The Maine islands are known for many things—their rocky shoreline, lobstering communities, fiercely independent inhabitants—but street musicians are not one of them. On Vinalhaven, 15-year-old Frank Morton and his friends may be changing that. Beginning last summer and continuing this year, Frank, his older brother John and their friends Theo Brown and Francis Warren have taken to playing music downtown each Saturday morning, weather permitting.
It started last summer when Frank Morton found himself needing to make some money, and at the same time wanting to go out and play some music. He thought of street performers and said to himself: “Hey, I can play the guitar. I should try that.” So he did. Morton approached Alison Thibault, owner of Five Elements Studio and Gallery on Main Street, and asked her permission to play in front of her shop on Saturday mornings. Five Elements is centrally located and has the widest sidewalk on Main Street, so it was a good choice.
Thibault enjoys the boys’ performances outside her shop. “I think it’s lovely,” she said. “There’s something really energizing about live music and it’s wonderful to have kids playing music that people know. It’s good energy.”
According to Morton, he spent most of last summer busking alone. His friend Francis Warren joined him a couple of times with his guitar, but John was away for most of the summer. This year Frank and John are a two-guitar package deal, with either Warren or their friend Theo Brown, on cello and ukulele, joining in as well. “It’s really fun to have Theo and John doing it now,” said Frank. “Instead of just one guy, it’s three of us, it’s a fuller sound.”
The pairing of guitars with cello is unusual, to say the least, but the boys feel that it works. Brown is perhaps the most accomplished musician of the bunch, having attended the Denver School of the Arts for two years. “The guitars thing was new to me,” said Brown, “but it sounded great in my opinion. The cello gives a sort of majestic background to whoever I am accompanying.” John also likes the pairing. “[Brown] is able to improvise on the spot extremely well, and to hear him play alongside us and add a whole different sound to the mix makes it that much more fun. It doesn’t sound like Frank and I just playing guitar and singing like we do around the house. It is more like we are actually part of a group that is there to play together and have a good time.”
The boys play a wide variety of music, much of which is popular sing-a-long fare such as “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. However, they don’t make a conscious effort at developing a play list for Saturday mornings. “It’s pretty much whatever songs I’m learning or playing at that moment in time,” said Frank, who acknowledged that he listens to “pretty much everything, all genres.” According to John, between the two brothers, they already know enough music that they don’t need to prepare a set beforehand. “It’s actually funny, if you listen to us in between playing, we’ll be asking the other one what to play next,” he said. “We both know so many songs, the issue is finding ones that we both know, and that we both know the lyrics to. But a lot of the times, Frank or I will just start playing, and the other will just fall in with the chords or a basic bass line. It’s really back and forth in terms of playing something I know, then something he knows, then something we both know.”
John Morton started playing guitar three years ago when his and Frank’s grandfather sent them an old ¾ size guitar. Frank picked it up about a year later. They both took a couple of lessons from local musicians Chad King and Richie Carlson. After that, they continued on their own and are primarily self-taught. Both boys also play steel drums and some piano. Frank used to play clarinet and John used to play trumpet and a little bit of violin. Now, however, guitar is the instrument of choice for both brothers.
It’s clear on the boys’ faces that they enjoy what they’re doing, whether they are entertaining one small dancing child or a crowd of 15, such as on the Fourth of July. “I like playing alongside my brother,” said John. “It’s a talent that we both share. Playing downstreet gives us an opportunity to showcase our talent and make a little spending cash, as well as do something we love to do.” Frank agreed. “I’m happy to be doing it. It’s a good feeling to be out playing music,” he said. As long as the good weather holds, Vinalhaven islanders can count on a musical treat every Saturday morning for the rest of the summer.
Kris Osgood is a freelance writer who lives on Vinalhaven.