INSIDE ARLINGTON: Among our many-faceted residents Story, photos by Aileen Maroney
On Wednesdays, you can often find accordionist Donna La Rue at the Arlington Farmers' Market between stalls of potatoes and bok choy and across from stands of magenta flower bouquets and steaming chowder.
Dressed in 19th-century European costume — a flowered head band, shawl and embroidered skirt with matching rose earrings, the strolling musician sings and plays global melodies, welcoming requests from passersby.
The multilingual musician enjoys entwining her love of languages into her set lists. She sings in English, German, Italian, French, Yiddish and Spanish.
On a recent Wednesday, La Rue played a staccato tarantella, a rousing "This Land is your Land" and a spritely "Volare." While she sung "Kornblumenblau," a man toting cucumbers bobbed his head in recognition to the German song that translates to "Cornflower Blue." Launching into "Blue Skies," girls carrying French bread and blueberries smiled and swayed to the cheery tune.
Between "La Vie en Rose" and "O Sole Mio," La Rue shared that the farmers' market is one of her favorite gigs.
'Can you play something?'
"It is so much fun to be a part of," she says. "It is in the open air. I like to do things where I'm strolling and the people are friendly."
The Arlington accordionist launches into a set list that runs through her head but relishes the chance to play favorites of the crowd.
"I like the challenge of 'Can you play something?'" she says. "Some of the people will ask me for music of a country they are from. It is kind of an identity connection. Some will ask me a song that they haven't heard in years that they really like hearing. It is a challenge technically, but it is also spontaneous."
La Rue caters her music to all ages. As the afternoon rolls into evening, young sisters in sundresses request "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." A mom asks for the alphabet song, a favorite of her 6-month-old. La Rue's gentle rendition yields a two-teeth smile.
To dry a son's tears after a skinned knee, a mother requests "Itsy Bitsy Spider." The duo dance to the nursery rhyme's soothing beat. As she entertains, a woman rides a bicycle with a tailing carrier holding two tots who crane their necks to watch La Rue.
Throughout the summer, she has gained a loyal fan base, especially among children.
"I now have a little return cadre of kids coming back," says La Rue. "I'll get little kids that will be fascinated by the sound. If I play something quiet, they will just really be intent on it. It's a medium for interacting; that's part of the fun. And for little kids especially, they are bursting out of their skins and like the spontaneity of it."
A family in Red Sox caps stops to pick up instruments adorned in ribbons. They dance to La Rue's "It's a Small World."
The musician says: "It is a way of being in touch with people in a more improvised way."
To accommodate her audiences, La Rue provides props that include a woolly lamb puppet and miniature national flags as well as instruments — a wood mallet, an egg-shaped wood rattler, tambourines, bells, shakers and more.
"Little kids like things that are fun to clap to or play instruments," says La Rue. "I have flags we can walk around and do a little minimarch. Music, it comes down to sharing and it is a very specific kind of sharing."
Musical early years
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, in a house steeped in music and languages, La Rue shared songs and melodies with her family from an early age.
“All of us played instruments. I started playing accordion when I was 4. My mom put one in my lap; what are you going to do?” she says, laughing.
Her father sang and played piano. Her mother and brother played accordion. Her sister played percussion. Her maternal grandmother's piano bench was crammed with sheet music. In the extended family, her aunt emerged as one of the first women to play string bass in a swing band, and her uncle was a concert violinist who also played trombone in a swing orchestra.
"Music was reinforced in all directions," says La Rue. "My uncle could pick up anything and play it. He had perfect pitch. He was just a really good musician. He wasn’t patient with beginners. He was the music director for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis until they left for Hollywood."
Surrounded by musical mentors, La Rue began playing "Country Gardens" and other folk tunes on her Wurlitzer accordion. Music anchored family gatherings. After her grandfather's funeral, family members gathered at his home and played for three hours. Christmas at her uncle's was not complete without pulling out the instruments and playing carols.
Besides live music, her childhood home resounded in spun melodies from the record player. Some of her parents' favorite music hailed from both the Big Easy and Broadway. She recalls her father being struck by jazz while in the service. Stationed in New Orleans, he saw a group of people marching to a cemetery after a funeral and followed the Big Band sound.
"It was the first time he heard jazz," she says. "We grew up with music playing in the house all the time. My dad either had show tunes on or swing orchestra or classical music."
Watching her languages
In sync with her love of music, La Rue's love of language flourished. At the dinner table her Belgian grandfather sometimes spoke French. Her father picked up German while in the service during WWII and chimed in with a few words in that language. La Rue began taking French in elementary school and furthered her language studies taking French, Latin and German at Ohio State.
In school, La Rue also added flute to her musical repertoire and began mastering her accordion technique, taking lessons with a musician who played with her uncle.
"He pushed us but my family insisted music still had to be fun," says La Rue. "One of my Dad's sayings was, 'A professional is someone who knows how to play well and have fun at it.'"
