Old playbill keys concert revival: Nov. 18 show at Bombyx Center reimagines an 1873 show once staged at church

Tim Eriksen, in hat, joins singers at the Bombyx Center at a previous show. The Amherst musicologist has organized a Nov. 18 show there, inspired by an 1873 show in Florence.

Tim Eriksen, in hat, joins singers at the Bombyx Center at a previous show. The Amherst musicologist has organized a Nov. 18 show there, inspired by an 1873 show in Florence. Photo by Cedric Pilard

Tim Eriksen performing at a previous show at Bombyx Centerious show. The Amherst musicologist and multi-instrumentalist has organized a Nov. 18 show at the center that looks back to an 1873 concert at the Florence Congregational Church.  

Tim Eriksen performing at a previous show at Bombyx Centerious show. The Amherst musicologist and multi-instrumentalist has organized a Nov. 18 show at the center that looks back to an 1873 concert at the Florence Congregational Church.   Photo by Cedric Pilard

Violinist Angie Shyr will be one of about 30 performers at “Echoes of the Future Past,” a Nov. 18 concert that looks back to an 1873 concert at the Florence Congregational Church.

Violinist Angie Shyr will be one of about 30 performers at “Echoes of the Future Past,” a Nov. 18 concert that looks back to an 1873 concert at the Florence Congregational Church. Photo courtesy Tim Eriksen

Kora player, percussionist, and composer/vocalist John Hughes will be part “Echoes of the Future Past,” a Nov. 18 concert that looks back to an 1873 concert at the Florence Congregational Church.

Kora player, percussionist, and composer/vocalist John Hughes will be part “Echoes of the Future Past,” a Nov. 18 concert that looks back to an 1873 concert at the Florence Congregational Church. Photo courtesy of Tim Eriksen

Members of Mountain River Taiko, the Valley-based Japanese drumming ensemble, will be part of the Nov. 18 concert at the Bombyx Center.

Members of Mountain River Taiko, the Valley-based Japanese drumming ensemble, will be part of the Nov. 18 concert at the Bombyx Center. Photo courtesy of Tim Eriksen

A community music show means an all-ages show: Young students from the “Little Ukes” program at the Little Roots music school in Florence will also perform at the Nov. 18 Bombyx Center concert.

A community music show means an all-ages show: Young students from the “Little Ukes” program at the Little Roots music school in Florence will also perform at the Nov. 18 Bombyx Center concert. Photo courtesy of Tim Eriksen

Tim Eriksen, in hat, joins other singers at the Bombyx Center at a previous show. The Amherst musicologist and multi-instrumentalist has organized a Nov. 18 show at the Florence music and community center that looks back to an 1873 concert at the Florence Congregational Church.  

Tim Eriksen, in hat, joins other singers at the Bombyx Center at a previous show. The Amherst musicologist and multi-instrumentalist has organized a Nov. 18 show at the Florence music and community center that looks back to an 1873 concert at the Florence Congregational Church.   Photo by Cedric Pilard

The old playbill from the 1873 “Antique Concerte” that was discovered in the basement at the Bombyx Center, beneath the sanctuary of the Florence Congregational Church. 

The old playbill from the 1873 “Antique Concerte” that was discovered in the basement at the Bombyx Center, beneath the sanctuary of the Florence Congregational Church.  Image courtesy of Bombyx Center

The old playbill from the 1873 “Antique Concerte” that was discovered in the basement at the Bombyx Center, beneath the sanctuary of the Florence Congregational Church.

The old playbill from the 1873 “Antique Concerte” that was discovered in the basement at the Bombyx Center, beneath the sanctuary of the Florence Congregational Church. Image courtesy of the Bombyx Center

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 11-16-2023 2:40 PM

Modified: 11-17-2023 1:56 PM


When staff at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity, in the midst of doing renovations in the basement, came across a tattered but still readable playbill from a concert apparently staged at the property in 1873 — then known simply as the Florence Congregational Church — they weren’t sure what to make of it.

It was a handbill for what was called an “Antique Concerte,” announcing performers such as “Goodman W. L. Norton” and songs like “Sons of Zion Come Before Him” and “Anthem, Ode on Science.”

The mystery extended to the lettering in the bill, with the letter “s” sometimes looking like an “f,” as in documents from the colonial era, and an old-fashioned writing style that announced the show would take place at the “Congregat’l Meeting House On Pyne Streete.”

Cassandra Holden, executive director of Bombyx — located at 130 Pine Street in Florence — says the church’s former pastor, Irven Gammon, and his wife, Brenda Gammon, actually found the playbill and brought it to her attention.

