In Memory of John Fleagle: He Once Was a True Friend of Mine

It’s Friday night and all I can think of is John.  I know why: it’s only five days till Beltane, May Day.

Sumer is iccumen in, loude singe cuccu,

Groweth sede and bloweth mede,

And springthe the worlde anew,

Singe cuccu,

Owe bleatheth after lambe

Lowthe after calve cu…..(13th c. round, author unknown)

And we would go down to the Charles River before dawn on May Morning, with the New Cambridge Morris dancers, and take off our clothes and bathe in the frigid Charles, and then dress all in white.  Then, with John and I and assorted others playing pipes and tabors (a medieval drum), we would all set off, the dancers in their marching step and the musicians setting the pace, until we came to Harvard Yard.  There the Morris would form a ring and begin their special May Morning dances.  The accompanying Laydies in their white robes would laugh when the Jester, with his balloon made from an inflated pig’s bladder attached to a stick by means of a string, would mischievously smack their behinds with it; they would run after him and try to catch him, and he would run off swinging his pig’s bladder over his head and laughing maniacally.

The Swordsman bore upon his upraised sword a huge round cake upon a board, and doled out slices to everyone.  The one who got the silver charm hidden in the cake would have his or her heart’s desire fulfilled that year.  (And hopefully not a broken tooth in the bargain.)

Then on to Cambridge Common, where the Maypole was in place, with its many-coloured ribbons tied to its base.  At a signal from the Master, each one took his ribbon, and when the music commenced, the dancers began to weave the pole, half dancing sunwise and half widdershins, until the ribbons were woven into one, and tied again at the base.  Then the eggs and ale were passed around, and merry-making continued until the shadows grew long in the afternoon.

John and I met at Old Sturbridge Village, a 17th century reenactment museum in Western Massachusetts,  in 1973.  We were both playing for a day of dancing there.  We were playing in different bands, and met during a jam session between dances.  We fell in friendship-love immediately.  His beautiful chiseled features, tousled blond hair and lithe body in his period costume intoxicated me; but not only was he beautiful in form, but an ancient yet innocent purity of spirit caught me up in its beauty.  And to boot, he was a musician of rare talent and skill.  How rare, I was to discover over the next four years.

Soon after the Sturbridge Village dance, I decided to move from Western Massachusetts to Cambridge, where I was involved with the Contra Dance and Playford (English Country) Dance scene.  John and I often crossed paths at the dances and played in the pickup bands.  He wanted to move into Cambridge too, so we collected a group of four musicians: John, Elliot Ribner, Peter Amidon, and myself, and we rented a four bedroom flat in what was, at that time, one of the low-rent districts of Cambridge, which is now the high-rent district: Inman Square.

Our flat at 6 Marie Street became a hub for musicians and performing artists of all sorts.  John was mainly involved in Early Music, and studied with Marleen Montgomery, a wonderful teacher who had a large school and consort called Quadrivium.  I also studied in Quadrivium, as did Peter, and thus our place was crawling with krumhorns, sackbutts, racketts, serpents, and every size of recorder from sopranino to bass.  Elliot was involved with Irish music and shape-note singing and radio production, and I was of course the resident Old-Time banjoist when I wasn’t playing krumhorn or mandolin, singing ballads or madrigals or rounds and catches.  The place was a beautiful cacophony.

John became fascinated with luthiery and set up a workbench in his already tiny room off the kitchen.  His first project was a rebec, which is a medieval predecessor of the Middle Eastern Rebab.  He played it like a madman, once he had it made.  Then, having become proficient in playing the lute, he endeavored to make his own, and toiled away at it every spare moment.  I knew this, because my room abutted his, and through the thin wall I could often hear him planing the wooden ribs late into the night.

Photo credit: Magnatune

Photo credit: Magnatune

We often played music together.  We would get a book of recorder duets and play right through the whole thing; or sing rounds for hours at a time.  John was one of the world’s only natural counter-tenors (in the bad old days, countertenors were produced by castrating little boys who had the bad luck to have beautiful high-range singing voices.  John not only had all his body parts, but his singing range stretched from baritone to countertenor.)  His voice soared effortlessly into octaves that floated away in the clouds.  I, stuck in the lowly land of Alto, could only thrill to the wonderful flights that came out when he opened his mouth.  It always amazed me that John would sing and play with the likes of me, a mere mortal.

We were close; very close.  Sometimes we would lie together, fully clothed, on the camping mat that John called a bed (he rarely slept); for this he would have to sweep away some of the wood shavings that piled knee-high in his room (“I don’t have time to take them out!”).  We would lie there holding one another, breathing together, eye-gazing, weeping from the sweetness of it, wanting to be lovers but never daring to harm the pure love we cherished for one another.

As John’s skill in musicianship grew, so did his time commitments.  Soon he was playing with two other consorts, in addition to Quadrivium.  He would rush into the house, shower and change clothes, and rush out again.  Once I caught him in the pantry, with a bottle of vinegar in one hand and a bottle of oil in the other.  He was taking swigs alternately from one bottle and the other.

