May 9, 2013

His spirit marches on

By ROBIN CAUDELL Press-Republican

---- — LAKE PLACID — The former presidential candidate’s beard bristles like John Brown’s, and his political views, for some, are as fiery as the 19th century martyred abolitionist.

Richard Claxton Gregory, better known as Dick Gregory, is a visionary and/or madman to some like Brown, but the comedian/author/social activist’s stance, right or wrong, is as unequivocal.

Saturday at John Brown Day 2013 in Lake Placid, Gregory is the keynote speaker and presents “Relive the Past, Think About the Future.”

The program also features Kate Clifford Larson, a Harriet Tubman biographer who is speaking on the friendship between the “Moses of her people” and the Harpers Ferry raid leader. 

Historically, Brown is either lionized or demonized.

“What he did … a white man willing to die and kill for me,” said Gregory, who lives in Plymouth, Mass. “If I write down 100 of the incredible people in the world, including Jesus, John Brown is No. 1. Jesus was sent here to die for our sins. John Brown took that on his own. He had to sit and watch his two children die. It was something special about that raid.”

In mid-October 1859, Brown and 19 raiders stormed the Harpers Ferry Arsenal before succumbing to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry commanded by Brevet Col. Robert E. Lee.

Brown’s intimates included famed orator Frederick Douglass and the iconic Underground Railroad conductor Tubman.

Douglass told Brown he was “walking into a perfect steel trap, and you will never get out alive.” Brown hoped to rendezvous with Tubman before the raid, but she was ill.

“When Harriet Tubman was on her dying bed, she said, ‘The one wish I had in my life was to be there at Harpers Ferry and die with John Brown,’” Gregory said.

“When the universal force picks you, it leaves no footprint. The planet would not be the same today if it hadn’t been for John Brown.”

Union Army soldiers marched to “John Brown’s Body.”

“They were not singing nationalistic songs but about one man who went against the government,” Gregory said. “The most important thing that came out of it was the power of fear. Can you imagine when he did that? Not just white America, everybody thought about 100,000 slaves with guns. That broke that back. That’s when everything changed … I think the abolitionist movement was the greatest movement in the history of the planet.”

On Saturday, Gregory walks the John Brown Farm State Historic Site where Brown farmed and is buried. 

There, Helen Demong directs the Northern Lights Choir performing excerpts from “Voices of Timbuctoo,” an abolition oratorio composed by Glenn McClure. Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives!, conversed with McClure, a professor at the Eastman School of Music, about composing an original work for the annual event.

“He was writing a series of works in 2013 that coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Demong, former Saranac Lake High School choral director. “He wrote this particular oratorio called ‘Voices of Timbuctoo’ with a special slant.”

Nineteenth-century philanthropist/abolitionist Gerrit Smith gave away land to black men in 1846. To vote in New York, “men of colour” needed a three-year state residency and to “possess a freehold estate of the value of two hundred and fifty dollars, over and above all debts and incumbrances charged thereon,” according to Article II, Section 1, of the Second Constitution of New York, 1821. A land speculator, Smith gave away about 120,000 acres in eight counties so black men could vote. He also gifted land to disenfranchised white men.

Black land grantees farmed several areas in the state including North Elba. Smith encouraged Brown to support their settlement, Timbuctoo.

“He (McClure) set text for this oratorio, and we now have a 25-minute oratorio, four choral movements and three solo movements,” Demong said.

McClure asked her to assemble a choir. She put out a call and hoped for 40 to 50, and got 70. 

“This is a group of people ranging in age from 16 to 80 years old — high-school students, college students, alumni from Saranac Lake High School. This has become a trans-generational choir,” Demong said.

Each oratorio movement opens up the settlers’ story. The movements are “Vote They Will,” “What a Man,” “The Sharpe Axe,” “The Life of a Farmer,” “There is More to the Matter” and “Ride a Mile or Two.”

“Throughout, you see the vision of how the settlement was planned, how these black settlers came up to the Adirondacks trying to make a life for themselves,” Demong said.

The final movement is “Under Our Own Vine.”

“It is expressing the hope of living under our own vine and fig tree. It’s a contemporary-classical piece of music with African influences with percussion and cello,” she said.

The choir features two Metropolitan Opera veterans, soprano Marsha Andrews and bass George Cordes.

“Marsha is coming from New York City. George lives in Tupper Lake with his family now,” Demong said.

Friday evening, there is a Musical Freedom Trail world premiere of the oratorio at St. Benard’s Church in Saranac Lake.

“This will be a full concert where I have the Northern Lights Choir sing four classical-choral pieces for the first half of the concert,” Demong said. “Songs like ‘Oh Captain, My Captain,’ a rousing piece of music set to Walt Whitman’s poem; a spiritual called ‘True Light’; ‘This Is My Song,’ from ‘Finlandia’ by Sibelius; and ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ the famous version arranged by (Peter) Wilhousky. There is a short intermission. The second half premiers ‘Voices of Timbuctoo.’”

Email Robin

IF YOU GO WHAT: John Brown Day 2013, featuring Richard Claxton "Dick" Gregory as keynote speaker and Kate Clifford Larson as guest speaker. WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday. WHERE: John Brown Farm State Historic Site, Lake Placid. RELATED EVENT: At 8 p.m. Friday, "The Voices of Timbuctoo," a Musical Freedom Trail world premiere, will feature the Northern Lights Choir, directed by Helen Demong. Donation $10. CONTACT: For questions, call 962-4798 or email