Suspecting the event might have taken place at the church, Holden then turned to a local ethnomusicologist with a particular knowledge of New England’s music history — and from that research, a new concert has been forged that looks back to the past as well as to the future.

“Echoes of the Future Past: An Antique Concert on Pyne Street Reimagined,” which takes place at Bombyx Nov. 18, will bring over 30 performers to the Florence center to offer a range of music — old hymns and folk songs, Shape note singing, a bit of classical, fiddling, energetic drumming — in a spirit of community.

The 5 p.m. show has been organized by Tim Eriksen, the Amherst multi-instrumentalist, composer, and music historian who has earned national and international attention for reviving and reinterpreting older traditions, including Shape note singing, a harmony-rich, community style of music that became popular in 19th century America.

Eriksen, who’s performed previously at Bombyx and is a friend of Holden and other staff, said when Bombyx asked him to have a look at the crumpled playbill, he recognized much of the music and its composers straightaway, including material written by some 18th century composers from this region.

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“I’d studied some of this same material for my dissertation,” said Eriksen, who earned a Ph.D from Wesleyan University in 2015 and has taught music in a number of places, including at Dartmouth College this semester.

What the actual 1873 concert represented wasn’t quite as clear, but Eriksen had a good hunch: He says it was probably a variation on what were known as “Old Folks concerts,” community shows that became popular in New England in the 1850s and were based on music dating back as far as the late 18th century.

“These were basically organized by older people who wanted to revisit the music they’d first heard and sung when they were growing up, and which had largely disappeared” by the mid 1800s, Eriksen said.

He notes that the first such concert was staged in New Haven, Connecticut, after which the shows made their way up the Connecticut River Valley; Northampton was the fourth community to host one, Eriksen says.

“It was a kind of music that was really rooted to community and to place,” he added.

Holden agrees. “The 1873 performance was, in many ways, a community variety show,” she said in an email. “It wasn’t centered around sacred music or worship. It’s easy to forget that churches were used for secular performances and community gathering then … as now.”

The concerts could include a wide range of ages, children as well as elderly people, performing choral pieces, fiddle and folk music, and other arrangements. One of the pieces at the 1873 show in Florence was titled “Duo, Ye Violin & Big Music Box” — “box” meaning a small pump organ, Eriksen says.

The thematic link to the past could extend to performers appearing in period costume, while publicity for the shows might include the dated writing style and unorthodox spelling and capitalization that appears on the 1873 playbill.

For instance, the playbill notes that a certain “Goodman Stone,” the proprietor of “ye Big Tavern on ye main road to Williamsburgh, will supply all ye people who may be Hungerie with Pork & Beans, Rhyneinjun Bread also Good Cider.”

Past and present

Eriksen and Bombyx staff say that, 150 years after this past historical performance, the community center remains committed to honoring the legacy of the Florence Congregational Church, given it was founded by residents who opposed slavery and called for racial and sexual equality in the U.S.

“There is a real sense of history and community here, and this concert is part of that tradition, just as the 1873 concert was about looking back and honoring the past,” said Ericksen.

The Nov. 18 show restages some of the music from the 1873 performance, but it also adds more varied and modern touches to reflect musical tastes and approaches of the early 21st century, including here in the Valley.

As such, “Echoes of the Future Past” will include a Mozart piece by two string players from the Northampton Community Music Center and some old-fashioned choral hymns and ballads.

But there’s also a performance by members of Mountain River Taiko, the Valley-based Japanese drumming ensemble, and one by John Hughes, a Vermont composer/vocalist, percussionist, and kora player (a traditional stringed instrument from West Africa).

Meantime, Mia Friedman, who teaches at Little Roots, the Florence music school for children and families, will lead groups of her young students on both fiddle and ukulele.

“We want this to be a real reflection of the community, just like the show 150 years ago would have been,” said Eriksen, who will do Shape note singing with a group of Valley singers he’s worked with for years. (He said he might also perform separately on banjo or guitar.)

The concert, slated to run between 75 to 90 minutes, is free, but attendees are encouraged to make a donation. Eriksen says he’ll provide a short introduction, including a slide show, on the concert’s background.

And in keeping with the mention of victuals at the 1873 show, you can also sign up for a family-style dinner, modeled on that earlier meal, that will be served after the show and prepared by O’Brian Tomalin, of the former Northampton eatery Sierra Grille.

Concert performers will also be at that dinner to talk about the show. Tickets, which are limited, are $30 and can be purchased at bombyx.live.

The concert is presented in collaboration with a number of other local organizations, including the Northampton Arts Council, Historic Northampton, the Florence Congregational Church, and Beit Ahavah.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.