(Host) Musicians from around the country are honoring the work of Vermont’s Robert DeCormier this year. The occasion is DeCormier’s eightieth birthday and the celebrations mark his life’s work. Vermonters may know him as the director of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus, but he has deep roots as a conductor and arranger in the nation’s folk music scene.
VPR’s John Van Hoesen reports from a rehearsal in central Vermont.
(Van Hoesen) It’s one of those steamy summer nights, and at the middle school in Duxbury the vocal ensemble “Counterpoint” has gathered for a strenuous rehearsal. Robert DeCormier is intently focused on his newest professional singing group. There’s a lot to do, because in just a few weeks “Counterpoint” will be on stage with Peter, Paul and Mary at a concert in Manchester.
The event will celebrate DeCormier’s eightieth birthday this year and his long association with the famous folk trio. At this rehearsal, Counterpoint is working on some of the new material for the concert:
(DeCormier) “Take Of This World …. It’s like a work song…. You can almost bend the pitch into it….” (Singing, “I can ease the suffering uhmmmmm…”)
(Van Hoesen) It’s the kind of song DeCormier believes in.
(DeCormier) “Look at the world; look at the mess we’re in. We need movements for peace, we need songs to guide us. Look at Martin Luther King and the whole struggle for civil rights and a song like “We Shall Overcome.” Look what that meant to everyone in the world.”
(Van Hoesen) For DeCormier it meant a lifetime in music, which he describes as a duet of folk and classical. His folk roots go back to his days with the CIO labor union chorus, which he joined in the 1940s.
(DeCormier) “I was socially conscious at that point. I really was concerned about the troubles of the world and I’m still concerned about them. I met Pete Seeger. Pete came back from Japan when I was still in the Army and I was in the CIO chorus. And I met him there and began to hang around the folk music people in New York and was there through the whole birth of the Weavers and knew all those people very well.”
(Van Hoesen) When he was studying at the Juilliard School of Music, he began doing arrangements for the Jewish Young Folk singers. One of the soloists in the group turned out to be the young Harry Belafonte. And DeCormier eventually became Belafonte’s conductor and arranger until the early 1960s. He also had a long association as music director of the New York Choral Society.
Earlier this year, the Choral Society threw their own birthday party concert for DeCormier at Carnegie Hall. Jack Goodwin is the current music director.
(Goodwin) “He is known to people all across the country and around the world in the choral music field. The main reason is that Bob is one of the great arrangers of folk songs that there has ever been.”
(Van Hoesen) Folk history was also being made when DeCormier – just out of Juilliard – got a job at Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York. There, his work with the high school chorus opened a musical relationship that would last a lifetime.
(Decormier) “Mary was a student at Elisabeth Irwin High School… a very talented musical student, extremely talented young lady. I’ve known Mary since she was …?”
(Mary Travers) “Fourteen. What a charismatic conductor he was. He made that little high school chorus just …. Everybody loved chorus and everybody loved and adored him.”
(Van Hoesen) Mary is Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary. And she never forgot high school chorus. She wanted Decormier to be the music director of Peter, Paul and Mary at the beginning, but at the time DeCormier was working with Harry Belafonte. When Peter, Paul and Mary re-formed the group in 1978, Decormier was available and he’s been their music director ever since. Mary Travers:
(Travers) “Bob is the fourth voice of the trio. It’s four creative people sitting in a room making something by hand. It’s a very unique kind of work that he does with us.”
(Van Hoesen) And she gives DeCormier credit for helping to spread the message and popularity of folk music.
(Travers) “Bob is of the generation of the greats in the exposure of American folk music to America. Up until really World War II, folk music was a regional affair and Bob DeCormier, Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, these people were the people who exposed a larger public to folk music and turned folk music from being regional to national. So someone in California could sit down and play a song from the Kentucky mountains.”
(Van Hoesen) In the Green Mountains, DeCormier is known as the man behind the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus, which he helped form in 1993. He leads the statewide volunteer vocal ensemble in a variety of programs every year, at least one of them with the VSO.
In the chorus, he discovered a group of professional singers who he thought should join together in a new musical purpose and also get paid for their work. So, his newest venture, the eleven-member group “Counterpoint” was formed. And now they’re getting ready to sing with Peter Paul and Mary:
(Singing, “Weave Me the Sunshine”)
(DeCormier) “The point is to have in Vermont, to have a vocal ensemble on a professional level. That doesn’t just mean the quality of music they make but the fact that they are professionals, they are paid.”
(Van Hoesen) Back at the middle school in Duxbury, the Counterpoint singers are still rehearsing… hard. It’s all practice and all business as the night presses on. DeCormier’s signature “one-two-three” keeps the group singing, and his arms keep the tempo. More than two hours pass. At 80, his energy level is up, but the singers are starting to wilt. You can almost feel the Manchester concert getting closer.
The familiar and the unfamiliar songs get the same attention and the purpose seems to be excellence. That’s what Robert DeCormier says he wants to use his eightieth year for: to do as much as he can for excellence in music and for the groups he’s been involved with, especially Counterpoint. For him, this is the lifetime mission.
(DeCormier) “I believe that music needs to serve people and it can serve it in many, many ways. And it doesn’t just have to be a song like “We Shall Overcome,” which is a rallying cry, but it can have it deep spiritual effect on people. It doesn’t have to be religious, it can be secular. Music is an important part of our lives. I know I couldn’t live without it, and I don’t think people can exist without music.”
(Van Hoesen) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Van Hoesen at the Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury.
(Host) Robert DeCormier will receive the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts later this year.