Historical Folk Songs Brought Back to Life

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(Host) In 1930, Springfield, Vermont’s Helen Hartness Flanders began a year-long project that stretched into a life’s work: collecting thousand of traditional songs from across Vermont and New England. Flanders, who died in 1972, hoped the songs she archived would continue to be heard.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, one of her descendants is honoring that wish.

(Zind) Helen Hartness Flanders began with a letter to a newspaper asking anyone who knew an old song to contact her. Flanders finished 30 years later with an archive of nearly 5,000 songs. The songs Flanders collected from people in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine had been sung in kitchens and work camps for generations.

(Deborah Flanders) “What my aunt discovered was that they were very well preserved because of the isolation of these folks.”

(Zind) Deborah Flanders is Helen Hartness’ great grandniece. She says if not for her aunt’s work the songs would have been lost forever. But Flanders says her great aunt wanted more than to preserve the music; she wanted to make sure people continued to hear it. For the past few years, Flanders has been performing the songs in schools and concerts.

(Flanders, singing)
“It was a fine summer’s morning
That the birds sweetly tuned on each bow
Then I heard a fair maid sing most charming
As she sat there a milking her cow…”

(Flanders) “If I’m doing her work, it’s exposing her work and letting these songs sing today. I’m calling great melodies out of this collection that deserve to be listened to.”

(Zind) Flanders says that for the people who passed them down, the songs represented a way to record history and to pass the time in an era before recorded music and television. Some of the songs document events, others address universal themes like unrequited love and lives lived hard.

As they were passed along, the songs were altered and the process continues today. In her performances, Flanders has added instrumentation to songs once sung without accompaniment. Flanders credits Vermont folksinger Margaret MacArthur with keeping alive many of the songs collected by Helen Hartness Flanders.

She says she remembers her great aunt from family gatherings she attended when she was very young but it wasn’t until long after her death that Flanders began to investigate and appreciate her aunt’s accomplishment. Now the music Helen Hartness Flanders spent much of her life collecting will provide Deborah Flanders with a lifetime of songs to sing.

(Flanders) “So I have plenty of work to do there, forever. (Laughs) As long as I can, anyway.”

(Flanders singing)
“Oh had I the wealth of great Omar
Oh had I ten thousand times more
I’d rather live poor on the mountain
With my pretty maid milking her cow.”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

(Host) Deborah Flanders will perform in a program Thursday evening at the Strafford Town Church.

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