As a budding accordionist in Columbus, a city brimming with German heritage, La Rue polished her German fluency gigging at Schmidt’s Haus, a century-old German restaurant. Amid swaying steins and steaming platters of sauerkraut and sausages, she strolled from room to room playing biergarten standards.
For fun, La Rue composed and sang “An Ode to the Cream Puff,” a piece in honor of the eatery’s scrumptious whipped dessert. She remembers also squeezing Bach and Schubert into set lists rife with “Die Lorelei” and “Muss I den.”
“I like to always keep a balance between popular and classical music, because I think that people sometimes don’t get exposed enough to classical music in settings where they can just enjoy it,” she reflects.
La Rue furthered her performance and studies in music after moving to Massachusetts. She gigged in varied venues from playing the Hofbrau House restaurant in Plainville to playing in an Italian wedding procession on the streets of Brookline. She relishes the opportunities that abound for artists in New England.
"It is a great place for artists," she says. "The cost of living is higher, and that makes things harder. But there is a community of like-minded and like-spirited souls who meet, talk, support and work with one here that is very valuable and for which I’m very grateful."
Nowadays she continues to gig and to teach private music lessons to all ages in a broad range of instrumentation — accordion, piano, voice, flute and guitar. She writes arrangements for her students and is currently creating a "Dreidl Dreidl" piece to accompany her Hanukkah music for the December holidays. La Rue also provides lessons on music theory and composition, tuning the ear, music history and music appreciation.
Colonial studies, tours
When not pursuing music, La Rue applies her degree in the liturgical arts as a researcher. For the past 30 years, she has divided her research into two areas — French medieval and American Colonial studies. She writes, teaches, publishes and presents on her research.
"I keep changing hats," she says, "I grew up being a musician, and when it was time to declare a major, I wanted to fold music in, but I found all these other fun things to do."
For the past two decades, her research has brought her annually overseas to Sens, France, where she studies French medieval liturgical music, dance, processions and theater, while her American Colonial studies center on burial grounds and church history.
During the summer, La Rue applies her American Colonial research in Cambridge. She conducts thematic tours — "Cambridge Churches as Agents of Change" and "The Old Cambridge Burying Grounds — Soldiers, Scholars, Slaves and Stones: The Oldest Colonial Artworks" from Harvard Square.
Transforming into an 18th-century character named Mistress Elizabeth de la Rue, she weaves among the stones in the Old Burial Ground at Harvard Square, visiting varied graves and illuminating the lives of teachers, shoemakers, Harvard presidents and more. She delves into the stonecutters' artful work and leads groups to the oldest dated stone in the Colony — 1653. La Rue also guides a "Have you milked the cow today?" tour, an open-air school geared for kids that is full of Colonial activity, including quill-pen writing, spinning wool, 1700s music and country dancing.
La Rue always dresses the part when on the job. As a Colonial mistress, she wears a choker, fitted bodice and extended skirt. As a European musician, she wears a white puffy-sleeved blouse, velvet skirt and laced vest. She sews her own costumes so that she can play her parts to perfection.
Creating costumes to fit
Since childhood, La Rue created handmade costumes to fit into the seams of history she occupied. She remembers playing pioneers with the neighborhood kids in a woodsy-and-rocky acre-lot near her home.
"It wasn’t enough for me to play pioneers," she says. "I had to have one of my mom's old skirts, and I had to make a hoop skirt out of coat hangers. Otherwise, it wasn't right to do something from the period and not be dressed properly. I always had this historical sense."
When the family trekked to Logan Elm, site of a significant Native American treaty in Ohio, La Rue designed a dress to align with the site’s Native American history.
"I wouldn’t go until my parents let me put the dress into the car so that I could change when I got there," says La Rue. "Again, for me, it was not right to go to that site and not be dressed in the right clothing for it."
She attributes her love of history to her parents who took her and her three siblings on Sunday drives to places saturated with the past. The family visited Michigan's Fort Dearborn, the 1890s Ohio Village and the old mills and covered bridges of the Buckeye state.
"We would go to lunch someplace and then go to a historical site," she says. "We were bred to the idea that history is really cool."
Through music, theater, lectures and publications, La Rue threads history into her art and work. Whether playing an ancient tarantella at the Arlington Farmers' Market or presenting a paper on French cathedral processions at a university, she hopes that the history she illuminates is reflected among those she is in touch with.
"I want my students and the people I play for, sing with or talk to, to feel as though their sense of themselves and their existence is broadened and deepened and reaches out further," she says. "With the different countries, different languages, there is a lot that is shared is so many different ways. The way you say something in French is different than the way you say something in German. It's a different reality. So I hope to maybe bring a different way of broadening or deepening."
This profile was published Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. The Arlington Farmers' Market runs every Wednesday afternoon from 2 to 6:30 June through Oct. 26.
FACEBOOK BOX: To see all images, click the PHOTOS link just below