PLAYING THE OLDIES

Written By: Rebecca Nimerfroh | Photography By: Brian Sager

One songwriter is bringing new life to Nantucket’s oldest places.

In what will literally be music to people’s ears, the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) commissioned singer-songwriter and American music historian Joe Flood to write and compose an album inspired by ten historic properties on the island. From the Greater Light to the Old Gaol, Flood spent a year researching these properties and excavating a voice from their walls. On June 30th, Flood’s album, A Troubadour’s Tour of Historic Nantucket, will be released with a live performance at the Whaling Museum.

Flood first arrived on Nantucket two years ago to perform at the Atheneum. As luck would have it, the NHA’s Marjan Shirzad was in the audience that night. A discussion between them about the history of the island sparked the idea for the album, and after a series of conversations, Flood inked the first recording deal in NHA history.

“We were looking for new ways for the historic sites to come to life,” says Shirzad, who serves as the Sacerdote Chair of Education and Outreach at the NHA. “We wanted to pull at heartstrings and have music be the centerpiece for it.” The NHA gave Flood a full year of unlimited access to the properties. “We wanted him to see them through different seasons and really have a chance to let it all soak in,” Shirzad says.

A Troubadour’s Tour of Historic Nantucket is a compelling collection of folk songs, with lofty chords performed on guitar and banjo. Flood’s lyrics convey powerful stories performed in a way that remains whimsical and fun. He likens the process of writing this album to that of the Monaghan sisters, who, in 1929, purchased and miraculously remodeled a dilapidated cow barn on Nantucket that eventually became known as Greater Light.

“I was digging into the history of each property, but I had to create something new, which is exactly what the Monaghan sisters did,” Flood says. “They came with their own backgrounds to this old place with its own history and created something new that is reflective of the place itself.”

Flood’s goal for each song was not to simply provide a history lesson, but to tell a story that’s open for interpretation. “I hope that people will appreciate the larger story of Nantucket history,” he says, “and also
have some feelings for the personalities and motivation of the people [during that time].”

There’s his ballad about the Oldest House, for instance, that tells the story of Mary Gardner Coffin, who, after living in the house for twenty-two years, moved off-island with her husband, only to return years later after his death. Or, there is his song about the Old Gaol, which focuses on a peculiar former inmate, William Chadwick, who was serving time for embezzlement.

“When I tell people I’m working on a project on Nantucket, they assume I’m writing whaling songs,” Flood says. “But what I find so fascinating about Nantucket history is that it parallels the narrative we have of American history.”

As for his own history, Flood was born and raised in Connecticut where he was the youngest of eleven children. He spent his formative years listening to hand-me-down records of Johnny Cash, Motown, and folk revival. With his mother, a retired big band singer, Flood developed an early appreciation for old American music and taught himself to play the ukulele, guitar, fiddle, and banjo.

Flood spent most of 1980s traveling Europe, performing on the streets of Paris, writing his own music, and playing in several bands. Now an adjunct professor of languages at Southern Connecticut State University, Flood continues to pursue his musical career and has since been commissioned for another project similar to the NHA’s Troubadour’s Tour.

“Most of the songs in the album I sort of put myself in the position of the people who lived in the homes,” Flood says. “I did a lot of research, a lot of reading, and took a lot of notes. I would sit and draw the places to try and see what you don’t necessarily see at first glance.” When Joe Flood performs his album at the Whaling Museum this month, he’ll be giving voice to a whole lot of history. And while the walls of the NHA properties might not be talking—they certainly can sing.

Joe Flood’s album A Troubadour’s Tour of Historic Nantucket will be available for download, with CDs to purchase at the Nantucket Historical Association. Tickets for the live event are $10 and available for purchase at here.