Banjo music before bluegrass? Find out more

When Lowell’s textile mills were clacking, what parlor music was popular? Come join us for a musical journey back in time, to find out. This was a time when if you wanted to hear music, you had to play it yourself.  The  Lowell Folklife Series presents “Classic Style Banjo Concert: The Lost Art of America’s Instrument” on Saturday November 17th at 8:00 p.m. in the Visitor Center theater of Lowell National Historical Park.

Classic style banjo playing was popular in the 1830s and 40s, and became somewhat of a virtuosic tradition by the 1880s. Originally played on gut strings, this parlor music has a classical feel to it.


Seasoned musicians Peter LaBau (banjo) and Mitch Nelin (mandocello) will deliver an entertaining evening of music interpsersed with stories of a nearly vanished musical tradition.

The 8:00 p.m. concert is free and open to the public. For directions, click here.


Native American Woodlands Folklife Talk by Dana Benner

Curious about the Native peoples who once lived along the banks of the Merrimack River? The Lowell Folklife Series invites you to a talk by Dana Benner on Saturday, November 5 at the Event Center of the Boott Mills MuseumWhen most people think of Native peoples at or around the time of contact with Europeans, they think either of Thanksgiving or fierce warfare. Many people are unaware of the extensive social traditions, trade relations, and industrious nature of the Native nations. The area along the Merrimack River that we define as Lowell was home to the Pennacook people.  Just to the south were the Massachusett, who were direct trading partners with the Pennacook.  Mr. Dana Benner will explore the rich traditions of the Pennacook nation, leaving the audience with a greater appreciation of the people who once called this area home.

Dana Benner is of Micmac/Penobscot/Piqwacket descent and is a member of the Inter-Tribal Council of New Hampshire.  He has been studying Native history and culture his entire life and has been writing about it for over 25 years.  He holds a BA in Liberal Arts with a concentration in U.S. History and Native Culture from Granite State College and he is working on his M.Ed in Heritage Studies with a concentration in Native History and Culture from Plymouth State University.

This talk is free and open to the public.

2:00 p.m @ 2nd Floor Event Center, Boott Mills Museum

110 John Street, Lowell, MA

For more information: 978-275-1719

Event sponsored by the Lowell National Historical Park and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.





Of kielbasa and butter lambs

The priest used to come to every house to bless the food . . . They’d go from house to house, all by foot too.    Mary Dudek, Holy Trinity Polish Church 


Our good friend and colleague Pauline Golec is a native Lowellian who, for many years, has done much of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing the city’s festivals. If you’ve come to the Lowell Folk Festival and enjoyed the enticing array of ethnic food for sale by community groups, you have Pauline to thank.

Pauline is also a long-time member of Holy Trinity Parish, the designated mother parish for the Polish Community in the Merrimack Valley. So it made sense that we pay attention when she alerted us to a local Polish tradition at Holy Trinity. Having cleared things with the monsignor, Pauline invites us to the “blessing of the food,” which is done on Holy Saturday at 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 am.

We arrive shortly before nine and see a gathering of parishioners. Though we spot a few children, most are older individuals. Some have grown up in Lowell’s Polish neighborhood; others are more recent immigrants from Poland and Russia. All have brought baskets of Easter food to be blessed.

It doesn’t take long to see the similarity of food items filling each basket — eggs, ham, kielbasa, horse radish, pickles, mazurek, (traditional Polish Easter cake), babka, (a sweet yeast bread), and butter lambs (wee lambs made of molded butter.) When asked, individuals talk about how each of these foods represents the meaning of Easter. The butter lambs represent Jesus, the lamb of God; the eggs symbolize life and Christ’s resurrection; salt his purification; horse radish, his bitter sacrifice; ham and kielbasa the joy and abundance of life. 

I’d been hearing about butter lambs associated with Easter for years, but had never seen one. Suddenly, here they are. Pauline points to some made by Dottie Naruszewicz Flanagan, “You see Dottie’s? She’s got a flock.” Indeed, these are some of the most impressive butter lambs in the room. She has made 20 to give to neighbors and friends, which she presents on a paper plate with colored eggs. When I comment on the attention to detail, Dottie explains, “I mold and my daughter swirls. And as she’s swirling (using a toothpick to simulate the lamb’s wool,) my grandson and I are doing the eggs.”


After admiring Dottie’s array of food, we meet Frank Markarewicz who has brought his food to be blessed. Rather than nestled into an Easter basket, his food is unceremoniously concealed in a brown paper grocery bag.  We all laugh as Pauline teases, “From the sublime to the ridiculous! Straight from Market Basket.”

We are introduced to Jane Markiewicz Duffley, whose butter lambs are much larger than Dottie’s. To make her butter lambs, she uses candy molds inherited from her father, who once owned Blue Dot Candy on Bridge Street. She kept the molds he used in making chocolate bunnies. “I use them for Easter to make the lambs out of butter. It’s a nice tradition. We’ve been doing this since we were little kids. The priest used to come to the house to bless the food.” 


There was a time when the Polish Catholic priest would visit each house to bless the food in Lowell’s Polish neighborhood. Not unlike the family physician making house calls, this is a thing of the past. Instead, the people come to the priest.

“Peace,” says Monsignor Stanislaw Kempa. Someone claps hands loudly to get everyone’s attention. Monsignor Kempa delivers the  special prayers for blessing the food, first in English, and then in Polish. When he announces, “Happy Easter. Hallelujah,” and procedes to sprinkle holy water while walking in amongst the assembled whose baskets of food line long tables throughout the hall. 



