Plant and Sing, a festival that takes place this weekend at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, is a festive synthesis of farming and music, a combination as old as farming itself. Bennett Konesni, 15th generation descendant of the original Sylvester family, is the visionary behind Plant and Sing. He also cultivates the musical influence that pervades everything at Sylvester Manor, from barn dances to singing in the fields.
A musician himself, Konesni received the Thomas J Watson fellowship to travel around the world studying work songs. He traveled to Africa, Asia, and Europe looking at how farmers, herders, and fishermen used work songs to increase profitability.
“Whether singing to help weed the garden faster, singing to pull in the nets more efficiently, or singing to livestock to get them to come back to the farm in the evenings,” Konesni said, “music can be a great tool.”
In addition to the increased efficiency that music brings to work, there’s the sheer joy of it. Work songs tie people together, and makes them feel invested in what they’re doing. It creates a social network.
“With the power of social media these days,” Konesni said, “people understand the power of having everyone on board, and nothing does that like music.”
Plant and Sing is a celebration of that power. It’s a proactive, participatory festival at which people are invited to join in the joyful work of the farmer/musicians. The night before the festival, the crew shucks hundreds of pounds into cloves (while singing, of course). The next morning, they get together in the field with whoever wants to join, and they plant.
“If you were alone,” Konesni said, “it would take weeks to do it, but we get it done in several hours.”
The types of songs they sing and play depend on the type of work they’re doing. The music and the work go hand in hand. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re singing about shucking garlic while they shuck garlic, but the rhythm of the song will support the rhythm of the work.
“If you’re doing rhythmic work,” Konesni said “you want to do a song that everyone can lock in on a rhythm… Other times you’re not close together, not doing rhythmic work, so the songs are rhythmically free. It might be an open ballad that just one person sings to amuse and entertain in the field.”
After the planting on Saturday morning, the celebration begins (or continues) with a stellar lineup of music including Konesni and his wife, Edith Gawler, who plays the fiddle. The Sylvester Manor farm crew, known as the Worksongers, will perform some of their favorite work tunes. Headliners will be the Wainwright Sisters and the Deadly Gentlemen. Throughout the day, other activities like poetry, farm education, and children’s activities will also take place.
“Plant and Sing shows how a community can come together around food and land,” Konesni said. “Traditionally, that’s how it’s been on Long Island. Community and land are united through good food, good music, and joyful arts of all sorts.”
Plant and Sing takes place on Saturday, Oct., 11. For the complete schedule or to purchase tickets, go to plantandsing.com.