Music has been part of island life on Grenell since Uncle Otis had a heavy square grand piano pulled across the ice back in the 1880s. At the time, that square grand piano took up about 20 percent of the living space in the cottage. Quite a sacrifice. But when you realize that there were no radios, no boomboxes, no record players, it’s easy to why Uncle Otis was willing to forfeit precious space for a piano. If you wanted music at the turn of the century, you had to make your own.
Even in the sixties, even though they had radios and record player, the make-your-own music tradition continued on the island. My husband remembers nightly sing-a-longs back when he was a boy. His father, Bob McElfresh, is an outstanding piano player. Bob even had a songbook printed up so family and friends could sing along.
After Bob retired in 1982, nightly piano concerts were the norm. But when his wife was placed in an Alzheimer’s facility in 1998, the concerts dwindled. While he still came to the island for short visits, Bob didn’t play much. “I’ve lost my audience,” he would say.
For two years, the cove was silent.
Then in 2000, Don Argento came to the island for the first time. He proposed to my daughter his first night on the island. He said he waited to pop the question until he came to Grenell, because he wanted to ask Michelle to marry him in the place she loved the most.
Don brought his guitar on his first visit and a new music tradition was born. While Bob played ragtime, show tunes and hits from the 40’s. Don’s into country, pop and music of today. We didn’t need the songbooks any more. We knew the words to these songs.
Some people come to the island to fish. Others enjoy kayaking or canoeing. Don likes to write songs in his spare time. During their short visits to the island, Don often sneaks away to some quiet spot to compose. In the past 10 years, he’s written 3 songs that I consider “island songs.”
The first was Miss Oliver’s Suite. Don describes the creation of this ballad:
While visiting Boldt Castle in Thousand Islands New York, they were in the process of renovating the top floors of the once dilapidated building. On one of the walls was written “Miss Clover’s Suite”. Poor lighting and stupidity had me reading it as “Miss Oliver’s Suite”. I wrote most of the melody and words as we roamed the castle. I imagined what could have happened a hundred or so years ago and having no knowledge of the history of this woman, I made up a fictitious “woman of the night”. In retrospect, I’m glad that I did misread the name as I wouldn’t want to make up a sultry story about a real person.
The second song he wrote in honor of my husband, his father-in-law. He titled it. “Thousand Island Pirate.” He played it for us on the porch the first night of his two-week visit. It’s a Don Argento classic because it made me laugh, cry and gasp, “My daughter married a poet!”
The last song is called MacDac City and refers to why we call our place on Grenell, “Rum Rock.” Back in the 1960s, my father-in-law concocted his own rum drink which he dubbed, “MacDaquiri.” Subsequent generations have shortened it to MacDac. The drink is both famous and infamous on the island for it goes down fast and packs quite a punch. The raucous song (not for tender ears) quite aptly catches the spirit of the drink.
How lucky we are to have the musical tradition continued on the island so we can sit on the porch or dock, raise our glasses and sing together. Even more special that the songs were written especially for that.
Granddaughter Alison is currently taking violin lessons so who knows! Perhaps there is another musician in the family and more concerts on the horizon.
By Lynn McElfresh
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life. She and her husband, Gary, winter in Dunedin, Florida and spend their summers in the Thousands Islands on Grenell Island. Lynn is the author of Can You Feel the Thunder? published in 1999 in New York by Simon & Shuster Children's Publishing Division. It is suggested for youth ages 10-14. She is also the ghost writer for several other children’s books.
Don Argento is not a professional musician, but you can hear his music on his website