EASTHAM — Every November, the turnip becomes a rallying cry for four members of the Higher Ground String Band. They perform a little gospel, a little bluegrass, a little folk — and, as the highlight, a selection of Beatles tunes rewritten with root-vegetable-themed lyrics.
The band had been a staple of the pre-Thanksgiving Eastham Turnip Festival for a decade. Saturday’s concert at the Chapel in the Pines will be the first time since 2019 that Cheryl Parkington (guitar/banjo), Mike Murzyn (bass), Jean Sagara (violin/mandolin), and Randy Patterson (guitar/mandolin) have returned to play some favorite tunes together.
Turnip Festival chair Marianne Sinopoli says of the group, “I like to say they share our turnip DNA.”
The harvest celebration is organized by the staff of the Eastham Public Library, where Sinopoli is outreach librarian. It’s a not-for-profit event that honors the town’s long agricultural history, giving pride of place to Eastham’s renowned turnip. The vegetable is known, Sinopoli says, for its sweet, mild flavor and versatility in cooking, and the festival includes chances to buy the tubers as well as to sample turnip dishes and treats at restaurants in the area.
According to local histories, in 1910 — when a large part of an Eastham childhood was spent hoeing and thinning turnips — the town turned out 10,710 bushels of them. During the Depression, as the turnip market dried up, most farmers had to abandon the bulbous delights — but Eastham native Art Nickerson saved his seeds and returned to growing them in the 1970s, effectively saving the Eastham turnip from extinction. Aficionados can tell when they’re holding a true Eastham turnip. Various area farmers have since taken up the crop, acquiring and saving seeds to expand what’s available.
With renovations ongoing at the usual site of the festival, Nauset Regional High School, this year’s 20th-anniversary “turnipalooza” will host arts, games, crafts, and performances at the Eastham library and the Chapel in the Pines next door on Samoset Road. There will be a “blessing of the turnips” by GBH reporter Bob Seay before the Higher Ground concert.
Their songbook includes covers of Laurie Lewis’s “Dream of a Home,” Any Old Time String Band’s “Cowboy Girl,” and the Mamas & the Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love,” plus Patterson’s original “Ramblin’ River Man.” Choices for gospel fans include “Wicked Path of Sin” and “The River of Jordan.”
Then, of course, there are the turnip songs. The festival regularly holds a songwriting contest in which contestants choose a song, usually from the 1960s or ’70s, and rewrite the lyrics with turnips in mind. In 2013, Wellfleet resident Jill Putnam rewrote the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” to “Good Day Turnip.” It’s become a Higher Ground staple.
In 2019, the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, Eastham resident Carol Burton won the contest with “Nip, the Eastham Turnip,” sung to the tune of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Parkington says the band has adapted other classics during rehearsals over the years: “The Turnip in the Coconut,” “Wooly Turnip,” and “Tiptoe Through the Turnips.”
“These songs just keep popping out,” Parkington says. “We’ll bring out some of these old songs that give us old folks a tickle.”
When not performing with Higher Ground, Sagara plays with the Black Whydah band, which recently played at Wellfleet Porchfest, and Patterson plays pop music all over the Cape with the Heyday trio, Digney Fignus, and other groups. Parkington and Murzyn regularly play in Vermont, where they have a second home near Mount Holly.
Parkington is happy to be back playing in Eastham at a festival she’s watched grow and that she says has taught her a lot about turnips. And the learning keeps happening. A few weeks ago, at a concert of Scottish musicians, she learned that people in Scotland don’t carve pumpkins. They carve turnips. Turnips inspire creativity, it seems, all over the world.
More Events to Turn Up For
Beyond the afternoon concert by Higher Ground, there are multiple other events planned for this year’s Eastham Turnip Festival.
Several local farmers will sell turnips on Saturday, Nov. 18 at the Orleans Farmers Market (19 Old Colony Way), where mascots Mr. and Ms. Turnip will hand out reusable purple shopping bags. A local farmer will give growing tips at the Eastham library, and the Eastham Historical Society’s agricultural exhibit called “Tracing Our Roots” will be on view at the 1869 Schoolhouse Museum (25 School House Road).
New to the festival this year is an exhibit of antique tools and farming implements at the Swift Daley House (2375 Route 6), where there will also be demonstrations on the forge and experts to identify and appraise antique tools.
During the festival, nearly 30 Lower Cape restaurants will feature turnip dishes on their menus in the form of scones, croissants, quiche, soups, pot pies, and turnip curry — along with turnip-flavored ice cream by the Local Scoop. For a complete listing see easthamturnipfestival.com.
From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, the Eastham Public Library will offer an assortment of family-friendly fun for turnip experts and neophytes alike: Trevor the Juggler, Jungle Jim’s Balloon & Magic Show, face painting, temporary turnip tattoos, reading turnip tales to dogs, crafts, games, henna body art, caricature art, photo ops with Mr. and Ms. Turnip, art demonstrations, and a sale of turnip merchandise.
Turnip the Music
The event: The Higher Ground String Band at the Eastham Turnip Festival
The time: Saturday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m.
The place: Chapel in the Pines, 220 Samoset Road
The cost: Free; see easthamturnipfestival.com