Chatham Author Brings John Adams To Life In Words And Music

Cape Cod Chronicle, The (Chatham, MA)

June 30, 2011
Section: News
Edition: Chatham Edition
Page: 42a

Story and photo by Debra Lawless

Author Marian R. Carlson, a Chatham summer resident since the 1980s, is wearing a necklace with two musical notes around her neck.

This is worth mentioning because Carlson’s newest book, “John Adams: The Voice Heard ‘Round the World” (Schoolmaster Press, 2010), has been set to music as a part of the Landmark Orchestra’s History Through Music Series. The book itself, geared for fourth graders and up, has just been recorded by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough.

“I had 16 working titles,” Carlson said during a recent interview at her Seaview Street home where she is sitting on a screened porch and sipping lemonade. “When I finished my research it just hit me. Adams was the voice heard ’round the world.”

Carlson describes Adams as the “voice” of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson as its “pen.”

There’s a lot going on here — Carlson’s richly-illustrated book, the orchestral music, and McCullough’s reading. Mc-Cullough is, of course, famous as the author of “John Adams” (2001), from which a 2008 PBS mini-series was created.

“People see this as something different and fresh, bringing the arts together,” Carlson says. “After they listen to the CD, students get fired up about history. Then there are activities in the back of the book.”

Here’s how this multi-art collaboration came about.

Carlson, whose other home is in Cambridge, serves on the board of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. The orchestra, whose mission is to provide classical concerts free of charge, was founded in 2001 by the late Charles Ansbacher. Concerts are performed in significant architectural, historical and geographical settings in the Boston area. The orchestra commissions a new work each year to teach history through music. In 2008 Carlson’s narrative, with music composed by Emmy-winning trumpeter Anthony DiLorenzo, was performed seven times. Last fall McCullough entered the picture with his reading of the book.

So here we have a conjunction of history and music.

And let’s not forget architecture and geography. In writing her 1,000-word book, Carlson visited the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy — the birthplace of both John Adams and John Quincy Adams, the second and sixth presidents — and took a private tour with a National Park Service guide. She climbed Penn’s Hill and gazed over at Bunker Hill. It was from here that young John Quincy and his mother, Abigail, watched the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. She met composer DiLorenzo in Los Angeles, and met McCullough near his home on Martha’s Vineyard. Oh, and she spent a week in Washington, D.C. digging up the 33 beautiful illustrations in the book.

Open the 36-page book and you’ll see a map of the 13 original colonies with a quote from Adams: “The 13 clocks were made to strike together.” On the facing page is a head-and-shoulders painting ofAdams.As the story progresses, that same painting of Adams recurs — showing more of Adams each time, until finally you see the entire full-length 1783 portrait by John Singleton Copley. That portrait, considered to be the best of Adams, is now in the Harvard University Art Museum.

Adams was born in Quincy in 1735; in 1776 he led Congress in its move to write and sign the Declaration of Independence. In 1796 he was elected the second president of the United States after serving for seven years as George Washington’s vice president. He died on the Fourth of July 1826.

Carlson tells Adams’s story through the eyes of his son, John Quincy, who was 16 in 1783, the year the book is set.

Last September Carlson ferried over to Martha’s Vineyard and met with Mc-Cullough at the high school. In recording the book McCullough read every line three times so the sound engineer could later remix his voice, using the best enunciation. Carlson described McCullough as “friendly and warm. You think you’re talking to Uncle Dave,” she said.

“He said he loved [the book] and he was trying to get history into the schools,” adds Carlson, a former elementary school teacher in Newton and Lexington. “We were honored that he would drop his work for this.”

Carlson is also the author, with the late Libby Hughes, of “American Genius: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” Her latest work is “In Search of the Great American Writers: An Imaginary Journey Back in Time with Intrepid Reporter Nelly Bly” (2010). Last year she arranged for a Cape Cod blacksmith and his son to ride horses in Chatham’s Fourth of July parade dressed in tri-corner hats as John and John Quincy Adams.

Carlson, who grew up in Ohio, has a unique connection to Adams: her stepfather was a descendent. Her step-father left her his library on Adams. “I read everything,” she says.

A mother of three, she dedicates “John Adams” to her three young grandchildren: Charlotte, Emma and Paul and “all those who carry a patriotic spirit of freedom in their hearts.”

“Parents, grandparents, neighbors are a wonderful source to communicate our history,” she says.

Carlson will sign copies of “John Adams: The Voice Heard ‘Round the World” at Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham, immediately after the Fourth of July Parade on Monday, July 4. Copies of the CD will be sold separately.  Author Marian R. Carlson.

(c) 2011, The Cape Cod Chronicle