Martha Pellerin Drury
Photo by Rhea Côté Robbins

Martha Pellerin Drury


The following two articles were written in honor of Martha
by her colleague and good friend, Kim Chase.
We are grateful to Kim for her words.


Bridging the Gap Franco-American Culture in Vermont

By Kim Chase, Burlington, VT 

 The last French Heritage celebration in Barre brought together acts from  Québec, Vermont and four other New England states. Those familiar with the  traditional music scene will recognize some big names: Benoit Bourque, Josée  Vachon, and Hommage aux Ainés, just to mention a few. By the Grande Finale,  step dancer Benoit Bourque said to the audience, "We are almost as many up  here as you are down there, so why don't you all come up?" But the musicians  refused to get started without the MC - Martha Pellerin. As usual, it took a  few minutes to locate her. In that particular instance, Martha turned out to  be counting the take for the day to see if she could pay the musicians. When  she finally arrived, she waltzed across the stage with Rhode Island  dance-caller Colette Fournier, then with her own fiddle-playing son Eric.  After that she grabbed the late, great Monsieur Couteau of Burlington, a man  who made an art out of playing knives instead of spoons.  She chose the rest  of her victims from the spectators, many of whom were people she has known  all her life. Pretty soon a good percentage of the audience was dancing in  the aisles. 
 "Do you know Martha?" Sooner or later you're bound to hear that question  if you're interested in anything having to do with Franco-Americans, or  people of French-Canadian descent. Probably sooner than later because in  Franco-American Vermont, all roads lead, eventually, to Martha Pellerin, a  first generation Franco-American from Barre. 
 La Fête de Saint Jean Baptiste is to people of French descent what St.  Patrick's Day is to Irish Americans. That is, it's a cultural rather than  religious holiday. At the St. Jean Baptiste Day Festival in Barre this past  summer, someone said, "I'm looking for Martha."  "Who isn't?" asked another participant in passing. That's the typical state  of affairs at most Franco-American events in Vermont because even when she's  not the main organizer, Martha is usually in the thick of things and it's  anyone's guess where she can be found. In the case of the St. Jean Baptiste  Day Festival, she happened to be looking for a piano for the next group of  performers, called Folklore Entre Nous from Plessisville, Québec. The piano  was found and the show went on. Folklore Entre Nous turned out to be almost  too talented for one stage. They sang, step-danced,  played piano, violin and  accordion, all with such casual ease that it seemed less a performance than a  party on stage. They had agreed to play for the Festival because, in the  words of Pierre Tardif, "Martha, I could never say no to you."  That seems to be the general consensus among the people Martha has worked  with over the years. Retired assistant librarian and writer Pat Belding  echoes the sentiment:  "I've seen the work Martha does and so I'm happy to  help her in any way I can." 
 And in fact, you would almost have to see one of Martha's productions to  believe she could actually pull it off. Phil Reynolds, executive director of  Catamounts Arts recalls working with Martha on the Franco-Voyageurs Project  which toured New England in 1995. "Martha was performer, production manager,  stage manager and MC, she knew all the other presenters. She was like the  mother of the whole outfit." 
 Martha is reluctant to take all the credit for the current level of  interest in Franco-American culture and emphasizes the fact that none of her  projects could succeed without community support. "There are others who  contribute in many ways...I am just more visible than the other activists."
 Martha is the Program Developer for ActFANE (Action for Franco-Americans  in the Northeast)  and the sole proprietor of Franglais Enterprises, which  seeks to promote an understanding of French-Canadian and Franco-American  culture through traditional arts, lectures, historical exhibits and school  residencies. She is a virtual human data base of Franco-American resources,  which is why her name inevitably surfaces in conversations concerning Franco  Vermonters. She attempts to connect people to each other in order to raise  awareness and broaden support for a culture which has historically been  isolated to the point of invisibility. She prefers the small, kitchen soirées  to bigger venues but worries, "If we continue to work only on a limited,  local level, and don't try to connect all these isolated communities and find  ways that we can share resources, then it's my belief that the culture will  just die away." 
 Asked why she puts so much energy into her work, Martha responds, "I am a  first generation Franco-American and I myself went through a period of time  when I was not interested in being Franco, I had let go of my Franco  identity. ... But when I was threatened with the loss of my culture, when my  father and several members of my extended family passed away in a short  period of time, I realized that all of the cultural experience that I'd taken  for granted would soon be gone if I didn't take the opportunity to learn  songs, for instance, and to spend some time understanding what the culture  was all about and what it really meant to me."
 Martha grew up immersed in the musical traditions of French Canada. One  of seven children, some born in Québec, she remembers frequent visits to back  St. Sophie, a small town in the in the northern tip of the Eastern Townships  of Québec. Friday night after work, her mother and father piled the kids into  the car and headed north for a soirée at the Pellerin homestead, built by  Martha's great-grandfather. Family connections across the border have  remained strong and Martha continues to visit her relatives in St. Sophie,  Plessisville and Victoriaville, knowing she will stay, as always, in the old  farmhouse where she first learned some of the songs she sings today. 
 "It was not unusual to have sixty people in the house for a New Year's  party," Martha remembers. "Growing up, I was very familiar with soirées. It  was a normal occurrence, lots of singing, the atmosphere was very warm, very  loud. It was something I assumed every family did. It was not until I was  much older that I realized that not everybody had soirées. To the point that  when my sisters and I were teenagers, we would go to an American party and be  bored to tears. The American parties were so quiet! Compared to what we  experienced as a party at a soirée, these parties in the states were just as  boring as could be and we lost interest in attending them ."
 After the death of her father, Martha began collecting songs from her  relatives. In 1990, she formed the musical group Jeter le Pont ("Bridging the  Gap") along with Dana Whittle and Claude Méthé. The transition from the  intimate soirées to public performances was not easy.  "There was a time when Dana and I were rehearsing in my mother's kitchen. And  she, (my mother) had the bright idea to invite some of her girlfriends over.  So Dana and I were singing these songs in front of four or five women . We  didn't even get past the first verse and all of them are shaking their heads  no. ... And they would say, 'That's not how it goes.' And one would start  singing it the way she thought it went, she didn't even get past the first  line and somebody else would yell at her, 'No, no, no, you've got it all  wrong!' And they would sing another version . So what we learned was that  there are literally thousands of versions of every one of these songs because  they were taught orally, they're not written down. ...I think it's realistic  to think that these songs were maybe never sung the same twice."
