Woodstone Mountain Press, 2013
As a native Vermonter, I approach back-to-the land stories with some trepidation. I come from a long line of hill farmers, carpenters, and schoolteachers who have made a hardscrabble home in these hills, so I know it’s not all maple sugar and covered bridges. So I’m wary when someone “from away” discovers small town culture and claims it for their own. Some romanticize it, others belittle it, and few get it right. I’m happy to report that with his coming-of-age memoir, Cabin Songs, musician Spencer Lewis gets it right.
Lewis takes us from his days as a fifteen-year-old New York runaway in 1968, chasing the Woody Guthrie mythology down the highway with nothing but a guitar on his back and $15 in his pocket, to the first hints of a lifelong musical career that was incubated in the solitary cabins, makeshift sugarhouse apartments, barns, hayfields, and woods of Vermont. Through a young man’s eyes, we meet a series of “Old Vermonters” whom Lewis describes with equal parts affection and respect. I recognized these folks. Lewis ably captures the cadence of a culture where people don’t have to say much to mean a lot.
Excerpts from Lewis’s songs and poems are scattered throughout the text, and remind us of what was going on behind the scenes, though more of those actual scenes would be a welcome addition. As much detail as Lewis shares about the harnesses needed to move logs with Tony the horse, for instance, he doesn’t take us very far into his songwriting process, or onto the stage when he starts performing in Uncle Wallace’s barn. Similarly, we get only occasional glimpses of Lewis’s more intimate relationships in these early years. While his discretion when writing about other people is admirable, nosy memoir readers will want to know more about things like the birth of his first child, for instance.
The scope of Cabin Songs is deliberately limited: Lewis focuses on his early adulthood only. Readers may wish for a neater, wrapped-up ending, or an update on Lewis’s later career for context. On the other hand, this may be the larger point Lewis is making with his reluctance to draw conclusions. For him, it’s all about the moment, and that’s what he shares in these pages.