Legendary folk singer Jenny Vincent dies at 103

Rick Romancito
Posted 5/9/16

Legendary Taos folk singer Jenny Vincent died on Mother’s Day, Sunday (May 8), at the age of 103, according to her biographer Craig Smith.

Vincent was very well known in Taos County as a teacher and political activist. She is credited for …

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Legendary folk singer Jenny Vincent dies at 103

Posted

Legendary Taos folk singer Jenny Vincent died on Mother’s Day, Sunday (May 8), at the age of 103, according to her biographer Craig Smith.

Vincent was very well known in Taos County as a teacher and political activist. She is credited for helping to preserve many Hispanic folk songs at a time when administrators pushed for assimilation.

Born April 22, 1913 in Minnesota and raised in Chicago, Jenny Vincent was educated at a progressive private school and Vassar College. Introduced to international folk music at an early age, she remained a performer and champion of this "music of the people."

In 1936, Jenny and her first husband visited northern New Mexico at the invitation of D. H. Lawrence's widow, Frieda. Jenny believed strongly in social advocacy, which she expressed through song. She performed with such luminaries as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Malvina Reynolds, and Earl Robinson, all social activists who used music as a voice for world peace, civil liberties, and human rights.

Jenny and her second husband supported such causes as the Salt of the Earth strike, Native American rights, and the rising Chicano movement. Through it all Jenny raised a family and continued her music. In her 90s, Jenny continued performing, and in 2006 was honored by the University of New Mexico and the New Mexico State Historic Preservation Division for her many decades as a prominent cultural activist.

Watching her face, you’d think Jenny Vincent would have loved being right up there with the fourth-graders who stopped by Taos Retirement Village to honor her 102nd birthday in 2015. Vincent smiled broadly as she clapped and sang along with the students led by Taos Charter School teacher Tara Somerville. She was accompanied by musicians led by Larry Vincent, Jenny’s son. The concert was also conducted for the benefit of other Taos Retirement Village residents as well.

Up until a few years ago, Jenny Vincent performed regularly with fellow Taos musicians Rick Klein and Audrey Davis, entertaining audiences with the kind of Northern New Mexican folk songs she helped preserve at a time when schools in this region forbade Spanish from being spoken in classrooms. Today, she is credited with helping to keep this important part of Hispanic culture from being lost forever.

Somerville said the kids sang all the way to Taos Retirement Village. “I’ve had many of these kids since kindergarten and they are, for the most part, uninhibited singers, kind of amazing to hear,” she said. “This is the entire fourth grade, not a select few.”

Probably one of the most thorough accounts of Vincent’s early life is contained in the book “Sing My Whole Life Long,” a biography by Craig Smith who wrote the book in 2007 after meeting Vincent at his son's wedding. Jenny was there with some of her bandmates to play music at the wedding, and Smith said he became fascinated with her life story and soon got the idea to turn it into a book. Vincent even influenced Smith to learn to play the accordion.

Vincent and Dan Wells (Jenny would later remarry and take the surname Vincent) bought the ranch in San Cristóbal in 1937. They were a young couple from back east that fell in love with the area in Northern New Mexico after paying visits to their friend Freida Lawrence, widow of the famous author D.H. Lawrence. Vincent and Wells cared deeply for their new neighbors and community in San Cristóbal, and soon after buying the ranch the couple decided to start a school for grades nine through 12 for boarders and daytime students on the property.

The school allowed San Cristóbal Valley residents to attend high school without having to make the 30-mile round trip to Taos every day. The school was such a success that they soon added grades five through eight.

“A lot of it was built around the things kids did together — chores, building, caring for their rooms, outdoor activities,” Vincent told Smith for his book.

In 1943, Vincent became the Taos County representative for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which, according to Smith's book, was founded in 1908 to help farmers in New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming improve and market products.

“The farmers union was a milestone for Jenny's personal and political maturation,” Smith wrote. “In this work she found meaningful expression and practical application for her growing political convictions.” That same year, Vincent joined the communist party.

Vincent moved to New York for a while during the 1940s and returned to San Cristóbal following a messy split from Wells. After returning to New Mexico in 1947, Vincent met and fell in love with Craig Vincent, a man who shared many of Jenny's political convictions and worked for a nonprofit dedicated to improving conditions for the underprivileged in Denver. The two married in 1949, and settled down at the San Cristóbal property, where they decided to start a guest ranch. It was not long after that San Cristóbal caught the attention of the communist-fearing right, during the era of "McCarthyism," so-called for Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In 1950, a man who went by the name of Harvey Matusow came to stay at the ranch for one week. His real name was Harvey Matt, and he was working undercover as an informant for the FBI. Two years later, Matt testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). According to Smith's book, many of the accusations, such as Matt's assertion that Vincent and her husband went on an “intelligence gathering” mission to Los Alamos, were nonsense.

In 1954, Craig Vincent was subpoenaed to testify at a trial of his friend, Clinton Jencks, who was accused of falsely signing an affidavit that claimed he was not a communist. Craig refused to hand over the San Cristóbal ranch's guest list as well as other information concerning the ranch, and was sentenced to five years in prison, although he never served his sentence, most likely due to the controversy that led to the censure of McCarthy by his fellow senators and the end of his reign as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations.

Smith received much of the information for his book from conversations with Vincent herself, and it's clear that in seven years Vincent's memory has faded. Now 101 years old, Vincent spoke with a reporter who came to visit her at the Taos Retirement Village in July of this year. When asked about the FBI investigations at the ranch, Vincent simply said, “I'm trying to forget.”

“My memory is not as good in that area as it is in remembering a song,” she said.

Vincent still plays folk music at the retirement home every Tuesday, and each week she attracts a sizable audience. Her husband, Craig, has been dead for more than 30 years.

By the time Craig was subpoenaed to testify, he and Vincent had already sold the ranch. According to Smith's book, Craig Vincent wrote in a letter to the Taos Chamber of Commerce that he and Jenny Vincent “could no longer in all fairness to our guests and ourselves subject them to the overt danger of being framed in this way, to satisfy the evil political purposes of those who would subvert the Constitution.”

In 1964, however, Jenny and Craig Vincent decided to buy the ranch back. Five years later, the couple decided to rent the ranch out to someone named Reis Tijerina, who was to use it as an Indo-Hispano cultural center. An announcement was made on the afternoon of February 2, 1969, and by that evening the ranch home and other structures had burned to the ground. Craig Vincent was convinced this was arson. So did Tijerina, who according to Smith's book, thought of the fire as “further proof of the conspiracy to keep Hispanic peoples from developing their culture, rights and heritage.”

For more, see the Thursday (May 12) edition of The Taos News.

The above was compiled from previously published articles in The Taos News and excerpts from Craig Smith's biography.

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