Ed Littlefield, Jr., Cornish, and a Better World

Cornish College of the Arts is supported by a number of fascinating people, but its hard to top Ed Littlefield for pure color. Musician, farmer, and philanthropist, Littlefield is always thinking of a better world; Cornish is part of that vision.

Owls: you don’t notice them at first, but once Ed Littlefield, Jr., points one or two out during a day at his farm, you see them everywhere. A statue on top of a bookshelf bursting with volumes, a motif on stair rails and lamps, done in marquetry on the front of his pedal steel and the fingerboard of his harp guitar, and on and on. Understanding why Littlefield has this symbol everywhere actually tells you much about him and much about why he gives to Cornish year after year. ​

​“The owl is the symbol of Athena,” says Littlefield, by way of explanation. ​

This symbol of wisdom and learning — “the wise old owl” — he has taken as his own suggests Littlefield’s reverence for classical education, for scholarship, and for philosophical pursuits. To connect himself through the owl to the goddess Athena, though, moves our understanding to a higher level. For Athena, among her other attributes, is the special protector of the polis, of citizens gathered as a society. Athena Polias was worshipped as the patron deity of city life — and thus of civilization — throughout ancient Greece, not just in the city which bears her name, Athens. It is in this spirit that Ed Littlefield gives to a number of Seattle art institutions, among which Cornish is prominent, because “a great city should have them,” he says. ​

​Littlefield continues: “A great city should have an art school like Cornish.” His support of Seattle’s 100-year-old art school has been stunningly consistent, more than 30 years. Not only that, he sits on Cornish’s Board of Trustees. ​

His sense of duty was inherited from his family, which at one time owned vast tracts of land in the West and ran the Utah Construction Company, an outfit that built an astounding number of railroad bridges and tunnels in what was then the frontier. The company was the lead contractor many of the West’s landmarks. Utah Construction was lead contractor on the Hetch Hetchy Project and O'Shaughnessy Dam in the 1920s, whose dam and reservoir still provide San Francisco with its water. This was the last project where the company used mules and horses along with steam shovels. A decade later, Utah Construction was the lead contractor on the Hoover Dam. The results of this work was liberally spread around via philanthropy. His mother, Jeannik Méquet Littlefield, for example, was a major contributor to the San Francisco Opera, among other institutions. His father, Edmund W. Littlefield, famously said, “God let it be known that it is better to give than to receive, but a lot of people failed to get the message.” The prominence of his family has provided Littlefield with wherewithal and example. He has been able to devote his life to philanthropy, to ideas, to ideals, and especially, to music. ​

​It’s important to Littlefield that his chosen city, Seattle, should strive to be a great city. But for all his reverence for civic life and responsibility, Littlefield loves the country and prefers to live there. But it’s a balance thing, having the best of both worlds. Years back, he chose his ranch, some 40 scenic acres on the Stillaguamish River to be “just the right distance from the city,” about an hour’s drive north of Seattle. ​

The main house he shares with his wife, Laura, and a bounding brace of happy pooches is a log structure that hugs the wooded hillside as it descends toward the banks of the Stillaguamish. Coming through the door, the first thing that hits you is the warmth of a cozy, well lived-in space, kitchen right there, a family room chock full of books and musical instruments. There is no question a musician lives here. ​

​Littlefield has, in fact, played music professionally for most of his life: five years on the road with C&W band Lance Romance during the 1970s and then since 1986 with Marley’s Ghost, a folk-roots band. Many of the band’s tunes were recorded in his basement, where there is nicely appointed, compact studio. In keeping with his love of the West and things western, his music and that of the other guys in Marley’s Ghost revolves around preservation. “Marley’s Ghost is nothing less than a national treasure, the capable inheritors of the archetypal Americana blueprint drawn up by The Band,” writes MusicCityRoots.com. The L.A. Weekly notes that the music trends old-time, but is never gets stale. “This West Coast group deftly dashes across decades of American music to create a sound that’s steeped in tradition but never bogged down by traditionalism.” Littlefield’s interest in preservation extends to having created a home for the American Music Heritage Foundation collection of over 600,000 recordings, housed in a non-descript building near the farm. ​

In addition to the 11 albums Marley’s Ghost has released since 1987, Littlefield has released two solo albums, Going to the West and My Western Home. He is very comfortable on piano and — yes — bagpipes. A multi-instrumentalist, he plays wonderfully on guitar, as well as on harp guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bass, and dobro. But he is an acknowledged master on that most angelic of instruments, the pedal steel guitar. ​

​The studio in the main house is now abandoned, slated for repurposing as a library. But the Littlefield Farm is not giving up the recording of music. Far from it. A ride down towards the river in an electric cart escorted by a scampering black lab named Sunny reveals the new studio next to a meadow complete with grazing cattle. The structure is, in a word, breathtaking. Founded on giant river rocks and constructed with heavy timbers, the studio is totally unexpected. It is here that we remember Athena’s owl once more, not only because owls are everywhere depicted in the fixtures, but because the goddess is also the protector of crafts. Littlefield’s interest in the handwork of craftspeople takes shape in this spectacular building. A master blacksmith has created all the spectacular railings, sconces, and lamps, objects of such grace and complexity it is hard to imagine they could have been produced by smithing. Inside are not one but two large halls with high, pegged, hammer beam ceilings and walls punctuated with gracefully arched windows. The main hall, which is the studio, has an enormous, modern control room behind a wall of glass with what seems like acres of knobs and dials. It is a live room for recording rather than an acoustically deadened one, an unusual and forward-thinking feature that stands a good chance of placing the studio on the map among the region’s top recording facilities — for this structure is meant to make money for the farm when everything is worked out. ​

All along the road that rings the farm, you pass people building things, many of them turn out to be musicians. Two carpenters, for example, working on one of the cabins that will house customers for the studio, are introduced as fiddlers. The farm manager spends time at the 9-foot Steinway in the studio. It’s all of a piece. The people, the natural beauty, the family, the dogs, the cattle: there is something of a “peaceable kingdom” vibe to the Littlefield Farm. It’s as though each of Littlefield’s thoughts, concerns, and aesthetic notions has found a physical expression in this happy place. ​

​The impression becomes stronger when Littlefield carts over to the farm next door he bought some years ago, an additional 50 acres. It is more of the same, but different. He has a great respect for traditional ways of farming, and it comes into full focus here. Littlefield cleared much of his land with a team of horses, and this farm is still worked with them. His handsome draft horses are there by the rail fence, curious about what’s going on with the people. When he acquired the property, he put an ad in the paper for someone willing to live on and take care of the place, and to work the field with a team of horses. You’d think it would take some time to fill that position. It did not. It’s emblematic of a hunger out there for a developing a new set of values that takes the best of the modern world and melds it with a respect for a traditional way of doing things. Littlefield is deeply concerned about farming practices in America, and there is an added air of experiment to this farm as an example of land management on a human scale. ​

Seated at last in a nest of sofas in the family room, it’s time to get deep into a conversation about Ed Littlefield’s world that is, appropriately, often interrupted by wriggling dogs vying for pets and scratches. Littlefield talks at length about the importance of the “educated artist,” and his hopes that Cornish will help its students on that path. Everything he’s talking about, everything in the development of this farm is about building a better world, and Ed’s pattern of philanthropy forms part of a cohesive whole. His involvement with Cornish is in the mix; how great it is to be a part of this vision. ​

​You think, this is wisdom, isn't it? This how thought makes its way to action in this world. Your eyes drift up to the top of the bookcase full to bursting with volumes. ​

And there’s Athena’s owl looking back at you. ​