 Jeter Le Pont produced two collections of recordings on which you can  hear Martha's strong, vibrant voice accompanied by the vocals and  instrumentals of Dana Whittle and Claude Méthé. But you would do better to  see Martha in person because her gestures, expressions and rapport with the  audience are so typically French-Canadian and add so much to her performance.  Martha has been known to walk away from a microphone in order to recapture  the intimacy of the soirées she experienced growing up. She sings with a  typical lack of self-consciousness; like many Franco or Québecois musicians  and singers, she doesn't think of her music as a performance. Which gets to  the point of why she doesn't perform much any more.
 "Saturday night at the Canadian Club (in Barre), among Francos who are  familiar with the traditional soirées, it's not a performance to get up and  sing. It's simply part of what I would normally do at a soirée. It feels  familiar and comfortable. When I am at the Barre Opera House or a Festival,  among people who have never experienced a traditional soirée, it's a time to  try to convey some cultural context for the songs I share with the audience  in an entertaining way. The whole purpose of establishing Jeter le Pont was  to create accessibility to Franco-American culture for young Franco-Americans  who don't speak French or speak French but have no cultural ties to their  heritage. It was also to make the Franco-American culture visible to the  general public which knew almost nothing about us. ... I stopped performing  because I felt I was not accomplishing the original goal. The limited time I  have with an audience during a performance - I felt - only led to creating or  contributing to a stereotype because too little information was shared. I  also tried to recreate the atmosphere of a soirée in a performance venue and  often felt frustrated or unsatisfied."
 These days Martha spends most of her time networking with communities  throughout the northeast, creating regional connections. She has been  instrumental, for example, in getting Franco-Americans to submit essays and  memoirs to Le Forum, a publication devoted to the Franco-American voice. When  she is not working on a regional level, she can be found organizing community  projects and bringing performers to Vermont through events such as the Franco  Voyagers Project or the St. Jean Baptiste Day Festival. "My work primarily  involves promoting Franco-American culture ... the main goal is to present  material and events in a bilingual fashion so that it is accessible to  everyone." By "accessible", Martha means linguistically accessible, and by  "everyone" she means both Francos and non-Francos, and speakers of both  French and English. She is sensitive to the fact that many second and third  generation Franco-Americans, such as her husband and children, do not speak  French and are therefore excluded from traditional cultural activities. On  the other hand, French is often the preferred language of the immigrant and  first-generation population because it is the language in which they have  always carried out their traditions. 
 "Culture includes language but goes beyond," Martha explains. "I want to  create an environment in which non-French speakers feel comfortable  expressing their identities. This has not been easy because what makes young  Franco-Americans comfortable may eliminate the familiarity of the traditional  cultural setting. It pains me when young people come to a soirée and don't  see anything there that relates to them as Franco-Americans."
 John Drury, Martha's husband, is a third generation Franco-American whose  family maintained few Franco traditions. Consequently, John has often  searched for what it is about him that's French. Last year on a trip to  Acadia in Maine, John and Martha visited an historical  Acadian home. John  walked into one of the rooms and gasped, "This is my grandmother's bedroom!"  The layout and furniture were so familiar he could have been in his own  childhood home.  "There you are, John," Martha said. "This is what's French about you."
 Knowing how difficult it can be for second and third generation  Franco-Americans to reclaim their heritage, Martha is reluctant to  participate in organizations which do not espouse a policy of inclusion,  total openness to non-French speakers and non-Francos alike. Speaking of  supporters of Franco-American culture who are not Franco-American, she says,  "It's not what's running through your veins. It's your attitude that counts."  Martha's openness extends beyond the world of Franco-Americans, embracing  other ethnic groups, both old and newly immigrated. She believes that  understanding one's own ethnicity can and should lead to an appreciation of  other cultures.  "Here in the United States, we are multicultural and we can all benefit by  connecting with other groups. If we could share our cultural resources we  would be a much richer country."
 Anne Sarcka, Community Arts Officer at the Vermont Council on the Arts,  has worked with Martha and values her contribution. "I have been enormously  grateful for the role she has played in helping young Franco-Americans become  more acquainted with their heritage through discussion and music. ...She has  been a vital link in what's been happening in Vermont and New England with  Franco-Americans and in educating others about Franco-American history." 
 Martha's dedication to her work is tinged with sadness at the passing of  so many of those who lived the traditions. "I have a melancholy feeling  because I'm losing a lot of the people I've learned songs from. Every year  more than one person dies in a generation of people who were the tradition  bearers. So for me, the responsibility for passing on the traditions feels  stronger and stronger." The difficulty of the task Martha has set for herself  increases as she loses the older members of her family. Martha recalls  thinking, "If I don't remember the song, no big deal, I'll just call her up.  Well, guess what? She's not there this year." 
 In her own immediate family, it looks like Martha has succeeded in  transmitting the culture to the next generation. Both of her children are  musicians: Ian, the percussionist, plays spoons, feet and bodrahn while Eric,  the youngest, plays the violin. Since their father, John Drury, is also an  accomplished musician, the boys have always been surrounded by music and can  play and sing a number of Québecois tunes. 
 Speaking of the future of Franco-American culture in Vermont, Martha is  cautiously optimistic. She brings her music into schools as much as possible,  working as an artist in residence in order to build bridges between the  remaining elders and younger Francos who want to learn about their heritage.  This critical stage in Franco history comes at a time when funding is scarcer  than ever, so scrambling for financial support takes up a lot of her time.  Despite these challenges, Martha sees enough happening in the Franco  community to be hopeful. 
 "The culture is going through a natural transition. It's going to emerge in  the next generation looking very different and very unfamiliar to me, I'm  sure. But we have to recognize that it's still alive. To say that the culture  is dead just because it doesn't look the way we remember it is ridiculous.  The way it looked to our parents is probably not the way it looked to our  grandparents and so on. We just have to accept that." 

