Vermont’s ‘kitchen tunks’ revived in new release

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(Host) Before there were satellite dishes, DVD players and video games, Vermonters were savvy about creating their own forms of entertainment. Local musicians would gather around the farmhouse and play some of that old-time music. Now, a new CD is keeping the spirit of traditional New England music alive, as VPR’s Neal Charnoff reports:

(Charnoff) Music doesn’t get any more home-made than on the CD collection “Vermont: Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Sounds”. On the CD, non-professional musicians from around the state recreate the music of weekend farmhouse parties that were popular before mass media dominated home entertainment. Instruments range from fiddles, guitars and harmonicas to spoons and feet. (Song, Frenchman’s Bellyache)

Mark Greenberg of Montpelier produced all of the field recordings for “Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Songs.” He says that while much of the music reflects the French-Canadian tradition in Vermont, styles also include Anglo-Celtic music, Yankee-style fiddling, and even some influences that filtered up from the South. (Song, Swanee River)

Greenberg says that “Tunks” is a word familiar to old-time Vermonters, and suggests it might be derived from the phrase “honky-tonk.”

(Greenberg) “Tunks is one of the terms used for parties that people used to have in their homes often on a Friday night, usually in a rural farmhouse. The standard story is that the furniture would be taken out of a large country kitchen, even stories of the stove or refrigerator being removed to make room for dancing. There are stories of a fiddler being put on a board on top of the sink so that he’d be out of the way, I guess, and people would be able to hear.” (Song, Whistlin’ Rufus)

(Charnoff) Willy Beaudoin is a fiddler and guitarist from who has lived in Vermont since 1937. La Famille Beaudoin performed for much of the twentieth century, bringing international attention to Vermont’s traditional French-Canadian music. Beaudoin says that like most kitchen tunks, theirs was a family affair.

(Beaudoin) “And before the war in the late 30’s, we were playing these kitchen junkets and always filled the places up. That was the only way that people could entertain themselves on Saturday nights. During the holidays, everyone gathered to my parent’s house, because we were there and that’s where the music was. Dancing, singing, playing the spoons and a little drink on the side.” (Song, La Madeine)

(Charnoff) Mark Greenberg says that he met many Vermont performers by simply asking around. Musician and music archivist Margaret MacArthur introduced Greenberg to the Hurstins, Dorotha Parkhust and Eleanor Martin of Waterbury.

(Greenberg) “These are just women who are the salt of the earth, the real deal. They collected records and they collected music paraphernalia and they learned whatever they could learn. They had learned from their parents, and Dorotha had learned from lumberjacks who used to gather on Friday after work in Worcester and play. (Song, Utopia)

“There was Newton Brown – the late Newton Brown of Hyde Park ,who sang briefly on the radio on WDEV in the 1940’s during the cowboy band craze. He’s the one I’ve quoted this line in many things that I’ve written and said it many times, but he said if only the best birds in the forest sang, it would be a very quiet world. And that to me is like an epigram for what the best traditional music is all about, music that people make because of the joy of making it.” (Song, Westphalia Waltz)

(Charnoff) Greenberg adds that while the kitchen tunk may be almost extinct, homemade music in Vermont can still be found at contra dances, fiddle contests and farmers markets.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Neal Charnoff.

(Host) “Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Songs” is available through Multicultural Media in Montpelier, or at

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