Class Notes & Profiles

Breaking Down Barriers With Music

By Craig Smith

At the end of World War II Jenny Vincent ’34 was a sought-after performer in New York City veterans’ hospitals, where her experiences singing for recovering soldiers strengthened her conviction that music was a powerful tool for breaking down barriers. (“That girl can do more to raise the spirits of the men than any movie actress,” one vet told the Red Cross.) At the same time, she performed at hootenannies and on picket lines with the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Paul Robeson.

Her political activism would earn her the enmity of McCarthyites in the 1950s, but if Jenny learned anything at Vassar it was independence of thought. As an undergraduate Deborah Jeannette Hill studied classical piano but also played in dance bands and wrote music to accompany lyrics by classmates and future poets Muriel Rukeyser and Elizabeth Bishop. In 1936 she and her husband relocated to a remote northern New Mexico village where, with time out for New York, she has lived ever since.

Jenny was first drawn to folk music by the directness of its communication. While raising a family, she became one of the Southwest’s most popular musicians and a frequent performer at national folk festivals. Respected as a living repository of folk songs, which she sings in English and their original languages to her own accordion accompaniment, she is also revered for almost single-handedly introducing traditional Spanish-American songs into local public schools. At that time, the 1940s, the use of Spanish was forbidden, even though the majority of students were native Spanish speakers. She would continue voluntarily singing in schools for 40 years. “I was motivated by something I heard at summer camp many years ago,” she said: “The children of the world will save the world.” To this day people stop her on the street to reminisce about when she visited their school.

Jenny founded Taos Recordings and Publications, to help preserve and perpetuate local cultures, and Cantemos Records for solo recordings and CDs by her Trio de Taos and Jenny Vincent Trio. Several years ago, in recognition of her many years of musicianship and cultural preservation, Jenny was named a New Mexico “Living Treasure.”

In June 2004, after she returned from her 70th reunion at Vassar, a standing-room-only audience in Taos turned out to hear Jenny do what she does best, sing and play folk songs from around the world. “I still believe that music can break down barriers,” she said, “and that can go a long way toward solving many of the world’s problems.”

Craig Smith, author currently working on a biography of Vincent.