The Block Island Times

Glenda Luck's latest CD tells of a lost world

By Lars Trodson | Jul 04, 2014

Musician Glenda Luck has a story to tell, only it’s not her own.

On her latest CD, titled “Manisses: A People and a Place,” Luck, through spoken word tracks and original songs, tells the story of the original inhabitants of this small island long before it was known as Block Island.

Using a four-piece band, natural sounds such as rain and thunder, and the voices of some familiar islanders, Luck weaves a tale both inspiring and rueful.

“It needed to be told,” Luck said of why she chose this topic. She said that when the original tribes on the island were “absorbed into a larger tribe, [they were] lost a little.” She remembered the time she was in grade school in upstate New York and learning about the Iroquoi. When the teacher asked if anyone in the class had native American blood, “one kid raised his hand, and we were all envious. I grew up with huge admiration and respect for these people.”

She took seriously the task of being historically accurate. Luck, who is a popular and familiar performer on the island, said she read books and magazine articles on the subject, and ended up with so much material to choose from that she had a hard time distilling what she wanted to write about. In the end, she said, “you have to go with what grabs your heart.” She also said there was a practical side to finally choosing what to include. “At some point, you have to say it’s not perfect, but I’m done,” she said.

Luck has plans for the project that expand beyond the CD. She is collaborating with Island Free Library Director Kristin Baumann, as well as Prof. Kevin McBride, an archaeologist and Director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum (located near the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut) and Lorén Spears, Director of the Tomaquag Museum, to create programs that will educate people on the histories of Rhode Island’s indigenous peoples. The album is for sale at the Island Free Library and $5 of every copy sold will go to the creation of this collaborative effort.

The album is a delicate balance. Luck tells a complicated story, and some of that story is indeed unhappy. But the experience of listening to the songs and the tales they tell is not depressing. She expertly balances the dark and the light.

The CD opens with the sound of a gentle surf and Luck herself begins the narrative: “An elaborate civilization cultivated over thousands over years, formed by millions of individual people, families and many hundreds of nations, was flourishing across the continent of North America from sea to shining sea when the first European explorers disembarked on its eastern shoreline and coastal islands more than 500 years ago…”

She tells us that the “Algonquin nations thrived” and then segues into a mesmerizing chant of all the names of those tribes in the nation, telling us that each name describes a “distinct place and a distinct people of that place …one did not exist without the other…”

Manisses, as an example, is an ancient name meaning “small island,” yet also refers to the people of the small island, she tell us.

And then she evokes a time when there was only “canoe travel between the island and coastal lands.” She asks a question: “What was it like 2000 years ago before the first Europeans made contact, before foghorns and buoys and stonewalls and large summer homes…what was it like… When the people known as Manisses thrived…?”

Luck is backed by a tight trio: John Whitaker on standup bass and banjo; Bill Sellar on drums; and Robert Stern on violin. The arrangements are pared back, deliberately analog in a digital age. She started working on the record in 2011 and recorded the tracks at The Point Studio in Montauk.

“I always knew Bill Sellars was my drummer, even before the project, but he didn’t know that,” Luck said about how she assembled the band. “You want the percussion to be just right. Bill is now traveling the world.” She said that she saw John Whitaker play and asked him to play bass, and the two ended up playing together for a couple of years, she said. Luck said that she grew up trained on classical piano and the flute and that she’s currently back in school playing music. She said that she writes the songs in her head first, and then she “talks to the other guys and they add their own flavor. When we perform together, it’s a nice vibe.”

Luck said that the songs came first, and the historic threads that are weaved through the record came later. “I had to know what the body of songs were first before I could decided on the narrative,” she said. “You have to let the project unfold organically.”

When asked about the decision to not shy away from some of the darker parts of the story — parts that can seem sad or cruel or both, Luck said, “Part of being respectful and loving is telling the facts,” she said. “We have to honor each other.”

A number of well-known islanders lent their voices to the spoken word tracks, including artist David Chatowsky, Scott Comings of The Nature Conservancy, Constance Dubois, a genealogist and Native American researcher, Shirlyne Gobern, the assistant town manager in New Shoreham and who is of Native American descent, Kevin McBride, and Rich Tretheway, an island resident who is also a busy actor.

On track 13, Gobern recites the relatively swift demise of the indigenous Manisses tribe: “When the Europeans first arrived, the island had been densely forested. By 1714 the town of New Shoreham began to set limits on wood consumption due to scarcity. In 1763, the Town of New Shoreham leased to John Payne the 10 acre parcel of land the remaining Manisses had been allowed to live on… By 1780, the town of New Shoreham declared the Manisseans extinct.”

The songs themselves alternate between straight narrative tales (the story of “Sam Chagum”) to more abstract, impressionistic lyrics, such as “Silver Paddles.”

Silver paddles on the water

Do you see them

Silver paddles

Oh lovely moon

Shine your light shine your light

Brother hurry

They row closer

We must turn back

Lay await for their tack…”

Luck is taking the listeners on a journey — a strange and beautiful one, to be sure — and she hopes that listeners will react much the same way as she did when she recorded it: “The project, once I started it, just took over.”

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