“John, what on earth are you doing?” I cried.

“I don’t have time to make a salad,” he said, blushing.

I saw him less and less that year, as I was working two jobs plus gigging several nights a week, and he was busy with all of his commitments.  We managed to play a Renaissance Faire together now and then, or perform for the Society for Creative Anachronism; and of course every year on May Morning we went down to the Charles with the Morris Ring.

Things changed; I moved off to Chicago, and John joined the Early Music consorts Alexander’s Feast and the Boston Camerata, and we soon stopped writing.  I heard through another former roommate at 6 Marie that he had married and moved to California.  I was joyful that he had found his mate, but still a bit sad that we had never managed to overcome our fear of ruining things, and had remained chaste lovers.

John died in 1999, of throat cancer.  It struck me as a bitter thing, to inflict such a death on a singer so sweet: he was known in close circles as “L’Ange,” The Angel.  I learned of his death a few months after he was gone, from one of the roommates.  She gave me one of his recent CDs, and do you know, I have not yet had the courage to listen to it.  I think I might just die of grief.  I loved him so.


John Fleagle, L’Ange

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  1. What a great love, and a great love story. You and he were so lucky to have that. I’m sorry it faded, and ended how it did. But what a great thing to have had, and to celebrate.

  2. Amazing story. We never appreciate what we have until it is gone. You have had such a rich life, seizing your day like I never could. Memories can be a blessing or a curse, but every once in a while one can be a savior. I think this is one of them.

    • It’s bitter-sweet. I often think I missed the chance to have a lifetime love, but our paths led us to different places. I am incredibly grateful to have had the time with him that I did, and I feel it was an extraordinary privilege and a joy verging on the ecstatic. And unlike so many blessings, I was acutely aware of the magic of each moment.

  3. Kate

     /  April 1, 2014

    I discovered John Fleagle when I was researching a medieval poem, “I Have a Yung Suster”. I found John’s song of this poem, with the lovely faux Latin refrains. I was stunned by the beauty of the song. I found not long after that John Fleagle had been in my part of the country for part of his life, singing in local venues (I am in New England and grew up just outside of Boston), only to realize he had already died and I had missed seeing him in person. What a tremendous loss!

    • I’m glad you came to know of John, and so sorry you missed him. I think of him every day, my brother of choice, and look forward so singing with him on the other side.

  4. Nancy Williams

     /  December 20, 2015

    HI Laura, I was copying his CD, World’s Bliss, and trying to find liner notes online and ran across your post. It’s been years since he’s been gone and it was many years that I couldn’t listen to his music, but now I’m back at it. Thank you for your lovely post. John was my brother.

    • Wow!!! Nancy, it’s so good to hear from you!!! We met, I know, at one of the wonderful goings-on or another.

      I can’t even imagine your loss. My own loss is huge. We were soul brothers, soul lovers, soul friends, partners in music, dance, and joy.

      A mutual friend gave me a copy of his CD years ago, but I still have not been able to listen to it. I heard his voice on a Revels recording and cried for a week.

      Did you find the liner notes? If not let me know. Denessa has them, and if I’m not mistaken so does Peter Amidon.

      Thanks so much for writing.

      Much love….Laura

  5. I’m just an early music fan, but I just wanted to say John’s voice is still the only one that can bring me to tears. That he was taken so young is just so wrong. It still amazes me he made and played his own instruments! SUCH a huge talent! I honestly wept when I heard he passed away, and I’m not an emotional person. His music just means a lot to me. I can’t imagine how you must have felt having known and performed with him.
    I first discovered him through the Boston Camerata and Ensemble PAN cds. I was never a fan of opera and his voice just seemed to his that sweet spot between trained, yet still folky and warm, utterly emotive. When I got his Songs of Love and Death, it completely blew me away. It remains one of my favorite cds in any genre. The way he phrases many of the melodies, with his voice dropping what seems like a half step at the end of the line, just leaves them hanging in the air to fade. I wish I’d been able to see him perform in person, but at least we have his recordings.

    • What a lovely tribute! Thank you so much.

      John’s unique vocal style evolved via the director of Quadrivium, who pushed us to seek those pure, pure notes, and then to use them as language. John studied Alexander Technique to free up his breath and body, and he did many kinds of body work. My great fortune to be his longtime friend, musical partner, bandmate, and roommate! He was so excited to teach me whatever he was most pumped about learning, whenever we were both at home. I must admit I have trouble listening to his voice now that L’Ange has flown away.

      • Thank YOU for the response! I understand how difficult it must be listening to him sing when he’s gone. It’s difficult for me only knowing there’s not going to be any more recordings or performances from this incredible talent. When you do listen, know that he brings joy and emotional release for SO many people and his songs are a treasure to enjoy and inspire. Maybe don’t think of what’s gone, think of the people he made happy just with the sound of his voice.


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