Folksingers inspired by winter
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 25, 2002) – The Herdman, Hills and Mangsen folk trio gets its motivation from two places. One is the notion that three voices are better than one. The other is that around this time of year, regular gigs are hard to come by if they aren’t tied in somehow to a seasonal theme.

And so about six years ago, folksingers Priscilla Herdman, Anne Hills and Cindy Mangsen decided to formalize what until then had been something of an informal arrangement. Each with a busy solo career of her own, the three would reserve the three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas – otherwise typically a down-time for touring artists -- for performing their “Voices of Winter” program of seasonal-themed folk songs.

The program, which comes to the Berkshire Museum tomorrow night at 8, is not specifically tied to Christmas or Chanukah or any particular holiday. Rather, it is a celebration of the “dark season,” said Cindy Mangsen, who lives in North Bennington, Vt., in a recent phone interview.

The genesis of the “Voices of Winter” almost happened by default, says Mangsen. “We all tour separately, so it was hard to find a time that we all had to tour together,” she said. “December tends to be a time when you don’t tour too much other than holiday programs.”

The singing trio was an outgrowth of a recording session for Herdman’s 1987 album, “Darkness Into Light.” Herdman knew Mangsen and asked her to sing harmony on the album. Hills happened to be visiting Mangsen at the time, and Mangsen asked Herdman if she could bring Hills along.

The three voices meshed like a well-rehearsed string trio. “I’d sung with Anne since 1976,” said Mangsen. “We used to take that ‘Silly Sisters’ album that Maddy Prior and June Tabor did and sing that material, and our voices just naturally worked together. They’re about a fourth or a fifth apart.

“Anne and I both really love singing harmony. We’ve both done a lot of that, and Priscilla hadn’t really done much, it was new for her. Her voice really has a grounding to it, and quite often as we’ve worked it out over the years, quite often we have Priscilla sing the melody and Anne and I naturally fall into harmonies.”

It helps, said Mangsen, that all three singers are coming at the music from a similar place. “We all come from the same basic influences -- listening to Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary and that era. Because we all usually sing solo it’s a real treat. We don’t do this often, so when we do get together to sing it’s a special occasion for us. We all love the same kinds of songs.”

Each singer also brings something special to the group. Mangsen is most enamored of traditional material, and she is always scouting for appropriate traditional folk ballads to bring to the group. Herdman focuses more on material from contemporary singer-songwriters, and Hills contributes original material to the group. “When we really need a song for a special occasion, we tell Anne to write one,” said Mangsen.

In addition to a few songs about the seasonal holidays, the repertoire for “Voices of Winter” focuses on winter weather, the solstice, and the unique challenges that winter brings. “There are an awful lot of folk songs about winter and beautiful things that come out of the tradition,” said Mangsen. “And there are songs about getting colds and flu. We found a great song called ‘The Druggist’ about what you should do when you’re sick.

“We’re always looking for cheerful winter songs, and it gets hard to find them after a while. I found a song this summer, teaching at a songwriting workshop in South Dakota, called ‘The Beautiful Darkness,’ about the light of the stars on a dark winter night. You get your radar up for anything with winter in it.”

The trio has released two winter-themed recordings: “Voices of Winter” and “At the Turning of the Year.”

When they are not harmonizing together, Herdman, Hills and Mangsen each enjoy their own singing careers. Herdman specializes in interpreting songs by contemporary writers. Hills sings folk and theater music, and has toured, collaborated and recorded with Tom Paxton, Bob Gibson and Michael Smith. Mangsen favors traditional material and an historical approach, and she also performs as a duet partner with her husband, singer-songwriter Steve Gillette, whom she met when she was working as a librarian at Bennington College.

Mangsen said she was fated to be a folksinger. “When I was twelve years old and joined the Columbia Record Club and got six free albums, I got four albums of show tunes and then two Peter, Paul and Mary albums,” she said. “There was something about the music and the stories and the history. Folk music is real history on a personal level, and that has never stopped fascinating me.

“My grandmother played guitar. She had two guitars and gave me a little Martin that she had, when I was thirteen, and there it is. She used to sing. She and my grandfather came from Finland and sang mostly Salvation Army, Finnish songs and hymns. And my sister is a musicologist and a harpsichordist. So we’re a very musical family.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 29, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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