PORTLAND, Maine — It took Matt Shipman the better part of two years to produce his senior thesis at Vermont College before he graduated in 2003 with a self-designed degree in traditional folk music.
For his project, Shipman found and recorded interviews with traditional players in Maine, North Carolina and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Inspired by field-recording music collectors of the past, he wanted to identify song connections between the geographically disparate East Coast musicians.
Those musical threads never quite materialized, however.
But Shipman did have life-changing adventures while interviewing and jamming with the old timers. They helped set the path for the rest of his musical life, including his work with Celtic-tinged ensemble Josephine County and Erica Brown and the Bluegrass Connection.
Shipman got a good grade on the project, too.
But after leaving college and embarking on his own career, Shipman forgot about the recordings. Nobody outside his circle of friends and professors ever heard them.
That’s changing now.
Recently, Shipman found the old recordings in a box at his house. They were still on the flash-in-the-pan mini disc media on which he’d recorded them, nearly 20 years ago. Luckily, his mini disc player was still working.
Now, Shipman has posted the recordings on YouTube for everyone to hear.
They reveal the voices and music of players now mostly dead and gone. What originally documented vibrant, present-day traditional songs and stories is now a historic document of times and people past.
“I’ve always been into remembering and talking to old people,” Shipman, now 47, said.
He’d sometimes tape his own grandparents’ stories for posterity. Shipman also was a big fan of John and Alan Lomax, who made field recordings of musicians all over the country, starting in the 1930s, for the Library of Congress.
Finding musicians for his project was a matter of showing up at local jams and asking around.
“It was mostly word-of-mouth and the phonebook,” Shipman said. “I’d get hand-written directions to people’s houses. This was before cellphones had GPS.”
Once he found the right people, Shipman would sit down with them, ask questions and play a tune or two.
Both men have since died.
In North Carolina, Shipman tracked down Emmit Norton, who played a homemade “tune bow.” The one-stringed instrument resembled a giant jaw harp, operated with one end stuck in Norton’s mouth.
In Maine, Shipman found Lisbon Falls button accordion player Joe Theriault, who had served in the merchant marines during WWII even though he was blind in one eye. Theriault was also a well-known Portland street musician in the 1990s, playing his accordion in the Old Port and sporting a jaunty beret.
In the interview, Theriault said his mother always knew when he’d be going back to sea because he’d play the tune “La Paloma” over and over again in his room.
“Do you know the lyrics,” Theriault asked Shipman, before reciting them. “The day that I left my home for the rolling sea, I went to my mother and said, ‘pray to thy God for me.’”
The accordionist then launched into a free-flowing version of the tune.
Theriault also said he could remember buying his first instrument, a harmonica, as a child. It took him five weeks of not going to the movies to save the 50 cents it cost him. It was for a school harmonica band his art teacher was starting.
“I came back a week later and showed him how to play it,” Theriault said. “So, apparently, I had some aptitude.”
Theriault died in 2007, at age 82.
Shipman also met balladeer and storyteller Clermont “Clum” Spencer in Pittsfield.
During the interview, Shipman asked Spencer why he thought young people weren’t as interested in traditional folk music as they used to be. In answering, Spencer pushed back on the notion.
“The young people, I don’t think, have changed that much,” Spencer said. “I think there’s still so much interest in traditional music because people feel like they’re getting a real story.”
Spencer said he was always drawn to songs of struggle, how people got by in hard times.
“When you look at history, you’re going to find lies,” Spencer said. “But when you really look into it, this history, this folk history, will be closer to the truth.”
Spencer also told Shipman he used to collect his songs by talking to older folks — just like Shipman was trying to do.
“I used to talk to a lot of old lumberjacks. I always did — but they’re getting harder to find,” he said.
Listening back to the old recordings now, Shipman is glad he put in the effort seeking out his subjects.
“I felt like it was time to take an audio snapshot of wisdom worth hanging onto,” he said.
The YouTube recordings, uploaded under his username mattshipman3385, add up to about an hour, but Shipman said he has many more hours of unheard audio that he might eventually share online.
“It’s time for people to hear it again,” he said. “For people who didn’t know these folks but maybe especially for those that did.”