In September 2014, almost a year after my dad passed away, I started leasing a chestnutmare named Bella at an equestrian facility located in Shamong township very close to Medford and Tabernacle. Up until that time, I never heard of Shamong. Little did I imagine that it would become my home away from home.
I leased Bella for a year until I needed to take a more active caregiving role for my elderly mother, necessitating a move by me from Philly to Brigantine in October 2015. Even though I now lived an hour away from Shamong, I loved the farm where I rode and continued taking riding lessons there. The scenic drive along Route 206 through the Burlington County Pine Barrens between the farm and the White Horse Pike balanced the longer commute.
In June 2016, I found a new job closer to where I now lived, and my familiarity with Shamong helped me to connect with my new boss who grew up and still lived in the township. Now a director at a healthcare company, he reminisced about being a kid in the Pine Barrens and collecting pieces of bog iron with his friends when he was a boy.
A Pine Barrens Education
After my mom’s passing in late 2017, I found myself at a crossroads with the choice of staying in Brigantine, moving back to Philly, or starting a new life close to Shamong where I now boarded a horse of my own. I spent much time in Shamong, surrounded by an active riding community that offered many opportunities in my sport of dressage, but I knew very few people outside my circle of equestrian friends and very little about the larger area.
To improve my drive, a friend suggested an alternate route using Atsion Road, which took me past horse farms, Atsion Lake with its log camping cabins, and a place called Pinelands Adventures that offered kayak lessons. This intrigued me. Kayaking was an interest of mine, but I never had time to pursue it until now.
I visited the Pinelands Adventures website and found they were not just a kayak outfitter. As an initiative of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, they offered educational programs focusing on the region’s history, culture, and ecology, providing a perfect opportunity for me to spend the summer exploring. I took a series of tours and trips throughout 2019, most of them guided by former Director of Education John Volpa:
John McPhee’s Pine Barrens, a guided tour of the sites covered in McPhee’s classic book.
A hike on the Batona Trail to Apple Pie Hill where we climbed to the top of the iconic fire tower.
Journey Between Two Rivers, a hike between the Mullica and Batsto rivers.
The Mullica River 101 guided kayak trip led by John, who instructed me in various paddling techniques.
I met Barbara Solem, author of Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, when I accompanied her on the Ghost Towns of the Pine Barrens tour, based on her book. She told me she also led the aforementioned McPhee tour before John took it over. The first stop on both these tours was Atsion Mansion built by Philadelphian Samuel Richards.
Richards was an iron industrialist who, like fellow Philadelphian Joseph Wharton, left an indelible mark on the history and culture of the Pine Barrens. Nineteenth century business magnates such as these shaped the region into an important economic center for iron, glass, and paper manufacturing. The Industries in the Pines tour focuses on this post-industrial history. Jeff Larson, long-time Pine Barrens resident with extensive knowledge of the area, led this tour along with the Pine Barrens Habitats tour, which offers a deep dive into the diverse ecosystem of the Pines. Jeff is a professional musician and music teacher who has also composed music with a Pine Barrens theme, released on two albums: Leeds Devil Blues and The Barrens.
Jeff informed me that tourism and agriculture such as cranberry farming are the primary present day economic activities in the Pines. The Cranberry Farm Tour led by National Park Service biologist and Ocean County College adjunct professor Steve Luell provided an overview of the production of this important crop, and its connection to Ocean Spray.
New Friends and a New Life
Five years after Bella started me on a life-changing journey, I made new friends, most notably fellow writer Barbara Solem, and learned the Pine Barrens offered more than met the eye. A week before Thanksgiving in 2019, I moved into my newly purchased townhouse in Waterford, less than 20 minutes from my favorite farm in Shamong. Amazing how a Hanoverian/Quarter Horse cross mare thought to be too old to be much use could still make a difference.
A rare treat awaited me during a recent visit to Forsythe. A flamingo pink waterbird with a beak like a spoon that normally inhabits the Gulfstream states ventured much further north this summer. Meet the Roseate Spoonbill. This medium-sized wading bird is actually not rare or endangered. It just chooses to make its home in the furthest southern reaches of the United States along with South and Central America. Sightings of Roseate Spoonbills in the Garden State are so unusual that they have made the local news in the past.
