Family heirlooms take all shapes: a pocket watch, a painting. For Robin MacArthur and her husband Tyler Gibbons, who form the folk duo Red Heart the Ticker, the family inheritance consists of an old house and lots of songs — both gifts from MacArthur's late grandmother, Margaret.
In the 1960s, Margaret MacArthur took on the task of collecting folk songs native to the backwoods of Vermont. She visited nursing homes and hospitals, all the while recording her collections on a Wollensak reel-to-reel. Her home during that time was a farmhouse built in 1803 in the woods of southern Vermont.
"My grandparents bought this house in the late 1940s," Robin MacArthur says. "And it was completely abandoned: The floors were all eaten by porcupines and the doors and windows were all broken, and they moved in here anyway, with their four children."
The home remains more or less the way Margaret left it at the time of her death: folk art on the walls, creaky wooden chairs in place and, of course, her instruments still adorning the rooms.
Margaret MacArthur was also a musician; she released nine albums before she died. The first, released by Folkways in 1962, was recorded on that same reel-to-reel at her own kitchen table. Nearly 50 years later, Red Heart the Ticker has continued that musical tradition. Not only does the band's latest album, Your Name in Secret I Would Write, feature some of the folk songs Margaret collected in the 1960s, but the album was also recorded in her old house, using her instruments.
"We ended up using her Martin guitar, a number of her dulcimers. ... What else? A few harps and zithers," Gibbons says. "Oh, of course, Margaret's fretless banjo."
The home is also where Margaret died. Lying on her deathbed, she couldn't remember anything but her songs.
"I was in the room with her when she died, as were many of her family members," MacArthur says, "and we were all holding her hands or her arms or part of her shoulders."
After her grandmother's death, MacArthur brought Margaret's recordings into this room and played them.
"And suddenly, here I was, sitting in this room," MacArthur says. "And her singing voice was loud and reverberant in the room around me, and it was this incredible spiritual moment where I realized she wasn't really gone."
Margaret's recordings are housed today in the Vermont Folklife Center. Archivist Andy Kolovos worked with MacArthur and Gibbons as they breathed new life into Margaret's songs through their new album.
"We love seeing our collections used, and we love seeing them used in ways that inject life into them, as opposed to having them just sit on a shelf," Kolovos says. "Robin and Tyler take traditional material and, with a deep respect for it, infuse it with the atmosphere of the period in time they're living in."
Gibbons says it's delicate work to make old songs new again.
"You know, the field recordings are largely just a cappella," Gibbons says. "And then Margaret's recordings are often just her voice and her dulcimer, or her guitar, so very sparse. We tried to bring in textures and sounds that could open up the song emotionally a little bit — and again, that's a tricky line to walk."
MacArthur says recording the album became a different kind of session than they were used to.
"Instead of finding dialogue with other contemporary artists, it's finding dialogue with the past," she says. "Which is an incredible way of kind of erasing time, at least momentarily — to bring the ghosts into the room with us."
Call it singing with ghosts or bringing back the dead. However you think about it, it's a rare thing to find company with those who have gone before. That experience is immortalized within Your Name in Secret I Would Write.