Dot MacDonald follows a musical trail

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BRATTLEBORO — Dot MacDonald asked her parents for a guitar when she was 10.

She begged and bugged, becoming the 1950's persistence champion of Brooklyn, N.Y. Her folks weren't opposed to the idea; money was just always tight. Buying an instrument was out of reach, let alone paying for lessons. But Dot kept climbing that mountain, and the next day woke up and climbed it again.

"OK," her father finally said. He brought home a cheap guitar and handed it to her. "If you can learn to play a couple of songs before Christmas, we'll get you a better guitar."

Her parents were not expecting Dot to take up the challenge. The family wasn't especially musical, though her mother could read music and play some piano. They thought young Dot's fierce longing to make music would subside into other, perhaps less expensive, interests.

Cheap guitars are a unique kind of dare. The long necks often attach at perceptibly odd angles to the body. The glue holding the pieces together can't fight the pull of the taut, sharp steel strings, making the bridge shift and the neck twist. The bad angles and lazy glue leave the strings hovering angrily high above the fretboard. You have to press with the force of a thousand circus strongmen just to get them to touch. Even if you can make the notes, the guitar rarely stays in tune.

Dot's fingers bled. She kept climbing. She learned to play a couple of songs, and then some, before Christmas.

"And then I discovered sheet music!"

Dot loved the traditional folk music of the time — Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie — and learned song after song, sometimes alone, sometimes with her friends (who preferred the poppy early Beatles' tunes), and always by ear.

"I knew nothing about music," she says with rock-solid certainty. Her senior dog, Sadie, lies nearby, attentive and soulful. "Absolutely nothing. But I loved it."

She remembers sitting in the kitchen while her mother cooked dinner, playing her guitar. Her mother loved "Country Roads," so Dot would play and sing it, again and again, her mother singing along.

Dot loved the song too. "Since I was a little kid I wanted to live in the country. I just knew that that's where I would live. When I played that song, I would think, 'Someday I'm going to be sitting in the country with my friends playing this song.'"

It wasn't until she was 15 that Dot learned about sheet music. It was a revelation: the chords were written down! She didn't have to piece everything together by ear!

She began consuming all the sheet music she could find. She haunted the aisles of Izzy Young's Folklore Center in the Village, in Manhattan, buying up back issues of Sing Out! magazine with its chords for songs by Southern black blues and folk masters.

The Center had an upstairs room where local musicians would jam. Luminaries hung out there, the big names in the folk scene.

One day, Izzy gestured to the teenage Dot. "You can go up there," he said. "You're in here enough."

She summited the stairs. The room wasn't big. Cigarette smoke hung in the air and beer bottles poked up from the floor and chairs. Musicians in a loose circle traded off songs.

"Dave Van Ronk was there, and Dylan. I just leaned against the wall. I just listened. I was very shy, and it was almost too intense, too stimulated. I could only stay for so long."

She descended out of that rare air, and out of the store, a little lightheaded, sheet music in her hand. She kept learning songs.

"Country roads, take me home"

Dot moved to Vermont right after college and settled in Brattleboro soon after. It was never a question for her; the trail of her life led to country roads.

It also led to all possible mountain trails in New England and beyond. Over the years she hiked the Long Trail, all the 4,000-footers in the region, and many sections of the Appalachian Trail up to Maine and down south.

She hiked into motherhood, into a 27-year teaching career at the Neighborhood Schoolhouse, into long-distance bike rides across Vermont and beyond. She hiked with loyal dogs and good friends. She hiked into pub sings at McNeill's Brewery on Elliot Street, taking turns leading songs with friends and strangers. She hiked with curiosity pulling her forward and music piping through headphones to her ears. She hiked with her guitar.

Then, last year, she hiked upon Intro to Ukulele with Lisa McCormick.

"Now I'm in three bands"

Dot has two binders filled with songs. One has a picture of Rosie the Riveter holding a ukulele aloft by its neck. Rosie looks fierce and determined. She seems to proclaim that she will persist, with her comrades, in making music together.

The ukulele is funny. It's tiny, more like a thought bubble or a guppy than an instrument. It looks more like a joke. And yet it is happy, genially proud, a jester and a pet, an easily tuned portal to music and a blaze on a tree. It hums that you're going the right way.

Dot calls her beautiful, flaxen-flamed ukulele "Oscar," short for its manufacturer's name, Oscar Schmidt. When she's not playing it, she holds it like a flirty, friendly baby. It makes her smile.

She's taken all of McCormick's classes, shown up for the ukulele flash mobs, and attended all the small-class salons that explore specific songs and techniques.

"I was part of the Ukulele Orchestra that played with the Brattleboro Women's Chorus," she says. "I could not believe I was on stage. I told someone that I've wanted all my life to be in a band, and now I'm in three!"

Along with the Orchestra, Dot is part of a local ukulele group called Don't Fret and her church band, for which she plays guitar.

"Don't Fret is going to play for elderly folks in the area who long to be around music," she says. "We're getting T-shirts! And we're going to play songs about the sun at the Putney Library in honor of the eclipse."

The ease of the ukulele made her fall in love with the instrument, as did McCormick's welcoming, joyful, strengths-based approach to learning and making music. Dot also found a new level of musicianship in her fingers; she recently learned how to play the blues and how to improvise, two skills she long wanted but never thought she'd experience. She's eager to keep learning as McCormick's ukulele classes resume in the fall.

But Dot was most surprised at how much social connection came through this assembly of wood and strings.

"The instrument itself, and how Lisa has this gift for helping people bring music into their lives, create a sort of cohesiveness," she says. "It doesn't matter who you are, whether you're a man or a woman, whether you have friends in the group or not. You can show up, you're welcome, and you can play."

She sees the social power of uke music in the many practice groups around town and in the popularity of the ukulele flash mobs. She sees it in the songs that she and her fellow uke players share and love.

"'If I Only Had a Brain' is a big favorite for everyone." She smiles broadly. "It's so much fun to play, and it has some challenging chords. It's so bouncy and light and jazzy, you feel like you're singing a Broadway tune."

She plays the intro then, and she sings. It is as if she is on stage. The power of her heart fills the room, and the humble generosity of her life finds a friend in the ukulele in her arms. She pops a grin at the shivery-delicious G7 turn. She climbs, brave and happy, through the second bridge and down the slope of the last verse. She finishes strong, right where she belongs.

She says, "I was a teenager when I imagined playing music along country roads with my friends. And, look, playing ukulele, it's all come true. It's been a tremendous experience."

To learn more about ukulele classes in Brattleboro, visit http://bit.ly/svtuke.

Reach Becky Karush at rkarush@gmail.com.

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