I’ve already written about the Vermont Folklife Center and their important work documenting the history and folkways of Vermont. But today I wanted to highlight one initiative of theirs that was especially ambitious and especially important to the preservation of Franco-American heritage.
Martha Pellerin was a folk musician active in Vermont in the 1980s and 90s. I didn’t know her, but she was the kind of person around whom a whole community gathers. She was a connection-point in the Vermont Franco-American community, organizing events, acting as a resource, and creating spaces where people could explore and express their ethnic identities and past. She was especially active in preserving and promoting the songs and musical traditions of her community, and she eventually recorded two albums with her group, Jeter Le Pont, one of which my family had on cassette and wore out over the years. (I’m thrilled to report that that album, Entrecroise, is now available in its entirety as an MP3 download. And I’m honoured that her bandmate, Dana Whittle, gave me permission to use two of Jeter Le Pont’s songs in the sound design for Piecework: When We Were French.) Even today, if you speak to anyone active in Vermont’s Franco-American community, especially those who play music, it doesn’t take long for Martha’s name to come up. Although she died in 1998, her influence is still felt.
You can learn more about Martha from this remembrance by her friend and fellow musician, Kim Chase, and you can hear her speak about her experience growing up as a Franco-American Vermonter on the Vermont Historical Society‘s website.
You can also learn about the amazing musical legacy that Martha left behind by exploring The Martha Pellerin Collection of Franco-American Song, part of the Vermont Folklife Center’s Archives. Consisting of hand-written songbooks as well as recordings, this collection reflects the important place that music has always played in French-Canadian and Franco-American culture. Songs like these were —and are!— typically sung at soirées, informal house-party gatherings, where people would bring their instruments or songbooks and play together. Often songs are sung in a call-and-response style, and often a song evolved as an individual singer made it his or her own, so that innumerable versions of the same song might exist, sung differently depending on the place and the performer. This invaluable archive preserves these folk traditions and is a testament to how Martha Pellerin served her community.