SALEM — Gordon College, a small Christian school in Wenham, thought it had booked a two-person acoustical group to perform next week at Old Town Hall, a facility it runs for the city of Salem.
Then the emails started to arrive from people protesting that the group it had hired, Death in June, is a “notorious neo-fascist folk group” on a U.S. tour that uses Nazi imagery and symbols, according to one email.
It didn’t take long for concerns to spread about the sold-out Thursday, Sept. 19, concert at Old Town Hall, an 1816 brick building that once hosted President James Monroe.
On Wednesday night, Gordon College Vice President Rick Sweeney said the college has “strong reservations” about an event it does not feel is “compatible with the educational, civic and cultural focus that characterizes Gordon’s relationship with Old Town Hall.”
Gordon College is in the sixth year of a contract with the city to manage the historic building.
Yesterday, after meeting with city officials and a concert promoter, Sweeney said the college is examining the terms of its city contract and the rental agreement, and “looking at our options.”
Another Gordon official said the college was misled and would never have signed Death in June for a venue it usually rents for wedding receptions, chorales and chamber music.
“The individual who made the reservation was very careful not to reveal who the performer was,” said David Goss, director of the Institute for Public History at Gordon College, which is responsible for the management of Old Town Hall.
“He did say there would be a musical performance and he wrote down ... an acoustic guitar and a drum, which really does not raise any eyebrows...”
Booking a musical group involved in past controversies linked to Nazi symbols is “a very negative association for a Christian school to be involved with,” Goss said.
Police Chief Paul Tucker attended the afternoon meeting at Old Town Hall along with representatives from the Fire Department, Building Department and mayor’s office.
Tucker said he is looking into the situation, investigating reports of possible protests and talking with the concert promoter about the police presence that may be needed.
The chief said his only concern is the “safety of the venue...and making sure from a public safety standpoint all of the bases have been covered. We don’t make judgments on the type of music or the message.”
Gordon College officials identified the promoter who signed the rental agreement as Thomas Nolan.
A man who contacted The Salem News and identified himself as the local promoter described Death in June as a “neofolk” group that plays “romantic acoustic music.”
The group is led by Douglas Pearce, also known as Douglas P., and was founded in Britain in the early 1980s, he said.
He said claims the group is neo-fascist or associated with an extreme ideology are “completely unfounded.” While acknowledging the group may have used controversial symbols, he said they also use rainbow, Nordic and gothic symbols.
The man said he booked Death in June at a Cambridge club on its last U.S. tour in 2005 and that the entire tour went off “without a hitch.” He also said the group toured Israel without any problems.
He contended that “antifa,” or militant left-wing groups, have protested in past years and are trying to stir up trouble on this U.S. tour.
Death in June was scheduled to play in Los Angeles last night and make stops in San Francisco; Austin, Texas; Chicago and West Palm Beach before coming to Salem next Thursday, according to the group’s website.
Some of the group’s concerts have been canceled due to past controversies, according to a Wikipedia website.
The promoter said he used his own name on the rental agreement because he will also perform that night and is using the event to promote his music label.
For years, Gordon College has used Old Town Hall as a venue for “Cry Innocent,” a popular audience-participation play about the Salem Witch Trials. The college also opened The Salem Museum on the first floor.
Although it occasionally rents out the building for musical events, such as concerts by the Paul Madore Chorale, most of the rentals are wedding receptions, an official said.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who has been briefed on the controversy, said city officials are looking into a number of issues related to the Death in June concert.
“We’re trying to get our arms around it,” she said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.