About the Resource

 

The Martha Pellerin Collection of Franco-American Song is an online database of French and English language songs drawn from two sources: nine song-book manuscripts collected by Martha Pellerin that date to the mid-twentieth century, and a series of six interviews conducted by Martha with Alberta Gagné of Highgate, Vermont in 1998.

 

The songs that make up the collection include traditional French Canadian materials, commercial popular songs from Canada, France and the United States, family songs, personal songs, bawdy songs and religious songs. The Pellerin Collection is not a complete or inclusive document of Franco-American and French Canadian song. Rather it is a record of the performance repertoires of particular individuals of French Canadian descent, including Martha's parents Yvonne and Hervé, as well as those of Irma Labonté, Adelard Guay and Alberta Gagné.

 

These fragile, hand written notebooks and audio recordings preserve music vitally important to each of the individuals who took the time to record them on paper or audio tape. These are songs that were shared socially and tied to the identities of the individual performers, their families, neighborhoods, ethnicity and the periods in time in which they were learned and sung. Whether or not they are songs that traveled from France to Quebec with the earliest Francophone settlers to North America or songs learned from the radio while driving between Highgate, VT and Montreal, these songs and the communal performance of them were a fundamental aspect of what it meant to be Franco-American in Northern New England in the middle part of the twentieth century.

 

As French Canadian families moved across the international border to begin new lives in Vermont–becoming part of the industrial workforce in cities such as Winooski, Barre, Rutland, and Burlington, and farming in the rural countryside in towns throughout the state–they brought with them both the language and traditional culture of French Canada. A key cultural practice that these French families brought to Vermont was music-making–both fiddling for dance (often accompanied by piano, percussive foot tapping, and/or spoons) and acappella song-and-response style singing. These musical traditions were integral to social interaction within the French community, simultaneously affirming connections within family networks, strengthening relationships between families, and asserting French identity and the continuity of French culture in the Anglophone world of their new home.

 

Into the mid twentieth century Franco Americans in Vermont, although numerous, were often either ignored or treated as second class citizens whose “foreign” traditions were of no particular significance to the cultural make up of the state. As a result, the rich musical heritage of French Canada remained invisible to the cultural mainstream, and musical traditions that were carried on in communities around Vermont were known only to the families that participated in these house parties. Starting in the 1960s this began to change, first with the rise to prominence of Burlington fiddler Louie Beaudoin, and later through the performances of such outstanding artists as La Famille Beaudoin, Martha Pellerin, and most recently Michele Choiniere.

 

Over the past twenty-five years the Vermont Folklife Center (VFC) has acted in partnership with each of these artists, most especially Martha Pellerin with whom we conducted field research, organized master classes, planned festival presentations, created curriculum materials, booked concerts, and generally worked to build public awareness of Franco American culture and help Franco American descendants connect to their cultural legacy. A traditional singer herself, one of Martha’s passions was to document Franco American song traditions in Vermont, which she accomplished both by making field recordings with older people who knew the tradition and by collecting the personal songbooks of individual singers. These songbooks were always handwritten, usually on discarded paper such as obsolete account books and outdated calendars. And they represented the personal repertoire of the individual singer with the complete lyrics of every song they customarily sang at family gatherings.

 

Martha’s songbook collection was given to the VFC archive by her husband, John, and shortly before her death we laid the groundwork for a plan to make this material available to a broad public audience. This was particularly important project to Martha because with the changes of contemporary life, the kinds of family events in which this repertoire was conventionally passed from generation to generation were no longer taking place. As Martha observed, “We were able to learn these songs orally because we heard them all the time. We had the opportunity to learn this through oral tradition, and our kids aren’t getting that opportunity...” Although the tradition is well documented in archives such as our own and at Laval University in Quebec City, younger singers and others interested in Franco American culture do no have easy public access to this material. So after ten years in the offing, the occasion of the Quadricentennial is clearly the right time to finally bring the Pellerin Songbook Project forward.