There is more visiting, exchanging of news, and cups of coffee. And then it is time to go home, blessed food and baskets in hand.



It’s not everyday that a city celebrates its 175th anniversary

On April 11, 2011, the city held a birthday party for itself, marking the 175th anniversary of its founding.

Lowell has been attracting immigrants ever since the 1830s, when the rapid growth of textile mills provided much needed employment. Yesterday’s parade was a physical manifestation of the city’s diversity, which continues to evolve.

Just before 4:30, people gathered themselves in groups, in preparation for the  parade to city hall. Seeing those who turned out to march was a testament to the city’s changing demographics. Judging from the dress and the flags whipping in the wind, local participants had cultural roots in in Italy, Greece, Lithuania, Quebec, Portugal, Israel, Columbia, Vietnam,Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, and Cameroon — and Lowell Pride.

The celebration began with a  parade.

Lowell High School’s Marching Band did a fine job providing the rhythm.

Approaching City Hall, a lion dancer teased the crowd.

And then it was time for speeches and cake.

The celebration continues throughout the year with special events.

All photos by Maggie Holtzberg

In the Community: Music and Franco-American Food


Sometimes, a concert’s setting can make all the difference. When Lowell National Historical Park first thought of partnering with the Franco-American Day Committee to help celebrate Franco-American Week in Lowell, we planned on presenting a Franco-American/Irish concert on Park grounds. But after much thought and discussion, we all realized that the better idea was to pair the Park-sponsored concert with a community event — the traditional ham and bean supper, which is typically held in a French Church Hall. This year, the supper was served in the Immaculate Conception School Hall. When we arrived around 4:45 p.m., the hall was full of people, many of whom had grown up in Lowell and the surrounding communities. Although there were some children about, the average age was about 75. French was being spoken and the aroma was heavenly. Home baked hams and plenty of Cote’s beans, both the light and the dark, were being served.


People socialized and ate from 4:30 to 6:30. Music was scheduled to start at 7:30. Several hours before members of the “Irish-French Connection” took the stage, they rehearsed in the Park’s Visitor Center conference room.

The leaders of this band – John Whelan and Donna Hébert –are icons in their Irish and Franco-American musical communities. Each brings 40 years of performing, teaching, and recording experience to the newly formed band.


The tunes and songs they performed during the evening concert were once commonly played and danced to in Irish and French-Canadian immigrant communities throughout the Northeast, where both groups migrated in the 1880s to work in the textile mills. Indeed, when we asked the 135 audience members how many had relatives who had worked in the Lowell textile mills, about half of the hands went up.

Seated at one of the many tables was Lowellian Raymond Breault, who throughout the evening played his wooden spoons and clogged his tap-soled shoes in time to the music. On more than one occasion, he made his way to the front of the hall to demonstrate his rhythmic feet. This delighted the musicians. As Donna remarked from the stage, “There is no better compliment to a fiddler than to have someone who is moved to  get up and dance.”

Franco-American and Irish Tunes in Lowell

John Whelan and Donna Hébert: The Irish-French Connection will perform Wednesday, June 23 at Immaculate Conception School Hall, as part of Lowell’s Franco-American week. The free concert is sponsored by Lowell National Historical Park and Massachusetts Cultural Council as a way of honoring Lowell’s Franco-American and Irish American cultural heritage. Come experience award-winning French-Canadian fiddling, legendary Irish button accordion, brilliant flatpick and fingerstyle guitarists, and powerful songs in Gaelic, English & French.

Icons in their Irish- and Franco-American musical communities, John and Donna spark the Irish-French connection to life onstage! Each brings 40 years of performing and recording experience to this new group. In their stage and educational programs, repertoires and traditions stand distinct and separate and then find themselves blending and reinventing into something new, as did the Irish and French-Canadian immigrant communities in the northeast where both groups migrated in the 1880s to work in the textile mills.

This free concert will take place following the ham and bean supper in the school hall of Immaculate Conception School, 218 E. Merrimac Street, Lowell, MA. Concert at 7:30 p.m. All welcome. Free parking behind school.

Making art for everyday life

After finding refuge in Lowell eight years ago, Yary Livan and his family finally own a home with a yard. Beside their light blue house on Franklin Street is a welcoming green space where Yary has created a peaceful sculpture garden. Just to the left of some blooming echinacea sits Livan’s 38-inch tall ceramic spirit house. He had patiently loaned it to us for the Keepers of Tradition exhibition, where it sat encased in a plexiglas vitrine for over a year, along with other sacred pieces of folk art.


Now the spirit house has found its rightful home. Yary’s wife, Nary Tith, had explained to us that in Cambodia, where Buddhists pray on a daily basis, temples, and pagodas are often built far from villages. Therefore, many people construct their own spirit houses for their yards. Typically, spirit houses are highly ornamented wood or cement structures limited to a handful of standard designs. Yary chose to make his spirit house of clay because he wanted to combine his skills as a ceramist with his Khmer heritage.

Their home is filled with Yary’s ceramic work — elephant pots, vases, and cooking vessels.

Indeed, even the kitchen table is a work of mosaic art.

This tiny grandchild is certainly growing up in a home rich in Cambodian material culture. Perhaps she will one day carry on the tradition.