Green Mountain Mixtape Transcript
It’s 1930. Milking is still done by lantern light on many farms. But there’s a new visitor in the barn, and in the homes of Vermont.
Linda Radtke: What I think they were worried about at that point in our history is that radio was entering the farms, and electricity.
Linda Radtke produces the Choral Hour on Vermont Public Radio. She also gives live performances that feature songs popular in Vermont during the Civil War, as well as songs found in the Vermont Historical Society’s collection of sheet music.
Linda: And it’s true that they worried that people would no longer sit around and tell these stories or sing these songs. Of an evening, they’d have the radio on in the barn and they’d have the radio on at home.
Linda is one of several notable Vermonters who have dedicated themselves to documenting and preserving the sound of our state, believing that Vermont music tells us something about who we are as Vermonters. But what is Vermont music? And should we even ask that question?
This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont Humanities Council. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode we go deep inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.
Today’s artifact is a piece of folk art that shows how Vermonters made their own entertainment in the days before radio. Our producer Ryan Newswanger went to go check it out.
Ryan: We’re here with Mary Labate Rogstad, looking at a carving at the Vermont History Museum. What is it that we see here, Mary?
Mary: We see “A Kitchen Tunket,” a carving by Napoleon DeGuise. He was also known as “Nap” DeGuise, who was from Waterbury, he was a barber. He had these in his barbershop window, and people used to come in and admire them.
Ryan: What is a kitchen tunket?
Mary: A kitchen tunket is a kitchen dance.
Ryan: So I see a fiddler, a caller, and there’s people dancing that he has carved. Some couples.
Mary: Yep. And they are sort of in groups, and there are people sitting at the side.
Ryan: This would be depicting an era where people generally lived, worked among neighbors, and their recreation probably all took place within ten miles, or something like that.
Mary: Yeah, it seems that way. He carved “The Kitchen Tunket” in 1947, it’s dated on the front. He signed it and dated it.
According to DeGuise, he carved and displayed these pieces in his barbershop so that children of other generations would have true pictures of things they may have heard of, but had never seen.
Ryan: So maybe he felt that times were starting to change…
Mary: Times were changing, and he wanted to make sure there was a record of what he had known.
Napoleon DeGuise wasn’t the only one who saw that changes were coming fast to Vermont in the early 20th century. The Vermont Commission on Country Life was founded in 1928 with the goals of preserving Vermont’s natural beauty and improving life in rural communities. The commission asked Helen Hartness Flanders from Springfield to lead a project to document Vermont’s traditional music.
Flanders was well-connected. She was the daughter of former Governor James Hartness, and her husband, Ralph, an industrialist, would eventually become Vermont’s Republican senator to Washington.
Rebecca Irwin: I don’t know even when she began the project, if she knew how it would take hold of her and become an obsession, but it certainly did.
That’s Rebecca Irwin, the Curator and Director of Middlebury College’s Special Collections and Archives, which now has the Helen Hartness Flanders Collection.
Rebecca: She took out newspaper ads, and then people would write her letters. We have in her archives those handwritten letters back from people across Vermont, men and women who wrote to say, “My family has been singing songs. I could sing these songs for you.” Then Helen Hartness Flanders would visit those individuals who wrote back to her.
Linda Radtke: And that’s what really got me. The idea of this very wealthy Republican wife with her pearls and her dress…
…getting in her Model T, you know, with those old wax cylinders, which was the high technology of the time. And just going all over backwoods and introducing herself to homes and having people sing these songs.
Helen Hartness Flanders started collected songs around Vermont in 1930. After the Vermont Commission on Country Life disbanded a few years later, Helen used her own finances to fund the project.
She kept this up for thirty years. Her collection grew to include almost 5,000 field recordings, and many transcriptions of songs and ballads. It also contained several thousand books on American folksongs, ballads, and folklore, some dating back to the mid-1700s.
Rebecca: And she would use recording equipment on the spot to trace records with the recordings of songs that she was collecting. So she did that first with wax cylinders. Then she moved on to LPs that were aluminum, and then heavy acrylic plastics. Then she moved onto vinyl. Then after vinyl, to tape recordings.
So basically, the collection of Helen Hartness Flanders, not only does it record ballads that have largely been lost to us in at least a postmodern society, but she also captured audio technology that has also been lost to us.
At the same time, famous collectors like Alan Lomax were also hard at work documenting the songs of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, places where traditions were considered more isolated from the modern world than in Vermont. Even Helen Hartness Flanders, when she started, thought that it was too late to find old songs in New England.
