Holly Ruth Gale is 54 years old, but she doesn’t act it. She sits tall, spry, and full of life. For Holly Ruth, life is meant to build momentum over time. Born in Dardanelle, Arkansas, her tenure as Arkansas Tech associate professor of music began in 1994. She teaches women’s choir, applied voice, vocal solo literature, and music theatre workshop. Over the years she has grown her career, pursuing countless projects related to her passions: music and theater. She has taught masterclasses and clinics all over the world, from Kansas City to Shanghai. Her age certainly isn’t slowing her down and Femme Vitál, her latest project, aims to redefine how we think about age.
“Why do we as a society, especially women, allow age to be a definer for us?” asks Holly. After her youngest daughter left for college, she explains that people began saying things like, “Oh, you’re going to have so much free time,” and “now you can just kick back.” In her case, these presumptions are entirely inaccurate. Holly Ruth fights back against notions of a quiet life and an empty nest. “Just because I’m a certain age doesn’t mean I’m stopping.”
Age stigmas often discourage women to pursue careers and new experiences later in life. This issue, which Holly Ruth addresses in Femme Vitál, has deep roots in our society. Though the stigma against old age affects both men and women, women are hit hardest. Not long ago, women were expected to give up careers to become a child’s primary caregiver. The arrangement worked well for some, but as children grew into adults women were left seemingly without purpose or a career. For many, their life began to slowly fade. Although times have changed, this attitude has remained. “Philosophically, I started thinking that I’d rather live my life in a crescendo, building momentum, as opposed to a decrescendo,” she says, “I’m vital, and I’m thinking.”
Holly Ruth says that she’s been fortunate in life. She and her husband, affectionately referred to as “Dreamy John Gale,” take equal parts in their daughter’s lives. This shared responsibility has given her a chance to pursue careers in music, theatre, and teaching.
Femme Vitál is a production that aims to tackle age. The name is a play on the words “femme fatale,” the dangerous, seductive, and mysterious female trope common in film noir. “That name reflects that element of spicy, and vital, and still kicking and going as a human,” Holly Ruth says.
In preparation for the play, Holly Ruth is interviewing older women near and far to learn how they stay vital and vibrant in their old age. “These ladies do not let themselves be defined by anything other than what they’re doing at that moment,” says Holly Ruth with a smile. “The oldest was 97. They’re just fabulous women.” In addition to the personal stories and interviews she’s collected, the play will use female archetypes and historical women. “We’re taking our favorite traits of these ladies that we like and creating a story about them.”
The play features a single character, a seamstress played by Holly Ruth, who wears the tools of her trade on her clothing — scissors, measuring tape, needle, and thread. Each of these tools has a symbolic meaning. For example, scissors can cut, create, and reshape while needle and thread can repair, mend, and alter. “She’s working and telling these stories. I think she’ll become different people, and different characters.” Analogies related to the tools and garment components lead the viewer into the next story.
Like her character in the play, Holly Ruth has learned from a long line of strong women. She’s the fourth generation in her family to earn a college degree. “My great grandmother in the 1880s was the first,” she says. “She was a teacher and got a degree in Missouri.” Both her mother and grandmother survived the Great Depression. “My mother is one of the people I interviewed. She tells these wonderful stories about moving from Colorado to California during the Depression and how all of that experience was a positive one.” Holly Ruth says that these women treated the trip to California as an adventure. Nobody felt bad for themselves and nobody played the victim.
Holly Ruth isn’t in this alone. Dreamy John Gale is responsible for set design, and Jeremy Williams is the producing director. Kate Michael Gibson fills the position of professional dramaturge and playwright. Holly Ruth and her team have been working on the project for a year now. She’s in what she calls “phase two” of production which involves fund raising, set design, and professional playwriting. The team hopes to have a preview performance ready by the end of 2017.
Femme Vitál is a service play. Proceeds will benefit charities that reflect Holly Ruth’s passions, including women’s and social charities. In addition to monetary benefit, Holly Ruth says that the play is already impacting lives. “Even if nothing were to come from this project, the process of interviewing women like this is huge for all of us.”
While Holly Ruth’s Femme Vitál looks to the future, her work with shape notes preserves the past.
Shape note music was highly influential in Holly Ruth’s early life. Her father was a Primitive Baptist minister, and unlike many churches the Primitive Baptist tradition allows only a cappella singing. Without accompanying organ or piano, the burden of pitch-perfect singing is placed on the singers. This was a problem in early America when relatively few churchgoers had classical music training.
They implemented shape notes starting in the early 1800s as a tool for teaching and learning hymns. Shape notes are a unique form of music notation where note heads are replaced by shapes that indicate a syllable and pitch. These shapes are associated with pitches and are easier to sing, especially on first sight.
This new, easier to read music spread like wildfire from its origin in New England to the South and western frontier. Several versions of the system came about including four and seven shape systems. In these versions each shape represents a syllable in the solfége system — do re mi fa sol la ti. When using the shape note system, singers don’t need to learn to read complex key signatures on the staff. As a result, shape note singing is inclusive and everyone is invited to join in. Singing groups often form a square singing inward. Each side of the square has a part in the four piece harmony. “It’s a magical kind of music called a singer’s music. It takes hold of you when you take part in it,” she says.
Although the tradition dates back more than 200 years, shape notes are still in use today. “My father was a hymnal writer and editor,” Holly Ruth says. “The shape note system was just part of who we were as musicians.”
In 2000 Holly Ruth, John and good friend Charlie Sandage started the annual Shape Note Gathering in Mountain View, Arkansas. The gathering is an event that discusses seven different shape note traditions. As with many early traditions, regional varieties arise. “There are different traditions depending on the hymnal you use and where in the country you are,” she says. Set among the mountains at the Ozark Folk Center, the gathering lasts three days. Participants learn the basics of shape note singing, sample various traditions, and sing together. “My area of specialty with them is helping the shape note singers, who are singing all day long, sing in a healthy fashion and not wear their voices,” Holly Ruth says.
Recently, Holly Ruth gave a master class in Poland. Though the tradition is American it has spread overseas. “People were there from ten different countries,” she said. “I thought I was going to need a translator, but they said that this was an English speaking tradition and that everyone at the event would speak english.”
Hollie Ruth’s folk music career isn’t limited to shape notes. She is also the creator of the musical group Jargon. Jargon explores music from early Yankee tunesmiths written between 1770 and 1810. “They were some of the very first American composers,” she says. The group performs at lecture recitals where they talk about early composers like William Billings, Supply Belcher, and Justin Morgan among others. They have performed everywhere from Wichita to Williamsburg.
Holly Ruth sees herself as not just a performer but a facilitator. She’s an embodiment of the living tradition and is happy to see it passed along.
When she isn’t singing or teaching, Holly Ruth performs as a theatre actor and director. Her recent plays include Greater Tuna and Souvenirs.
“Today is today, and today is great,” Holly Ruth Gale declares. “In some ways I feel better about myself now than I ever did. I’m more comfortable with who I am; I know who I am.” Through her work and her life, Holly Ruth is an inspiration.
Femme Vitál is set to premier in 2018. Holly Ruth’s Shape Note Gathering will be held July 6-8th, 2017