He may have been America’s first Black composer: Juneteenth concert at Historic Deerfield to feature music of Sawney Freeman, among others

Musicians performing in“Jubilee! A Juneteenth Concert of Early New England Music” include Historic Deerfield musician in residence Tim Eriksen, countertenor Patrick Daily, fiddle player Ben Hunter, New England viol player Loren Ludwig, baroque violinist David McCormick, and basoonist/tenoroonist Clay Zeller-Townson.

Musicians performing in“Jubilee! A Juneteenth Concert of Early New England Music” include Historic Deerfield musician in residence Tim Eriksen, countertenor Patrick Daily, fiddle player Ben Hunter, New England viol player Loren Ludwig, baroque violinist David McCormick, and basoonist/tenoroonist Clay Zeller-Townson. Courtesy Historic Deerfield 

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 06-14-2024 2:31 PM

In celebration of Juneteenth, folks are invited to join a star-studded group of early American musical performers at Historic Deerfield, as they take on a wide variety of music from regional African American composers and band leaders.

Kicking off a 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 20, the museum is celebrating Juneteenth, which marks June 19, 1865 as the day when the last enslaved Americans in Texas learned of their emancipation under the law. The day was officially signed into law as a national holiday in 2021.

To commemorate the holiday, Historic Deerfield is hosting “Jubilee! A Juneteenth Concert of Early American New England Music,” with musician-in-residence Tim Eriksen being joined by Patrick Daily, countertenor; Ben Hunter, fiddle; Loren Ludwig, New England viol; David McCormick, baroque violin; and Clay Zeller-Townson, bassoon and tenoroon, as they take on Abolitionist psalmody, spirituals, dance tunes and chamber music from regional Black composers and band leaders. 

“Daily life in 1850, 1860 was full of music and a lot of this music was related to African American life and culture,” said Historic Deerfield’s Interpretative Program Manager Claire Carlson. “[Music] was really prevalent, that’s what people did for fun … people played music, took singing lessons and took dancing lessons.”

Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for museum members and $10 for teens 17 years old and younger. The concert will be held at the Deerfield Community Center and tickets can be purchased at Bit.ly/3VEcfFu.

Along with performances of music by John Putnam, a Black barber, musician and bandleader from Greenfield in the 1800s, the group will also play a newly discovered manuscript by early Connecticut composer and fiddler Sawney Freeman, who was at one point an enslaved Black man and who may have been one of the country’s first Black composers.

Freeman’s music was discovered by volunteers searching through the archives at the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex, Connecticut, when they found a 1777 probate record and a 1790 newspaper ad offering a reward for the return of an enslaved musician, according to a March 15 story from Connecticut Public Radio.

From there, the volunteers went on a wide-ranging search and discovered Freeman’s full name, as well as handwritten copies of his music in a Connecticut library’s archive. His music, Connecticut Radio reported, was recorded for the first time more than 200 years after it was written.

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“We are thrilled to present this concert,” Historic Deerfield’s Director of Interpretation James Golden said in a press release. “This program offers a unique opportunity to explore the rich musical traditions associated with Juneteenth and abolitionism through the lens of early New England History.”

This is the museum’s second Juneteenth concert, with the first one in 2022 launching to great success. Historic Deerfield didn’t host a concert last year, but instead hosted a one-woman play.

Carlson said the Juneteenth programming is an extension of Historic Deerfield’s initiative to tell the often-hidden stories of Black people and other marginalized groups in the region’s history, including the implementation of the Witness Stone Project to commemorate the enslaved people of Old Deerfield and this year’s “Unnamed Figures” exhibition.

She added their goal is “honoring the history of African Americans in the valley and bringing in people telling the stories.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.