Bernardston’s Ed Phelps remembered as a Renaissance man

  • After attending a fiddle festival in Craftsbury, Vt., in the late 1960s, Ed Phelps came home to Bernardston hooked on the notion of teaching himself to play fiddle. He played an old instrument that he found at the Bernardston dump. Submitted photo

Recorder Staff
Friday, January 12, 2018

BERNARDSTON — Ed Phelps was born in Bernardston. He studied about Bernardston, wrote about Bernardston, sang about Bernardston, and although he loved playing old-time music, he did organic gardening and sustainable forestry in town long before most people knew what those were. He also was a beekeeper.

When Phelps died Tuesday at 82 in Greenfield’s Buckley Nursing Home, where he’d been for just three days, he was remembered as a Renaissance man with an “old Yankee sensibility,” as well as a dry, wry sense of humor, according to a Bernardston cousin, Marvin Shedd, who became part of the Falltown String Band that Phelps helped found 30 years ago.

A graduate of Keene Teachers College and Fitchburg State College — and of course, Bernardston’s Powers Institute before that — Phelps taught English at Greenfield Junior High School from the mid-1960s until retirement in 1994. He also attended Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute and Mount Hermon School for Boys.

“I’d call him a jack-of-all- trades,” said Jim Fotopoulos, who taught social studies with him for three decades. He also jogged with Phelps and they took students orienteering in the Hells Kitchen section of Northfield. Both served as selectmen — Fotopoulos in Greenfield, and of course Phelps in Bernardston in the 1980s.

“He was a master teacher,” said Fotopoulos, who became a long-time friend. “He used to love to tell corny jokes, and was a great storyteller. He was a man for all seasons.”

Musical life

After attending a fiddle festival in Craftsbury, Vt., in the late 1960s, Phelps came home hooked on the notion of teaching himself to play fiddle, Shedd recalled. He played an old instrument that he found at the Bernardston dump, added Fotopoulos.

He also taught himself to play banjo, said Shedd, adding, “He had a fancy for taking old folk tunes and putting new lyrics to them.”

Among the original songs was “Bob’s Auto Parts,” inspired by a radio commercial for a do-it-yourself car parts store that he heard while driving through Kentucky, said Shedd. And as with every tune that he sang and played with the string band, “Every song had a story to it.” A perennial favorite was about how band member Jack Nelson’s washtub bass had been bought in “the musical instrument department of Streeter’s Store,” an old-fashioned general store in Bernardston, which has since closed.

Phelps, who also played guitar, helped create the string band as a follow-up to a group called The Happiness Sharers, which performed mostly at senior centers and nursing homes. Both, said Shedd, were a way to “bring music to folks. It was important to him to keep this old-time fiddle music alive. He said many times, ‘these young kids … They may not play the music, but at least they will have heard it.’”

Dedicated to giving back

It was also genuinely important to Phelps to “give back to the community,” Shedd said, by serving as a selectman in the 1980s as well as a Bernardston Historical Society member who was dedicated to restoration of Powers Institute.

A pet project was an oral history of the town, which is archived at Greenfield Community College and also spawned a book.

“He was such a warm, generous, humorous guy,” recalled Steve Alves of Greenfield, who played with Falltown for several years. “He was very smart, with this wry sense of humor and always a perceptive, sly comment that really nailed it. I cherished any time we played a gig, and Ed and I had a long drive together.”

Phelps played with the band until his health declined in 2009, with a series of disabilities that forced him to stop playing music. But he still enjoyed singing, said Alves and Shedd.

He married his second wife, the former Beverly Brown, in 1975, after meeting her in Greenfield. They became “soulmates,” said their daughter, Martha, who recalls her father reading “The Hobbit” and other books to her and her sister, Ruth — and being taken to see Shakespeare plays and the annual Newfane Fiddle Contest.

“He really knew how to follow his bliss,” she said, adding that her father had also been an avid hiker, mastering Mount Katahdin, Mount Mansfield and Mount Washington.

“He’s one of these salt-of-the-earth guys who cared about his community and his family and loved books and writing,” recalled Shedd. “The music became his real focus. I’m going to miss him a lot. But we’ll keep the music going.”

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