The evolution of Music on Martha’s Vineyard

Photo by Peter Simon

“Music on Martha’s Vineyard” by Tom Dresser and Jerold Muskin, copyright 2014 from The History Press, Charleston, SC. Paperback, 188 pages. $19.99. Available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, Edgartown Books, and online booksellers.

Music-on-MV-cover.jpgOne of the most enjoyable parts of Music on Martha’s Vineyard, a new history of music on the Island by Tom Dresser and Jerold Muskin, is the interviews with local musicians. While the book is replete with stories and photos of the well-known and famous, it is the interviews with the locals — and there are many — that give the reader a solid sense of the shared love of music that drives both the listening public and Island musicians, most of whom have day jobs to support their music habit.

In his interview, Island folksinger, songwriter, shingler-carpenter Joe Keenan summed up his take on the subject. “The best thing about being a musician on the Island over the years is that most people are supportive in subtle ways,” he says. “We have such a strong community of artists and artisans that people make room for the vagaries that accompany the drive to play out. It is the support we get from others that makes it possible for us to pursue our artistic endeavors.”

Mr. Dresser is a former journalist and now author of seven books covering various aspects of Island history. With Mr. Muskin, a music lover and musician, he has compiled a history of music on the Island that is rich with world class musicians and composers, folk and rock stars, choral groups, both sacred and profane, bands playing Souza, and original blends of heavy metal, blues, and American roots music. The writers touch on stage musicals and open-air concerts, chamber groups and late night bar bands, bluegrass groups and town bands.

The authors admit that what they have assembled is not an exhaustive history of music on the Island, but a first attempt at a comprehensive look at an important part of Vineyard life for many Islanders.

It is a fun read that has the power to re-ignite memories of concerts with internationally known performers like James Taylor, shows at the Oak Bluffs dive, the Ritz, with local bands like Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish, and Island choirs and concert groups. It gives perspective for today’s music-loving Islanders.

The book is filled with interviews and information sifted from the Island’s newspapers and other sources. The photos of Island musicians are numerous and fun, but all in black and white. It is a compendium, a collection of anecdotes and meandering memories of events and musicians. The narrative follows the train of thought of those interviewed, and this is part of its charm.

A second edition would benefit from a more complete index. Many musicians are talked about but relatively few made it to the index. The book ultimately does justice to an important, creative part of the Island’s past, and it will bring back fond memories for both those who have enjoyed the music that has been made on the Vineyard and those who have made the music.

This is Mr. Dresser’s seventh book, either as sole or co-writer, for the History Press, a publisher that promotes local histories. His books include Women of Martha’s Vineyard and African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard, and his previous book Martha’s Vineyard in World War II, written with Herb Foster and Jay Schofield. Mr. Muskin is a poet, a former university professor, truck driver and trumpeter.


This article by Tony Omer originally appeared on