John Brown Lives!, a collaborator extraordinaire. To her, and her board's great credit, many of these projects take on a life of their own. As an example it was the librarian Suzanne Orlando at the correctional facility who decided to go after the grants and seek permission for the exhibit to be held there, and Helen Demong who decided to create a massed choir as a means of presenting the oratorio.
"Martha talked to Glen would you ever compose a piece of music for John Brown Day," said Helen Demong of the oratorio's beginnings. "He called me and asked if I'd create a new choir, and I said I would. I put out a call having no idea how many would come. Over 70 responded coming from Malone to Elizabethtown all over the North Country. They range in ages from 16 to 80. We rehearsed once a week."
Another of Swan's great collaborators has been Brendan Mills, site manager of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site. Together, with other valued colleagues and volunteers, they have brought John Brown out of the grave, so to speak, and re-ignited his voice as well as the voices of Black Americans, well known and unknown, who played a critical role in the daunting effort to end slavery and address many pressing issues of our time.
"The oratorio was fantastic," said Brendan Mills. "That Gerrit Smith's and the settler's experiment would result in a song so many years later is amazing. John Brown loved singing. He would have loved this. I wonder what the settlers of Timbuctoo would think if they could hear it now, especially Lyman Epps who was a musician."
"I'm elated," said Martha Swan. "I'm thrilled. I'm blown away. I saw Glen and Helen in action in Silver Bay several years ago. I said, Ohhh, I want to work with them."
"I was astonished to see the line-up outside," said Glen McClure after the opening concert. "The turnout is a testament to the spirit of this place and the commitment that Martha and Helen have to the community and its sense of place."
"I didn't know what quotes from the text he would use," said historian and researcher Amy Godine. "He's the songwriter, but I could not have picked better ones. He has a nose for the essence of the story."
Another example of the Timbuctoo and John Brown story was historian Kate Clifford Larson's eloquent discussion at the farm of the deep friendship and respect by Captain John Brown and General Harriet Tubman for each other.
"Harriet Tubman inspired John Brown and he inspired her," said Larson. "I can't underestimate how powerful his message was to her, her family and all the settlers who took the perilous journey north. Tubman demanded of other people that they act on their beliefs. In John Brown she found a man who did. After he died she demanded of people that they finish the unfinished business he started. Throughout her life she dreamed of a tall man with a white beard and two sons. When she met John Brown she recognized him as the person of her dreams."
"On her deathbed Harriet Tubman said I made only one mistake in my life and that was not to be with John Brown when he went to Harper's Ferry," said Dick Gregory. "Frederick Douglas said, John Brown you are crazy. Sometimes it is good to be crazy."
"I was so moved to be a part of this," said Alice Kesey Mecoy, great, great, great granddaughter of John Brown. "I feel so speechless. It was so moving to hear Kate Larson describe the friendship between John Brown and Harriet Tubman."
"What is so good about the other places, Harper's Ferry and Charles Town, is they are where the action was," said Gregory. "But one day this site, this farm, will be one of the most famous places in the world. It may take 1,000 years, but John Brown the world changed when he died. He gave up his life for me. He gave up his life for a black man. He gave up the lives of two of his sons for people like me. Can you imagine? Nobody, not even Jesus, has done that."
The Voices of Timbuctoo oratorio is part of a series of new musical compositions that explore the meaning of emancipation, and is part of a new Musical Freedom Trail that began on Martin Luther King Day Weekend in Birmingham, Al, visit emancipationagain.com/category/music-freedom-trail/. Next up at the John Brown's Farm is Juneteenth, the annual celebration of the ending of slavery in the United States that will take place on June 22. News about John Brown Lives! Upcoming events are available on Facebook.