Home News and Features The Magic of Larry Gordon: Alchemist, Builder of Community

The Magic of Larry Gordon: Alchemist, Builder of Community

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Larry Gordon in his Marshfield home, 1995. Photo by Suzannah Park.

By Andrew Christiansen

Solo by Larry Gordon singing with Village Haromny, recording courtesy of Mary Hamilton French. Photo courtesy of Village Harmony.

The text message was a thunderbolt. The day after Halloween, sunny with a brisk wind, was a perfect day for biking. Disjointed thoughts and emotions staggered under the news Larry Gordon had a terrible bicycle accident and was in the intensive care unit of the UVM Medical Center. For those of us who toured with him and fell under the spell of his bushy eyebrows (raised in a look of child-like curiosity and the hint of a grin), our world was turned upside down.

My connection with Larry started in 1974 when I was 20. After singing next to him in the tenor section of a chorus accompanying a Bread and Puppet show at Cate Farm, he asked if I would like to sing a William Byrd mass with some friends over at Goddard. I agreed and only later did I discover I was a member of the Word of Mouth Chorus. He had never informed me nor told me concerts had already been scheduled. We also sang Sacred Harp music, which stunned me at first with the strength of open fifths with no vibrato. The power of it made music not just an intellectual pleasure, but a visceral one coming from a deeper place than I had ever sung before. He explained to audiences how the music was forged from the heartbreak of losing entire families in times of pandemic in the early 1800s.

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From left, Andy Christiansen, Larry Gordon, Mary Alice and Peter Amidon, Steven Light, Kathy Munson, and Trudi Cohen on March 26, 1977 in Leslie, Georgia.

Larry assumed anyone could do whatever he needed them to do. Auditions were unnecessary because people would develop, as if from small seeds, whatever skills they needed. No musical experience? No problem. He would mix and match to get the right combination of singers standing next to each other to create the sound he was looking for, or to develop the confidence of those who needed some. He was always on the lookout for a particular voice or venue that would match the chorus he had built. 

His musical alchemy built a sense of wonder into his music, just as he did with the community organizations he fostered. His experience with Students for a Democratic Society at Swarthmore in the 1960s informed both his work to help low-income groups in Boston and the Plainfield Food Co-op in central Vermont. He built local “counter institutions” the same way he joined with others to construct houses at the New Hamburger commune and create musical bridges around the world — all through the magic of community. His mind constantly explored the alchemy of personalities and timbres of voices, to foster friendships and create bonds of love across different cultures.

Larry was a confounding mix of contrasts. His loud, booming bass ran counterpoint to his casual dress in concert and low-key, down-home manner with audiences. He was bold in his actions and musical choices but brought a cosmic focus to the simplest of hymns. He appeared to be in the background at times, willing to give up ownership and have other groups come in and teach new things to his singers. 

When necessary, he was a strong leader, but maintained space for people to grow into their own style. And he was a perpetual source of amusement with his deadpan face, dry humor, and inscrutable smile. He modeled a totally unapologetic joy for everything around him. I remember we did a concert at a church in Hinton, West Virginia. The church ladies had prepared our supper and set the tables. When Larry entered the room, he raced to see what had been set out by the plates and yelled with great excitement. “Oh my God. Green Jello. Double yum.” The cooks in the kitchen stopped to stare in amazement.

Nine days after the accident, Larry died after being taken off life support. Although it was expected, I was still surprised at how devastated I felt. I think it has something to do with that 20-year-old who, nearly a half century ago, was blown off his feet by blasts of Sacred Harp music so much more vital and propulsive than any other chorus he had been in. Larry continues to influence younger generations, adding to the lore of Larry stories. 

When I grieve for Larry, I’m also grieving for my young self. Larry was always there, a firm foundation to rely on. He was even there when he stepped back into empty air to admire the cupola on the house he helped build at New Hamburger and fell twenty feet to the ground, unscathed. We thought him invincible. At a time of pandemic, growing fascism, and climate change, I need to know Larry is still there somewhere — solid as a rock, a Peter Pan telling me I can be forever young.