Singing songs that raised a rebellion
The Enterprise — Jo E. Prout
Old Songs musician George Ward contemplates the history of the Anti-Rent War before playing a tune from the era at the Voorheesville Public Library. Behind him are a replica mask and antique tin horn used by farmers in their struggle, and a picture book detailing the fight against feudal rents in seven counties, including the Hilltowns.
— Photo from Andy Spence
The cast of the play Down with the Rent!: The Anti-Rent Rebellion of New York pose in period costume. The show will run Nov. 21 and Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. From left, in back row are Terry Leonino, George Ward, John Roberts, Greg Clarke, Toby Stover, and George Wilson; in front are Greg Artzner and Bill Spence.
VOORHEESVILLE – Local performers will take the stage next week to bring to life the events of the anti-rent struggle that took place in our region nearly 175 years ago. The histories have been culled into a play written and directed by Old Songs founder Andy Spence.
Much of the anti-rent history has been left out of textbooks and maintained primarily through family lore. A thorough description of the events of the Anti-Rent War was put together by local historian Henry Christman, in Tin Horns and Calico, and printed in 1945.
The book details the 50-year struggle where small farmers in seven counties, including Albany, fought against a patroon system that annually collected feudal rent.
“I hope that it may be the basis for other works — novels, plays, motion pictures — for all of which it provides exciting materials,” wrote Carl Carmer in Christman’s introduction. And so it has been 69 years later, as Spence draws eight performers together to tell the story in narrative and song with fiddle, bass, banjo, and voice in Down with the Rent!: The Anti-Rent Rebellion of New York.
“They all sing on the chorus. Some of them share songs with each other. Some are solos,” Spence said. They tell the story of the sheriff who walked to the top of the road to Reidsville, where he encountered 500 men wearing Indian masks and calico robes.
“There’s a song about them. They’re sharing the verses. They talk as different people during the songs,” Spence said. “The song is a conversation about the event. It is primarily music with narrative stringing it together.”
Down with the Rent! will play at Old Songs in Voorheesville on Nov. 21 and Nov. 22, a week before the 175th anniversary of the start of the struggles.
“I’m the producer and director. I compile all this material and make the show out of it,” Spence said.
She spoke to The Enterprise about the experiences of the farmers who participated in the rent rebellion. The farmers were poor immigrants who tamed and settled 726,000 acres in New Netherland, a Dutch colony, for an owner they thought would let them later purchase the homes they built. They found, instead, that their homes and villages were tied up legally for generations.
“Still today, people who live up in the Helderbergs [have real estate] searches that [go] back to the original owner,” Spence said. A small back-rent fee is sometimes required, at no more than a dollar or two, when a property is sold even today, and no one knows where the fee paid goes, she said.
The feudal system was outlawed in 1846, but leases were craftily grandfathered in, she said.
“They tried very hard to get rid of this land legally,” Spence said of the farmers and their struggle to be free of annual rents. “But, they had trouble in legal aspects.”
Anti-Rent tea party
The only model the farmers had for rebellion was the Boston Tea Party, Spence said, noting that the tariff rebels dressed as Native Americans as they dumped tea in Boston Harbor. The anti-rent farmers across the seven counties also dressed as Indians, donning sheepskin masks and calico robes.
“They didn’t want anyone to recognize them, especially the sheriff and the sheriff’s posse,” Spence said.
The rent rebels used tin horns to communicate across farmland, blowing them when officials dared to ascend to the Hilltowns and other hardscrabble farming communities.
“We aren’t presenting anything that isn’t history,” Spence said. Asked if Christman’s work was sound, Spence said, “He did very good research.” Both Christman’s book and Spence’s play are corroborated by two anti-rent newspapers from the 1840s, she said.
“The farmer had no rights whatsoever. Even though he cleared the land and built his house, he had to pay taxes and wheat rights every Jan. 1. The owner maintained water and mineral rights.” One of the owners, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, “lived high on the hog,” she said.
Previous school performances about the anti-rent struggle occurred with two locally-written shows in Voorheesville in 1991 and in Rensselaerville in 1996, with students conveying a simplified history each time for schoolchildren to be able to grasp and perform.
Spence’s performance infuses the entire history into a narrative on an adult level, and retains the folksy musical propaganda used during the 50-year Anti-Rent War.
“There was nothing,” she said of works on this scale. “There’s no prior performance like this one. We’d like to be able to perform it around. We’d like to bring history alive, again. There are, today, people whose ancestors lived through this. You never know when people are going to come out and tell you something you didn’t know before.”
No performance had encompassed the history recorded in local newspapers of the time and kept alive with stories and lore, she said.
“So, we are,” she said. Bruce Kennedy’s documentary of the Anti-Rent War, still in the making — a rough cut was shown in Knox last year — missed the points she believes need to be preserved, Spence said.
“I’m the producer and director” of Down with the Rent!, she said. “I compile all this material and make the show out of it. The script is all mine.”
Asked how she approached copyrighted material used for her script, she said that she did not worry about it.
“So much of it is oral history, anyway,” Spence said. “The events that we’re portraying in the show are well-known. The materials we are using came from different sources. A lot of it was just verse, and we’ve set them to music.”
Some verses had music added to them by experienced folk musicians.
George Ward, who played guitar and accordion at a teaser performance early in November at the Voorheesville Public Library, sang the story of “an anti-renter [who] actually wrote about his own experience” to the traditional tune “Balaclava.”
“You adapted it to that?” asked Spence’s husband, Bill, who accompanied Ward throughout the teaser, adding in his own adaptations as the evening went on.
“I just stole it, I didn’t adapt it,” Ward quipped.
One song, written by Old Songs performer George Robinson, is a soft and lovely ballad Bill Spence played on the hammered dulcimer, “Oh, What a Time.”
We fought with Washington for democracy, now we pay rent to aristocracy...
You fight the rich if you would keep your home.
Other songs in the show, used by the reformers, were already fiddle tunes that farmers and poets set the words to. “The Adventures of Big Bill Snyder,” for instance, used the tune to “Old Dan Tucker.”
“This song became the anthem of the movement,” Ward said. The audience joined in on the chorus when Ward performed the rallying song.
“Well, that was fun,” Bill Spence said afterward.
“Here’s the point of this whole thing — to have people understand how…it affected history,” Andy Spence told The Enterprise. The anti-rent sentiment, combined with the anti-slavery feelings leading to the Civil War, and movements to push westward expansion led to the creation of the Republican Party, Spence said.
“It had a dramatic effect,” Spence said. “It’s very complicated…It’s a very important New York State historical event that had great impact. It isn’t even taught in schools anymore. I don't know if it ever was.
“We’ve tried to make it as streamlined as we can,” she continued. “The songs have a lot of words. It’s been quite a project. The singing is great and the music is great. What I worry about is, ‘Will everybody fit onstage?’ I’m hoping we sell this concert out both nights, and I’m hoping we can do it, again.”