Since 2016, followers of Upper Valley live music may have noticed a figure unobtrusively positioning a camera atop a tall tripod near the stage. Wherever musicians can find a venue — outdoors at a village bandstand or First Friday parking lot gig, or indoors in a meeting hall — Chad Finer is there, digitally immortalizing the moment for posterity. And as musicians resourcefully find ways to continue live performance in spite of the pandemic, Chad shows equal determination to keep recording them. He is inviting musicians to free recording sessions in the upstairs room at Dan and Whit’s General Store in Norwich. Soon up will be Joy Gaine from Thetford, among others.
Chad became the unofficial documentarian of Upper Valley music by a circuitous route. While music was always part of his life — both parents were classical violinists — he didn’t have much inclination to follow that path. In second grade he was dutifully enrolled in violin lessons, but dodged the music track by breaking his hand playing basketball six months later. As he grew up, his academic interests led to a degree in biochemistry.
But there were various diversions along the way. Although he resisted the violin, his family was able to instill other values in him, including a lifelong compassion and interest in other people. He became an avid, self-taught photographer and mastered darkroom film developing and printing. In grammar school he even ran a small business taking snapshots of his classmates and selling them for 5 cents, partially recouping the production expense.
He also became fascinated by the work of Alan Lomax, a well-known ethnomusicologist who spent his life documenting traditional folk musicians of America including Cajun and Appalachian music and the Mississippi blues of the deep south. In the 1950s, Lomax was blacklisted — possibly by association with folk singer Peter Seeger, a suspected communist — and moved to England where he recorded traditional British and European music. After eight years he returned to continue his American work.
Chad would spend many hours listening to recordings that Lomax made on a 200-pound recorder powered by a car battery. He lugged this device along miles of dirt roads to record musicians residing far off the beaten track.
After graduating from college in 1968, Chad transformed his life with two big moves. He got married and then, just two weeks later, joined the Peace Corps. He was posted to a remote village in Sierra Leone.
The heat and humidity there were initially shocking; at times it was over 100 degrees F. But he received a genuine welcome and was soon befriended by the villagers. In true "Alan Lomax style," Chad had brought along a reel-to-reel tape recorder and all his camera equipment. He became immersed in African music, listening at night to music from Mali on short-wave radio and noting how different it sounded from music in the village. His friendships in the community allowed him to record many of the local Sierra Leone musicians. Tragically, the recorder was stolen along with the tapes, although his precious cameras, concealed in plastic containers, survived the robbery.
Among items left by departing Peace Corps volunteers was a primitive darkroom. This allowed him to develop the photographs he took of the villagers, which he gave away freely. He still retains the negatives and recently published on the Internet a photograph showing people in another village he had hiked to. He was not expecting the email from a Sierra Leone social worker in that same village where Chad had taken the photo 55 years ago. The man had found the image via Google and showed it to one of the women in the photo, who was by now in her 60s. The image had brought tears to her eyes.
After two years Chad bade farewell to Sierra Leone and returned to the US via the UK. After Africa he found the climate in both places “freezing.” He settled into studying medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and became a doctor, serving 25 years in the emergency department at a small community hospital in New London and then another 7 years at Alice Peck Day.
The pressure of clinical duties did not diminish Chad’s interest in documentaries, including interviewing and photographing passing “Main Streeters” and other Norwich residents. This was a project he started in 2006 to diminish misunderstanding and foster a sense of community. The interviews are archived on a hard drive at the Norwich Public Library.
In 2016 Chad retired from medicine and sought a new, more upbeat documentary challenge. One day he came across a group of musicians, a band called “Out on a Limb” featuring Thetford mandolin player Rick Barrows, who were playing on the Norwich green bandstand. And a light went on. They became the first Upper Valley band that Chad recorded. To date he has made about 150 audiovisual documentaries of VT and NH musicians, mostly in the Upper Valley, and has posted about 1,000 recordings on his YouTube channel.
He is particularly pleased to have found The Speckers, a family of fiddlers in Southwest Windsor County who specialize in playing early American music. Robert Resnick, host of the show “All the Traditions” on Vermont Public Radio, has called The Speckers “a Vermont treasure,” and Chad feels he is almost acting as a music historian whenever he records them.
At the other end of the spectrum, Chad recounts with a twinkle how he was introduced to the improvisational jazz music of Bill Cole’s Front Porch Concerts in Thetford. At first he didn’t know what to make of it all. However, in Chad’s words, “music works on a certain part of the brain, and listening to new types of music can remodel it.” And so he has grown to like it. Chad recorded Bill Cole’s Untempered Ensemble performing Bill’s latest project, “Margaret and Katie,” at the Faulkner Recital Hall at Dartmouth College and recalled that it was an “amazing” event.
When he heard Bill’s daughter, Althea, play an African stringed instrument — the kora — it rekindled memories of hot nights in Africa with music from Senegal and Mali. That was a special time, the time when he first took his calling as a music documentarian seriously. And every day he continues this remarkable labor of love, editing one more recorded tune and posting it on YouTube under the simple header: Chad Finer — Music in the Upper Valley.
Photo credit: Li Shen