More than likely, a large number of rock maple trees from Hartford, Maine, are still growing along a street in Japan where a man who was born in Turner in 1818 had brought them. He gave them to that country’s people in appreciation of their embracing his revolutionary method of teaching music.

That man was Luther Whiting Mason, and his journey from poverty as a boy took him to the heights of international acclaim. His influence was so great that a Japanese television crew came to Buckfield in 1968 to film material used in a documentary celebrating that nation’s centennial of westernization.

Although he could claim a distinguished list of ancestors, including English poet William Mason, early New England settler Hugh Mason, Charles Mason who mapped the Mason-Dixon line with Jeremiah Dixon, and famed statesman/orator Daniel Webster, Mason’s start in life was difficult. His father owned large tracts of land in Maine, but he was financially ruined as a result of floods. He died soon after that misfortune, and the boy and three siblings were sent to be raised by relatives. Mason went to Gardiner where he earned board and room as a last maker for shoe production.

He wanted to become a missionary, but a speech impediment closed that door to him. He came from a musical family, so he embarked on a career in music.

He joined a Gardiner church choir and soon became its director. He also taught at the Gardiner Lyceum for two years. That combination of music and education set Mason on a course that would lead to friendship and collaboration with a Japanese student from the samurai tradition and eventually to high honors from the Mikado.

Mason progressed as an educator, earning wide recognition. He taught in Boston and developed “The National Music Course,” the first graded system for music education. It was adopted throughout the United States.

Western ideas were sweeping the land of the rising sun by the 1870s. Mason became acquainted in Boston with Isawa Shuji, an international scholarship student with an interest in Western music education and influence with high Japanese officials. They became friends and worked together, and this led to an invitation for Mason to introduce his course in Japan.

The five-note scale of Japanese music made many chord harmonies impossible, so the people of Japan were hungry for music education that would let them make Western music. Mason’s system did this, and what they called “Mason Song” revolutionized that country’s approach to modern music education.

Mason made it all happen in a two-year period.

It’s said that “Mason Song” even had an indirect influence on Japanese history. During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Japanese troops sang “Hail Columbia,” “Marching Through Georgia” and other songs of the War Between the States in Mason’s native land. The soldiers loved the martial rhythm, though they probably didn’t understand the words.

In a letter to the folks at home, Mason wrote, “I have some very nice pupils. Some are from the Court Musicians who are anxious to learn our music. There are more than 100 of them in all. I teach four as apprentices and they pass along their new knowledge.”

Mason’s contribution to Japan was so appreciated that he was accorded an audience with the Empress. He was the first foreigner to be given that honor. The Mikado himself gave Mason a bolt of handsomely decorated gold cloth and other gifts, some of which are in the Boston Museum of Art.

Mason continued travel and studies in Switzerland, England, Norway, Sweden and Germany. He was at the top of any list of international music educators.

Eventually, Mason returned to the United States, but not to idle retirement. He adapted his system for use in rural districts of America.

In 1894, Mason and his good friend Osborn McConathy conducted a summer school at Turner Center to train country school teachers in the teaching of music. There were 60 students, and the next year a similar school was established in Buckfield, where Mason lived with a daughter until his death in 1896.

Once again, it has been material collected by my aunt, Edith Labbie, for an unpublished book from which I drew this information. It was based on recollections of a great-granddaughter of Mason, Elizabeth Perry of Buckfield, that was compiled by Betty Libby, the Turner correspondent for the Lewiston Daily Sun several decades ago. Other information came from “The History of Modern Japanese Education” by Benjamin C. Duke.

Dave Sargent is a native of Auburn and a freelance writer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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