Story by Gareth Vieira

“I suppose I always had this idea that life should be beautiful” – Elizabeth Barlow

There are several ways to begin a story about Elizabeth Barlow. We could go with the obvious and mention her grandfather — children’s TV celebrity the Friendly Giant, or, what about her distant relation to poet Emily Dickinson? We can talk about her style, artistic temperament, or unique approach to life, but most importantly, how she contributes to our community by sharing her passion for music and culture.

But firstThe Friendly Giant.

Yes, my grandfather was the Friendly Giant. He was a very musical person and he showcased that. He was exactly like that in real life. It wasn’t an act, so when I went to visit him, it was like being on an episode.”

Her parents were also both musically inclined and they nurtured a spirit of creativity early in her life.

There was music around all the time. My father is a drummer and percussionist and plays all kinds of styles, so I had a lot of exposure in childhood.”

At the age of ten, she joined the Anglican Church which has remained an important part of her life and which she credits with her development as a singer. At eighteen, she moved with her mother from Toronto to Grafton and says while it was a transition, the feeling of being home came quite naturally.

Right from the beginning of my living in Grafton, I got involved in things in Port Hope and Cobourg and as time went on, it made sense for me to move here, more into the  heart of things.”

So, for the past year and a half, Port Hope has been her home where she works as a church organist and pianist for local choirs as well as giving harp lessons.

My parents showed by example that if you do what you love you can make it work and that’s what I try to do and it is a joy to live in a community that appreciates that.”

Most recently, Elizabeth was accompanied by Timothy Wisnicki as they performed music by Bach and R. Vaughan Williams featuring the Goldberg Variations and Songs of Travel at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church.

She also has orchestrated some unique events in town including Balfolk Dancing which is a Western European social folk dance accompanied by live music with all ages welcome to participate.

We teach the dances as we go along and you don’t need to come with a partner. Our next dance will be taking place on Sunday, August 27 beginning at 6:30 pm at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 1 Elias Street, Port Hope. It’s a pay what you can event – $10 per person suggested.”

Another happening is Shape-Note singing, also known as Sacred Harp Singing.

It’s a centuries-old tradition of an a capella hymn singing in four-part harmony and it’s called “shape-note” because it employs a system of musical notation that uses a series of differentlyshaped note-heads to indicate the notes of the scale. If this sounds complicated, don’t worry – the system was designed to make sight-reading easier so that this music could be accessible to more people. It’s not even necessary to have any music-reading ability in order to participate; a lot can be done through simply listening to the other singers.”

The group meets on the second Sunday of each month in Grafton from 7:00 to 9:00 pm at the Grafton Community Centre/Library building at 718 Station Road. There is no charge for participation, but there is a donation basket available should anyone want to contribute some loose change to help cover minimal expenses. The next singing will take place on Sunday August 13.

Another passion on her roster is historical costumes with the 1840’s being a particular favorite, an interest derived from American children’s book illustrator Tasha Tudor, who herself was influenced by that era.

As both Elizabeth and I share an interest in poetry, I had to ask her if she liked the writings of Emily Dickinson. I wasn’t surprised when she said yes, but I was surprised when she said they were related.

“I’m related to Emily Dickinson,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in family history and doing some research online, I came across some information that suggested that. But surely, I thought, someone would have mentioned that. It can’t be true. So I phoned my grandmother and in her typical humble way said ‘yes, oh yes, I remember hearing something about that’, but she would never mention it because she didn’t like to make a big fuss about herself and her family.”

Very Emily Dickinson-like, I thought.

Well, that is a snapshot of Elizabeth Barlow. There is a great deal more I could say, but somethings are better said in person, some people, like Elizabeth, are a joy to meet. 

For more info on Balfolk Dancing, visit the Facebook page: www.facebook.com/balfolknorthumberland

Or the website, under development: www.balfolknorthumberland.weebly.com

And for info on shape-note singing:  www.sheltervalleyshapenote.weebly.com

On Facebook: www.facebook.com/groups/sheltervalleyshapenote