I got photos of two, although both were a bit too far for my lens. A birdwatcher with a telescope kindly allowed me to take a closer look.
The Roseate Spoonbill belongs to the Threskiornithidae family, which contains 34 species of ibises and spoonbills, including the Glossy Ibis, another medium-sized water bird with a curved rather than a spoon-shaped bill and iridescent dark red and green plumage. Glossy Ibises are much more commonly spotted in the state but only during the breeding season. According to the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, this species migrates from the south to breed along the Jersey Shore. Although not an endangered species worldwide, New Jersey lists them as a species of special concern. I spotted flocks of glossy ibis this past spring but only saw one on my most recent visit.
Another highlight of the day for me was my first sighting of an American Avocet. This large black and white wading bird with a distinctive long, thin, curved beak develops a rust-colored head during the breeding season. Very striking!
Singer and songwriter Valerie Vaughn was a student at Rutgers University in the 1970s who loved the outdoors and nature. After reading an article in National Geographic about the Pine Barrens in 1974, she went for a visit. Inspired by the sites and people she encountered in the pines that summer, she started to write songs about New Jersey, especially South Jersey, which she calls the perfect location with the shore, the Pine Barrens, and cities such as Philadelphia and Atlantic City all close by. After graduating college, living in England for a few years and giving birth to her daughter, she settled in Tuckerton where she worked at Pinelands Regional High School as a social worker while continuing her creative endeavors as a musician.
This past spring Valerie played a selection of songs in an online program for the Pinelands Commission called Tunes and Tales available on Youtube. After reaching out to Valerie, she was kind enough to answer some questions for me, sharing photos and more about her life and work.
What kind of programs did you do for the Pinelands Short Course?
I usually do the songs about the Piney side of New Jersey for the Pinelands Short Course: The Tales of Mrs. Leeds 13th child, Joe Mulliner, The Forgotten Towns, and The Son of Charity. I focus on the songs I wrote inspired by chapters in Henry Beck’s Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey. Each song was inspired by a chosen chapter. It’s a different way to digest written material. I read it for you and then condense it into a song!!
When and how did you start becoming known as New Jersey’s Troubadour?
I became known as New Jersey’s Troubadour in the mid-1990s. I learned that Connecticut actually had a state troubadour, and my friends and fans started a campaign to name me as state troubadour for New Jersey. They sent my CD to state representatives. Senator Frank Lautenberg responded by nominating me to represent New Jersey to sing my songs at the nation’s capital in 2000 for the Millennium series, which was run by the Kennedy Center. This was a great honor, and I was so excited. I went and performed on the lawn in front of the capital in August of 2000. I was greeted by Kennedy Center employees and given a huge trailer to prepare for the performance complete with a big mirror with lightbulbs all around it. I felt like Dolly Parton!!! I cherish my letters from the Kennedy Center and Senator Lautenberg. It was a great honor and experience.
What were the titles of your CDs and is your music available on Spotify or a similar service?
I am a self-funded and produced musician. My CDs are Tucker’s Island and Other Story Songs recorded in 1994 and Tucker’s Island Rises Again in 1998. I have many other collections that were not mass-produced, but I did burn and sell them one at a time: The Celtic Collection, The Country Cousins, Red White and Blues, Greetings From Loveland, etc. I often toured English folk clubs and would sell the CDs of my more personal life journey songs there. I still have so many un-recorded and produced songs about my life and love that I have to record and promote. I never did Spotify. There are many of my songs with videos on YouTube.
Can you share more information about the book you are planning to write? Is it going to be a memoir?
I am a singer of songs and a writer of lyrics and songs. I am a lover of history, mystery and marine and coastal science. I have wanted to put my song lyrics in a book for many, many years. Life and making a living are constant distractions from doing this. I am 68 now and don’t want to leave here without documenting my story songs and writing a memoir. Two books have been written in my head for years. This year I started to be serious about it. My memoir is called Tales of a Troubadour. I have no publisher yet nor have I really sought one. I published and produced all my own music so I am prepared to publish my own book, but I think there may be some who are interested in my work because of its educational value. The other book I’m planning is a lyric book to be called To Tucker’s Island and Beyond (the lyrical tales of New Jersey) with song lyrics and stories of how they were written. I could write it to be part of the New Jersey history curriculum taught in fourth grade. It will simply include my song lyrics and a story of how I wrote each song, the inspiration and experiences that led to it. My memoir will be about my life in general but mostly about how I truly supported myself as a traveling musician here in America and England.
