The last few weeks, it had been increasingly difficult for Michael DiSanti to reach his adoptive mother, Jenny Vincent, by phone because of her failing health.
Circumstances fell just right Sunday, however, and he was able to visit with her. It turned out to be a fortuitous thing because hours later, Vincent who was a well-known Taos-area folk singer and political activist, died at the age of 103.
“She wasn’t able to talk, but I know she heard me and understood me,” said DiSanti, a NASA astrophysicist who lives in Maryland.
DiSanti’s younger brother, Dimian DiSanti, an Albuquerque musician, said Vincent died of congestive heart failure.
The brothers were taken in by Vincent and her husband Craig Vincent as youngsters after their father died. And they grew up under the Vincents’ tutelage at the ranch-style home and accompanying centuries-old apple orchard in San Cristobal, north of Taos.
“The number of people that she touched was just enormous,” Michael DiSanti said. “And I’m sure people will come out of the woodwork in the weeks to come. It was always interesting living at the house.”
Although Vinent was born and raised in the Midwest, a trip to northern New Mexico in the 1930s changed her life as she quickly became enamored with the land and the people.
That was one of the things that Michael DiSanti said he noticed pretty quickly. “There was a sensitivity toward culture that was very profound, that I noticed and became aware of right away,” he said. “Cultural values, valuing people’s culture and language, traditions, that kind of thing. I was thinking about how much I’ve learned from her generally, not just since (Sunday) but generally. It’s pretty crazy, the value of what I learned.”
Vincent was one of six New Mexicans to receive the 2013 Governor’s Arts Award. Long recognized as one of the finest folk musicians in the state, she was nominated by three past award recipients.
Folk music, she had said, was the root of the country no matter the culture because it told the story of people’s lives. She’s been credited with the penning the last line of he traditional Hispanic song De Colores: “That’s why the love that embraces all colors, all races is greatest for me.”
In 1960, while at a Washington, D.C., folk festival, she received a subpoena to appear before the Senate equivalent of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her statement at the time said in part, “I believe our country needs to breathe the full fresh air of freedom, and we will be able to breathe better when this committee, and its counterpart, the House un-American Activities Committee, are abolished.”
Enrique Lamadrid, chairman of Spanish and Portuguese department at the University of New Mexico, credited Vincent for saving New Mexican folk music. She traveled from town to town across the state, recording local musicians singing and playing the old songs, frequently in Spanish. Although she lacked a teaching certificate, she went into the Taos schools playing New Mexican songs when it was forbidden. She donated her vast archive of original recordings to the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library.
Having sung with Pete Seeger, accompanied Paul Robeson and maintained a long friendship with author John Nichols , Jenny Vincent remained active with her beloved music until just recently, Michael DiSanti said.
And it was the music that kept her going, playing the piano or even the accordion, giving weekly performance for her fellow residents at the Taos Retirement Village and other occasional visitors, including school children
“I don’t know when she last played that’s a good question,” Michael DiSanti said. “Certainly the last part of April. I know she played on her birthday, April 22, Earth Day. I talked with her a couple of days later. It undoubtedly kept her going. It provided enough to keep her going.”
In addition to the DiSanti brothers, Vincent is survived by her one natural son, Lawrence Vincent, who retired from Universidad de Los Andes in Mérida, Venezuela. Craig Vincent died in 1985.