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Helen Demong leads the Northern Lights choir in rehearsal. Photo: Bob Sweet, used by permission
Helen Demong leads the Northern Lights choir in rehearsal. Photo: Bob Sweet, used by permission

150 years after Emancipation, a new song of freedom

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Today and tomorrow in the Adirondacks, activists and artists will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

That document, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, freed more than three million enslaved human beings.

Lincoln's action during the Civil War followed decades of sacrifice by slaves, free blacks and whites who formed the abolitionist movement.

One of the most powerful symbols of that movement was Timbuctoo, the colony of freed slaves near Lake Placid.

This weekend, that history is being celebrated in a performance of traditional music from the 1800s and also in a brand new oratorio commissioned by the group John Brown Lives.

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The Timbuctoo Oratorio will be performed on Saturday at John Brown's Farm in North Elba, outside of Lake Placid. NCPR file photo
The Timbuctoo Oratorio will be performed on Saturday at John Brown's Farm in North Elba, outside of Lake Placid. NCPR file photo
At a Northern Lights Choir rehearsal, director Helen Demong says she was impressed with the turnout when she put out word she was looking for singers last fall. "I was looking for 40 singers," she says. "I didn't knew who would show up. Ten minutes before our starting time, there were two people in this room. And then all of a sudden I could see the headlights of the cars, and it was an absolute reunion."

In the end, Demong found seventy singers, eager to bring to life a new oratorio, created by composer Glenn McClure, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the history of Timbuctoo in North Elba.

Can you imagine people who never owned property, to finally have their own place, their own vine, their own fig tree.
"In the mid-1800s, Gerrit Smith decided he would do something on a grand scale and that was to purchase and give away 120,000 acres to 3,000 black men, because if they owned a parcel of land and farmed it, they could vote. And that settlement [near Lake Placid] was Timbuctoo."

For volunteer singers like Andy Kretser, co-owner of Nori's grocery in Saranac Lake, the experience grounded him more deeply in the region's history.

"Helen would come to these rehearsals and talk to us about what these pieces mean," Kretser says. "So it's become a lot more important to me, and I've thought a lot more about it more than ever before."

"I think we're really lucky," agrees Dr. George Cook, one of the soloists. "A world premier of good music, 70 people who got together out of nowhere, all ages. Kids here are 17 years old — I'm 50 years older, it's wonderful."

"I like that we have different people like this and I've never sang with people who are older than me," says Erin Urquhart, who graduated from Saranac Lake High School two years ago. "I'm lightheaded doing this once a week. I need to do this every day."

During rehearsals, the volunteers of the Northern Lights Choir work with professional intensity. Photo: Bob Sweet, used by permission
During rehearsals, the volunteers of the Northern Lights Choir work with professional intensity. Photo: Bob Sweet, used by permission
"The strength of this chorus is astounding," Demong says. "I love the energy from the moment they walk into rehearsal."

"The pull for a community choir...it kind of brings us together," says Chris Gould, himself a music teacher from Keene.

"Since this [new oratorio] is about people from all backgrounds coming together as one, it really embodies the feel for community."

The Northern Lights Choir will perform traditional abolitionist songs, as well as the new oratorio, tonight at 8 pm at St. Bernard's Church in Saranac Lake.

The oratorio will also be performed tomorrow at 2 pm at John Brown Farm in North Elba, on the outskirts of Lake Placid. The events are sponsored by the group John Brown Lives

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