When did you start playing guitar? Do you play any other instruments?
My main instrument is my voice. I am a singer who learned to play guitar so I could sing to it. I come from a musical family. My grandfather, father and older brother all played guitar and banjo. We all could sing as my mother also did. My Dad’s family was from Kentucky so music is natural and informally taught by family. My brother made me play bass lines on an old guitar to make his guitar work sound better. We sang with the Beatle songs, Dad’s favorite standards, or old country songs. My family wanted me to play too. When I heard Bob Dylan, who wrote his own songs like the Beatles, I wanted to finally learn. I told my Dad and started to practice. I always had him to ask for help and was playing and writing my own songs within six months.I did practice two to three hours a day during this time. I was in a band at that time as well. I play piano like a guitar player. I play chords and sing along. I can pick a bit of banjo and strum the autoharp.
Do you have any favorite local venues?
I played in all the local bars and restaurants for years. I earned a living but it’s never good performing for people who aren’t too interested. I escaped that situation when I began writing and performing for children. Great listeners and participants. I always love giving tours of the Tucker’s Island lighthouse and singing a different relevant song in each room to interested people and students. I love to do concerts and have run and hosted my own house concerts for myself and other artists. I learned how to be a concert performer in England. I went for my first tour of local English folk clubs in 1997 and learned what it feels like to have people truly listen and treat a musician with respect. I sing songs that tell stories. Wherever people listen locally, I am happy to play: libraries, schools, museums, churches and home concerts.
Do you have a website or social media channels people can visit?
I use my Facebook pages as Valerie Vaughn and New Jersey’s Troubadour to promote my performances. I also have many of my songs on YouTube. Many of my songs are up there on my own channel with some nice videos done by my husband who is a photographer. There is an old website on Angelfire that still has relevant info also.
Is there information about your program for homebound people available online?
There is information about the Home Bound Folk Arts (HBFA) program on the Jersey Shore Folklife Center web pages through the Tuckerton Seaport site. This is a truly extraordinary program I am so proud to have helped create. I spent an afternoon teaching basic piano to a young autistic adult who has good musical ability. He plays beginner songs, and we play together.
Everything in general has been very low key since COVID hit. I’ve been asked to do webinars for a few organizations such as the James Still house and The Butterfly story telling group. Performances are starting soon. The vocal group that does pop music (Reflection Station) started with a private event.
You mentioned Jim Alberson as a mentor. What are your other influences?
As a young musician my teachers outside my family were The Beatles. I learned to harmonize as a singer by playing the records over and over hearing and learning all the different harmony parts. I’m still very good at this today and have been in a harmony trio and teach the parts for the pop group. After the Beatles, it was the female singers: Joni Mitchell, Carol King, and Laura Nyro for song writing and Bette Midler for performance. I also just love the great singers like Ella Fitzgerald. Local artists like Jim Albertson helped me see what locally famous artists could achieve. I also am highly influenced and helped by English folk singer Bram Taylor who became my tour manager in England.
I notice a couple of your songs such Mrs. Leed’s 13th Child touched on the theme of motherhood. Is that an important theme for you?
It’s amazing that you picked up on this! Even I didn’t realize it! Yes, I took the Jersey Devil story from the perspective of his mother the same as the story of James Still, The Son of Charity. I write about women like Alice Paul and sing the song about Harriet Tubman. Motherhood is my first job. I was rushed into it at 22 years old and did all my music work with a baby or child with me. I went to Head Start with her as the music mom and began my Talespinner musical fairy tale program there. I’ve been a foster mom and stepmom and now a grandmom. My daughter is a totally single parent, and we help co-parent. Women’s themes are important to me. I have volumes of songs about my life as a woman that have not been formally put out either. I have more than enough songs for two CDs. I always wanted to call one Greetings From LoveLand and the other Blue Country. I have so much to do to complete my work. Being a mother and now grandmother has both helped me and slowed me down. Motherhood has helped me be more creative while it has also caused some delays in my work but that’s life!!