Mark Greenberg: She said she thought there was nothing to preserve. She thought the stuff was all gone.
Mark Greenberg is a writer and musician, and the producer of award-winning recordings and documentaries. He lectures about “Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Songs” for the Vermont Humanities Council.
Mark: She and everyone else was surprised when she and her various helpers found this treasure chest in Vermont, and she also collected in New Hampshire and Maine, of ballads and old sentimental songs, and fiddle tunes, and dance tunes, that people really didn’t know was there, so it was an uncovering of something that was right there all the time.
Linda Radtke: Most of the songs in her collection were sort of those ballads that come from the Scotch/Irish tradition. So they would’ve come through there and then they morphed. You know, they change through the folk tradition. And became longer or became more Vermont-connected.
Take this song, called “Young Charlotte.” It’s a cautionary tale from England, changed to describe a Vermont girl on her way to a ball with her boyfriend in a snowstorm. Ignoring her mother’s warnings, she refuses to cover her gown with a winter wrap. By the time she arrives at the ball, she has frozen to death, breaking her father’s heart and her lover’s heart.
By the way, this version of “Young Charlotte” is sung by Deb Flanders, the great-niece of Helen Hartness Flanders.
Linda: I think it gets your imagination going to think about this landscape that we’re living in now. And going back to think about the first white settlers. And what they brought with them, and then what they made of this landscape.
The Vermont Commission on Country Life produced a report in 1931 titled, “Rural Vermont: A Program for the Future.” Flanders helped write a section called “Conservation of Vermont Traditions and Ideals” along with celebrated author Dorothy Canfield Fisher.
Historian and author Nancy Gallagher has written that the Rural Vermont report was “a testimonial to the epic struggle of Vermonters to preserve the imagined America of the past.” Every chapter of the report, she says, “addressed the specific means by which the state could restore the land, culture, and values to the kind of people who had colonized the state and who were most deserving of the title, ‘Vermonter.'”
Rebekah Irwin: To do this work for Helen Hartness Flanders, and to contribute to these larger projects of trying to understand or stake a claim in a Vermont identity, there was a way in which tracing songs back to a certain part of Europe, a very specific part of Europe could tell a story.
Rebekah Irwin from Middlebury College.
Now, we see music as being dynamic and telling stories for us that are more interesting because they show migration and how a song represents one group migrating to a new place, and the songs themselves migrate.
Here’s an example of that migration: Francis James Child transcribed around 300 traditional ballads from England and Scotland during the second half of the 19th century, songs that eventually found their way to North America. They became known as “The Child Ballads.”
Mark Greenberg: When the Child Ballads came here, came to Appalachia, they were changed drastically. They were truncated. Some of them were very long. People couldn’t remember them. They were, some of them were sort of irrelevant to a new way of living.
Names got changed, places got changed, and then people started rubbing shoulders, or if not physically rubbing shoulders, at least hearing the music of other groups. The railroads brought Irish and African Americans together on the East Coast, Chinese and African Americans and others, Europeans, on the West Coast. These cultures just started naturally blending.
Another example is jazz, what some have called America’s greatest invention. It incorporated the blues, marching band music, folk music, hymns, ragtime, and African drumming. Southerners working in northern factories around World War II sped up traditional songs and created bluegrass. Rock and roll rose from a mishmash of the blues, jazz, and folk music.
Mark Greenberg: There is no pure American music, period. Nothing is pure, and that’s what makes it all so great. That’s what makes American music so interesting. There are no formulas for how they mixed. They mixed in a lot of different ways.
While the work that Helen Hartness Flanders took on as her life’s mission may have started with a focus on finding ballads from the British Isles, it also changed and evolved over the 30 years of her collecting.
Rebecca Irwin: It is true, Helen Hartness Flanders had her own interests. Her ties and her own background dictated some of the things that she collected. She also didn’t read or note-take music. She had a limitation musically in what she collected. It’s unfair in some ways to point out her limitations. She had many of them; we’re all imperfect. But what she did do and had the foresight to do is gather people around her who made up for her shortcomings.
She had assistants and curators who worked with her, who knew how to note-take music. And later, she’d be influenced by some of her colleagues who reminded her that there’s a really rich musical tradition of the Quebecois in Vermont.
Forty-five years after her death, the work of Helen Hartness Flanders continues to evolve. Students at Middlebury College have worked with digitized versions of the Flanders Ballad Collection to make new recordings. They may isolate the voice of a Vermont farmwife, recorded by Flanders in the 1940s, and place it onto another track, and perhaps another, creating a modern musical collage.
