My maternal grandparents lived their entire lives within a mile of where they both were born, in West Wareham, Massachusetts, just before you get to Cape Cod. My grandfather was a cranberry farmer, so he had a professional as well as general interest in the weather. From early childhood visits, to my teenage years when I lived with them during the summer, I remember every morning the presence of Don Kent, WBZ’s weatherman, penetrating the living room. Don was the first radio and television meteorologist in Boston, with a career that began in the mid nineteen thirties, until his official retirement in the mid eighties. Concepts like warm front, cold front, and even the jet stream had not been discovered when he started out. His own skills were based less on education and more on intuition and powers of observation. While serving in the Coast Guard in WWII, he had a lucky break when he foresaw the possibility of freezing rain occurring when practice flights were being made in preparation for the invasion of Normandy. He wasn’t influential enough to persuade the Navy to cancel their flight plans, but his own Coast Guard folks trusted his judgment and kept their planes on the ground. As it turned out, several of the Navy planes iced up and went into the ocean off of Cape Cod. His forecast, and the credibility he had earned, saved several lives that day. The war facilitated a significant advancement in the science of weather, and it’s been growing in leaps and bounds ever since.
But my grandmother was a bit of a weather forecaster herself. I don’t know that she even knew how to make sense of a barometer, but she had one built in. One component of it was in her joints, which would get to aching a certain way when damp weather was lurking. The other was audio: she could tell by the sound of the train whistle what kind of weather was going to happen, and when, with remarkable accuracy. My grandfather, the farmer, also had good weather instincts, but I believe he relied on my grandmother as much as Don Kent to formulate his plans for the day.
At American Folklore, an entire sub-section of their website is devoted to weather. On a page called “Rain Proverbs and Sayings” one finds “When chairs squeak, of rain they speak” – surely not far removed from Gram’s aching bones. In an Oklahoma weather tale we find the gem: “On the same day, one man can die of sunstroke at noon while his neighbor freezes to death that night.” And on the National Weather Service’s website we find more proverbs: “Roosting birds indicate a storm, because thinning air is harder to fly in,” plus an entire article entitled Weather Proverbs: Are Some Weather Folktales True? One possible new proverb: “Get holed up in a snowstorm with a decent Internet connection and you can spend hours Googling weather proverbs.”
At least one definition of folklore might be the taking of mundane facts and making stories out of them. Don Kent was successful, in part, because he found the story in the weather. He didn’t rely on proverbs, but rather he took the science and gave it life with enthusiasm and words that made sense for the rest of us. As it turns out, some of those proverbs do hold water.
Speaking of holding water, few of us had heard of the Cold River, up Alstead way, until October of 2005 when a confluence of weather conditions caused it to explode, doing incredible damage in a few minutes, and permanently transforming the entire river habitat. So when we first heard of the Cold River Ranters, who played for a Nelson Coffeehouse last fall, we at least had some association. I was curious about the eclectic array of instruments that they brought up to the stage, and soon learned that their repertoire was equally far ranging. But what made their performance most enchanting was the ability to make everything into a story. You can read more about this amazing band from what we wrote in November Folknotes, and better yet, you can come hear them for a full-length concert at the Nelson Town Hall on Saturday, March 28.
Then, looking ahead to April 3, MFS and the New Hampshire Humanities Council are collaborating with the Historical Society of Cheshire County to present Two Old Friends. This Maine-based duo explores the musical styles and tastes that immigrants from the British Isles and elsewhere have brought to the Americas. Accompanying themselves on several different instruments, Two Old Friends sing traditional American songs to demonstrate how these tunes are often derived directly from the songs of the British Isles and influenced by other cultural and ethnic groups to create an original American sound. The concert, being held at the Historical Society building in Keene, is free and open to everyone.
We’re also excited about another Historical Society event. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 8, there is a Story Circle about Perley Swett. In January Folknotes, we wrote about Perley, a local “celebrity” hermit whose life story was recently published. Perley died in 1973, which is recent enough that many people who knew him are still around, and they will share stories that supplement this excellent biography.