Fraser family of Harrisville a folk music powerhouse

Varick Chittenden

Varick Chittenden

It was the winter of 2005 when I first met the Frasers. To write a story with a St. Patrick’s Day theme, John Golden, at the time a Watertown Daily Times columnist, had been invited to the Fraser home in Harrisville for a rehearsal for the upcoming St. Patrick’s dinner at the St. Francis Solanus Catholic Church.

For nearly 10 years, the Frasers provided the entertainment, their gift to their home parish. John knew of our interest at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York in all kinds of traditional activities in our region. Shortly after his visit, he called to urge me to see and hear the Fraser family as soon as I could. On the night of the dinner, my old friend and music enthusiast Paul Fischer and I trekked to Harrisville to do exactly that.

“Wow!” I said to Paul, as we left the church basement after a good meal and lots of good music. “These folks are the real McCoy. Aren’t they great?”

New to both of us, we completely agreed that these musicians were no ordinary home-grown talent. This was the extended Fraser family, all 15 or so of them, and they had regaled the 200-plus of us diners for a couple of hours with songs they clearly loved to sing.

There were sea chanteys, work songs, tragic and comic ballads, barroom ditties—a collection that reflected generations of the family’s fidelity to their Scottish and Irish roots, as well as their love of both the Adirondacks and their ancestral home in Cape Breton. Paul and I were convinced that we had found another north country treasure and we wanted to know more.

Later that year, on a warm summer evening, I once again had the chance to see and hear them, this time when they were getting together just for the fun of it. It was the first of many to follow.

We gathered in the large room appended to Don and Ethel Fraser’s mobile home on Lower Maple Street in Harrisville, just across from the big old house where they grew up.

Known to all as “Dad’s den,” it had been Don’s favorite place of all. Kim Fraser Young has told me: “When Dad wasn’t out there playing music, he was listening to it. There have been so many different people gathered in that room, I couldn’t name or count them all. His friend, Art Hill, played the fiddle, and they spent a lot of time out there. His brother, Rod, sang and wrote songs, and he was also a regular. Of course, all of the kids, grandkids, friends of kids, etc. flocked there as well. My parents loved to have people around.” The room is big enough for a great party and there have been lots of them — fish fries, birthday celebrations, and, of course, music.

For me, that night was magic. Not only was the singing and playing wonderful, but great stories and spontaneous dancing filled the evening. Joy and laughter flooded the room and spilled out into the night air. Under the watchful eye of octogenarian Ethel, three generations of Frasers, and a few musical in-laws and friends, were keeping the family heritage alive and well and really enjoying it. Like the concert for friends at the church, this was the relaxed atmosphere they love best. They sang for at least three hours and I’m convinced they could have gone on all night. I was hooked on their music and on them.

Folklore

This remarkably musical family is most at home at home. For the Frasers, home or the houses or camps of nearby family and friends is their den. So also is their church in Harrisville, the local Grange Hall and Historical Museum, and, as time has gone on, the senior citizens center and nursing homes in nearby Lowville. For many years now, home has also been the fishing camp they visit for a few weeks each summer on Meat Cove in Nova Scotia, where they renew their musical heritage with old family friends who live by the sea.

In the years since our first meeting, the family has gathered occasionally to sing and play for the public — at the Edwards Opera House, St. Lawrence University, the Clayton Opera House, and, for several years, the annual North Country Goes Green Irish Festival in Watertown. With their busy lives and the complications of getting such a large group together for rehearsals and performances, they can’t do such performances often.

But to everyone’s delight, in 2010 the family finally recorded an album of 16 of their favorite songs, called Home of our Hearts: Fraser Family and Friends, produced by TAUNY. It includes traditional gems like “Farewell to Nova Scotia” and “Loch Lomond,” and several compositions in the traditional style, including one, “Cape Breton Breeze,” written and sung by the eldest brother, Rod.

That willingness to share their music with others, their deep commitment to the traditional music of their ancestors and the interest they’ve engendered in their children and grandchildren for these traditions go right to my folklorist’s head.

But it’s the delicious lyrics and music of their repertoire, the sweetness and rich harmony of their voices and the charismatic charm of their group gatherings that go to my heart.

Varick Chittenden is senior folklorist and director of special projects for Canton-based Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at SUNY Canton. He lives in St. Lawrence County.