In a way, such genre-bending and reworking has always been going on in Vermont. Mark Greenberg says that musicians who played dances often reinterpreted songs that were popular on the radio.
Mark Greenberg: They heard this popular song. On the radio, maybe they had a record, maybe they went to hear a big band play it and they liked the song, so they did what they could with it on what they had at hand.
And so songs that started in one tradition became part of another tradition, and then another, spreading across the country like electrical wires, as unstoppable as radio waves.
Mark: Culture doesn’t really have boundaries, except for people or groups that are so orthodox that they lock out others, which I guess is their right to do, but for the most part, people, musicians hear things they like, and try to do it. And they don’t say, “Oh, this doesn’t come from my people,” or “This doesn’t come from my place.”
Our country is far more mobile than it was in 1930. Many Americans don’t live where they grew up. Our social circles have expanded well beyond our immediate communities. But it’s still tempting to try to fit a musical genre to a place. Memphis has soul, Nashville has country. Seattle had grunge. What about Vermont?
James Lockridge: The simple answer is, I know for a fact how diverse and world-class the music coming from Vermont is. There’s no one style that could or should be determined to be a Vermont sound.
James Lockridge doesn’t really like that question. He’s one of the founders of Big Heavy World. It’s a non-profit based in Burlington that has been preserving and promoting Vermont-made music since 1996. Its projects include an online artist directory, a record label, a public listening library, and a community radio station.
James: I like to see the blurry edges of the creative effort. I like to see art where it’s formative, where you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at, or what’s coming over the horizon. I think part of our being human beings, and being alive and exploring our universe, is to actually explore it. And if we aren’t adventuring creatively, then we aren’t adventuring and not meeting our potential.
For Helen Hartness Flanders, that sort of exploration meant traveling the back roads, looking for old English ballads that had survived the trip across the ocean. Some may say that a similar treasure is around us today in contemporary Vermont.
James Lockridge: You know, we have a standout group of new Americans from different parts of the world who comprise Africa to Vermont, or A2VT.
And they’ve gained prominence and respect for the work they’ve done.
Mark Greenberg has recorded music by recent Vermont immigrants and refugees for the Vermont Folklife Center’s New Neighbors project.
Mark Greenberg: Up until fairly recently, we were the whitest state in the country. I think now we’re the second whitest, maybe. In any case, we’re not known for our cultural diversity, yet lots of people from many different backgrounds are coming here, and I got to experience and record some of them, and was just shocked over and over again, shocked in a pleasant way, that this was going on, this music was here in Vermont.
What particularly stood out, for example, there was a women’s chorus from Burundi. Fantastic. Just beautiful. Beautiful singing, and great energy. Just wonderful.
There was also a Somali Bantu wedding band, which is very prominent, and travels all around, and I got to record a Somali Bantu wedding on the north side, near the Old North End of Burlington. It was just fabulous. It was just incredible. Here, right in Burlington, there’s this piece of a whole other world that’s going on.
Every time I went out, I heard something that was new to me, and that, I discovered, is more exciting, or at least as exciting, as hearing somebody doing something that’s familiar to you and that you’re looking, actually looking for and have a preconception about.
What is Vermont’s music? You may as well ask, “Who is a Vermonter?” Even in the 1930’s, those questions resisted easy answers. Because the truth is that we are —and have long been—French, English, Abenaki, African-American, Irish, Lebanese, and Italian. Nepali. Burundian. Somali Bantu. And too many others to name.
But that’s the great thing about music: we can hear those influences all around us.
Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. Our show was produced by Mike Dougherty and Ryan Newswanger, with help from Mary Rogstad. I’m Lovejoy. Thanks to our guests Linda Radtke, Rebekah Irwin, Mark Greenberg, and James Lockridge.
Much of the music for this episode came from “Thrufters and Through-Stones: The Music of Vermont’s First 400 Years,” a compilation assembled by Big Heavy World. Deb Flanders, the great-niece of Helen Hartness Flanders, sang “Young Charlotte.” The “Pony Boys Theme” is from Don Fields & the Pony Boys: Historic WDEV Broadcasts and Last Sessions on Rootstock Records. “St. Anne’s Reel” is from Kitchen Tunks & Parlor Songs on Multicultural Media. And “Bye Bye Blues” is from Buddy Truax: Music Man on Rootstock Records.
Thanks to the Vermont Folklife Center for the use of Mark Greenberg’s recordings of the Burundian Children’s Song and the Somali Bantu Wedding ceremony. Learn more about the New Neighbors project at vermontfolklifecenter.org/neighbors.
Thanks as well to A2VT for the use of their song, “Ghetto.”