Vermont has long maintained close connections to French Canada and, as a result, the influence of French-Canadian music is ingrained in the very character of the state. By most recent estimates almost 25% of Vermonters have familial ties to French-Canadian culture, and the April episode of our VT Untapped ™ podcast focuses on one such Vermont Franco-American: musician and folklorist: Martha Pellerin.
Born in Vermont to French-Canadian parents who immigrated to the US in the late 1950’s, Martha grew up bi-cultural, immersed in both American and French-Canadian culture and frequently visiting relatives in Quebec. The Pellerin family soirees and New Year's gatherings immersed her in a world of traditional culture—including traditional music. Over time, Martha’s passion for her heritage lead her to become one of the region’s most important advocates for the Franco-American culture of Northern New England. As a musician and performer, cultural interlocutor and festival organizer, she created a variety of opportunities for Franco-Americans of any age connect with their traditional culture, and for non-Francos to learn about, and engage with, the cultural experiences of their neighbors. In 1998, Martha passed away at age 38, a tremendous loss to all who had the privilege to know her.
As Kim Chase writes of Martha:
Martha was a dynamo, both a practical nuts-and-bolts person who got things done, and a visionary. She drew on her heritage as a basis for creating new forms that were relevant to contemporary life and envisioned tradition as a living entity – constantly evolving in response to a constantly changing world. She worked to create a bridge between French Canadian and Franco-American cultures so that cousins on either side of the border could come together and find common ground.
The Vermont Folklife Center Archives is pleased to have a number of materials related to Martha’s work as a folklorist and musician. Through our online Digital Archive you can explore materials documenting her song collecting efforts as part of the Martha Pellerin Collection of Franco-American Song, a collection processed an made available online through the support of the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership of the Lake Champlain Basin Program.
For example, you can look at songbooks Martha collected:
You can also listen to excerpts from interviews that Martha conducted with Alberta Gagné, as both of them effortlessly move between speaking French and English. In some cases, Alberta sings unaccompanied:
In other examples, Alberta is accompanied instrumentally, here on guitar:
And here, Martha records a touching message from Alberta to her grandchildren about passing on her traditions:
However, not all material in our collection on Martha is accessible online! By contacting our archivist you can make an appointment to come hear interviews conducted with Martha as part of her participation in the Vermont Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.
The Apprenticeship Program pairs a young person aged 15-29 to study some aspect of traditional arts with a master practitioner. The two work together to tailor the apprenticeship to the particular interests of both.
In addition to the Martha Pellerin Collection of Franco-American Song, our archive also hods materials from other Franco-American families, including the Beaudoin Family Collection and the Desrosier-Joyal Family Collection. Digitization and processing of these two collections was also made possible by the Lake Champlain Basin Program.
The Vermont Folklife Center continues to undertake ethnographic projects related to Franco-American music in Vermont. Recently we completed two projects inspired by the work of Martha and other Franco-American cultural advocates such as Kim Chase, Carmen Beaudoin and fiddler Lisa Ornstein: one focused on the VFC archives with the goal of developing best practices for describing archival collections of French language songs from Canada; the second, also drawing on the VFC archives and partnering with "Young Tradition Vermont", emphasized bringing these materials to the public through a series of Franco-American "singing schools" for young people. Details on both projects available here: Two Projects on Franco-American Music in Vermont.
Both these projects were supported by the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership as part of their mission to provide cultural heritage learning opportunities to build a sense of stewardship for the environmental, historic and social resources of the basin.
We hope Martha would be proud.