It can be difficult and tiresome to take a musical instrument on a canoe trip, but that’s just what participants in the Massachusetts Walking Tour do.
“We have joked about the banjo making a pretty good paddle,” says Raianne L. Richards, a tour co-founder and one of its musicians. “When backpacking especially on trails, it is more challenging than a normal hike when you have an instrument strapped to your pack. It adds additional weight, height and throws off your balance. You have to really watch for low-hanging trees.”
This year the ninth – an annual bipedal concert tour promoting local arts and culture – will take place from starting on Friday and running through June 27.
All concerts are free except for the one June 24 when non-members of the Holyoke Canoe Club will be asked to pay $5.
Since 2010, co-founders Mark Mandeville and Richards have organized an annual non-profit concert tour of Massachusetts in support of arts and culture for towns throughout the commonwealth. Each community concert collaborates with local artists, musicians, educational programs, trail managers and land trust groups to highlight both artistic diversity and recreational land use.
“Libraries seem to be the most receptive as they immediately see the value in our combination of musical performance, art and nature as a shared experience with the audience,” Richards said.
They also have used unique venues such as state parks, campgrounds, mountaintops and wooded areas.
There is a core group of six musicians who paddle or walk everyday for the entire trip. Their routes are available online for people who want to join them for a day or for a few hours. “We don’t have any support vehicles or anything so people have to figure out their own logistics,” Richards said.
After their travel for the day, the musicians arrive at their venue to perform a concert.
She performs in an ensemble, singing and playing the ukulele, penny whistle and shaker.
The ensemble chooses original, folk, bluegrass and traditional songs with themes about community, nature and walking. This year audience members can expect a river song or two in the mix as well.
Performers vary at each venue. They have included classical instrumental, folk, rock and blues musicians as well as dancers and poets.
The portion of the program that features local artists varies from town to town depending on who in the community is participating.
According to Joseph J. Rodio, director at the South Hadley Public Library, one of the stops on this year’s walk, the library’s first experience with the walk “was a wonderful experience for everyone who attended,” so there was enthusiasm for a second concert.
Mandeville and Richards “are genuinely nice people with a passion for their music, and they recruit like-minded musicians for the annual walking tours,” he said. “The quality of the music is first rate, and the artists take the time to talk about the songs being played and the other stops they’ve made along the way.”
The musicians on the walk are slowly visiting each of the 351 towns in Massachusetts and “showing these communities that it can be done and that the community gets a lot out of having a concert,” Richards said. “By walking ourselves with our instruments we lead by example with how hard we are willing to work for a concert and hope that others will be inspired to work a little harder to support the arts locally.”
Rodio notes that traveling musicians were once a mainstay in New England culture.
“The Massachusetts Walking Tour is a connection to that time in our history, playing music that is at the root of contemporary country and folk music,” he said. “I love that the Massachusetts Walking Tour brings in local artists and musicians to be part of their concert experience. It really makes for a shared connection with the communities they visit.”
Seeking to inspire communities through arts programming featuring local artists and helping to raise awareness of trails and green spaces throughout the state, the musicians create stages for local artists to perform in their communities to a respectful listening audience and provide crossover between art and music lovers and hiking and nature advocates. “We hope to create meaningful relationships in which these groups may continue to support each other,” Richards said.
The Massachusetts Walking Tour will be visiting towns along the Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail. It will include 11 community concerts.
“During our very first hike, we visited a town that had not held a concert in over 20 years,” Richards said. “From then on we decided that no town in our state should be without music.”
For more information, visit the tour’s website, masswalkingtour.org