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Picking and Praising 

State of the Arts

Published October 4, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

The Jamaicans who migrate to Vermont each autumn to harvest apples bring along reggae CDs as reminders of home. After long days of picking Macs, Empires and other varieties, the workers unwind in their barracks to the beat at the heart of contemporary Jamaican culture.

But on Sunday mornings in the fall, a biker or walker may hear a much older type of indigenous music wafting to the road from an Addison County orchard. On one memorable evening in September, the apple pickers shared this music, called "hymnsongs," with their host community. For each of the past five years, 40 or more Jamaicans have performed a concert of hymnsongs at the Shoreham Congregational Church.

"Concert" may not be the right term for an event rooted in a devoutly Christian segment of Jamaican society. It's a milieu unfamiliar to Americans, who associate the island's spirituality solely with Rastafarianism. What's most striking to Rev. Deborah Roy, the church's pastor, is the singers' "total lack of self-consciousness and their complete spontaneity. There's a feeling of 'We're here to sing for the Lord, not to perform.'

"It's such a spirit-filled experience," Roy continues. "They get everybody out of their shells and into the joy of it."

Indeed, several members of this year's overflow audience were inspired to stand up and sway to African-inflected versions of evangelical hymns. White middle-aged, churchgoing Vermonters were shaking their hands heavenward in praise of Jesus.

Not everyone was enthralled. A few listeners drifted outside as the all-male choir launched into another chant-like refrain that sounded a lot like those that had gone before.

"There was no harmony. Everything was sung in unison without vocal texture," said Burlington attorney Laurie LeClair, a former opera singer. "It was a delight to hear them because of their enthusiasm, but it was clear the men were unrehearsed, and the hymns got monotonous after a while."

Musical sophistication is not the hallmark of this impromptu ensemble. Their stage etiquette isn't what a Vermont audience expects, either. A few of the Jamaicans openly bickered over what they should sing next, and a couple of starts proved false when would-be song selectors failed to get the rest of the group to join in.

"It isn't what you'd find in American culture," Roy noted afterward. "They don't have the polished presence of a professional choir."

The typical Sunday service at a Vermont Congregational church has only a few elements in common with Jamaican evangelical gatherings. "Here they sing along and read from the Bible," says Blenford Harris, a Jamaican who works in a Shoreham orchard along with his brother Bertram. "At home, we clap hands and shout hallelujah. To be a Christian is, for us, to sing and move in praise of our Savior."

During the seven months of the year that they spend with their families, Blenford, 49, and Bertram, 54, attend churches in St. Catherine's Parish in southeastern Jamaica. Besides picking apples from the same 3000 trees, the Harris brothers jointly take part in the annual hymnsong session. Their two churches are among 10 in Jamaica that will share in the $1000 offering from Vermonters who attended this year's hymnsong.

The short, muscular brothers have been coming to New England for several years, following a migratory route that begins in July in the tobacco fields of Connecticut, moves to Shoreham for apple season and culminates on an Orwell turkey farm just prior to Thanksgiving.

It's hard work under lonely conditions. Bertram says most of the Jamaicans get rides into Middlebury a couple of times a week to phone home and wire money to their families. The Harris brothers earn a minimum of $9.70 an hour picking apples in an orchard owned by Mary and George Baker, an elderly couple who sometimes work alongside their hired men.

The brothers were interviewed in the Bakers' kitchen one rainy morning last week. "No picking today," Mary Baker explained. "The ladders get too slippery when it's like this."

Bertram and Blenford seemed pleased to have a respite from their 11-hour workdays. "Apple picking is not so easy," the older brother said. "Your back gets aching from the climbing and the lifting - more so as you get up my age."

Much of what the Harrises earn goes to pay their children's private-school tuition - Bertram has five kids, Blenford three. "We want our children to learn the best," Bertram says.

Picking time is almost at an end now, so those Jamaicans with no follow-up jobs are preparing to go home. They'll have to be quick about it; federal regulations, toughened since the terrorist attacks of 2001, require that foreign migrant workers leave the United States within 48 hours of the expiration of their government-monitored contracts.

The Harrises will be happy to head home next month. But they'll also be pleased to return to Vermont, where the pay is good and they are treated well, the brothers said. And they've got the 2007 hymnsong rendition to look forward to.

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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