This is Where I'll Be

By Kim Chase, Burlington, VT

  Martha Pellerin called me late one night because she was frustrated with  a project she was working on. 
  "I don't understand it," she said. "I know this is supposed to happen. I  just don't know how." 
  But the project, like all of Martha's projects, ultimately succeeded. We  joked during our late telephone conversation about what Martha called her  "Jesus complex", her conviction that she had work she was absolutely meant to  do for our Franco-American culture. 
  "Anyone else would think I was crazy if I said I believe I have a  mission," Martha laughed that night.
  But in fact, I don't know anyone who thought Martha was crazy. Francos  and non-Francos who had even minimal contact with her believed in her  projects. And working with Martha usually required a leap of faith simply  because most of the time what she was trying to accomplish seemed impossible.  No money, no venue, Benoit Bourque's out of the country and Josée has a  previous commitment. Sure, Martha. Add all that to the fact that when you're  working with Francos, "audience development" (as they say in grant-speak) is  like pulling teeth. How do we get them out of their houses and St. Jean clubs  to a bigger, more public venue for something they've always experienced  privately, dans la paroisse? Or have stopped experiencing altogether: "Oh,  well, you know folks don't really bother with all that French stuff around  here any more."
  But they came, they remembered and it often brought them to tears. Martha  was never surprised. No one was ever sure how she did it, but we all believed  she would because we had seen. We were believers.
  I have often tried to figure out the key to Martha's success but it never  came to me until recently, when I read the Trial of Jeanne d'Arc. At the risk  of losing credibility, I have to say I find striking similarities between  Martha's and Jeanne's approaches to life.
  I don't know if leadership and vision are the same thing, but most of us  like to be around people who have a vision, some unshakable understanding of  how to proceed in this mysterious universe. Most of us, after all, are  completely in the dark. Yet even in our cluelessness we recognize  enlightenment in others, that unmistakable conviction of what must and what  will be done. 
  Personal charisma can also inspire throngs of followers, but it isn't the  same thing. I did not, having read the Trial of Jeanne d'Arc, find any  evidence of charisma in her statements and I have never heard anyone describe  Martha Pellerin as charismatic. She had, rather, a sort of brute sincerity  which stopped people in their tracks. Martha was moving forward, carrying out  her vision to the best of her ability, no matter what. While all were welcome  to join her, no one was absolutely required. Like Jeanne d'Arc, Martha was  marching onward: If you want to come along, great. If not, this is where I'll  be. 
  Martha's profound certainty of her life's purposefulness compelled even  the most skeptical to believe. The only people I ever saw resist Martha were  the most jaded of bureaucrats and politicians, the same people who killed  Jeanne d'Arc. After 500 years, they haven't learned a thing.
  I understood Martha's "Jesus complex" because I have one of my own. I  believe I have a calling to do what I can for my culture. My vision is small,  limited mainly to the solitary act of writing. Martha's vision was (is) vast,  so vast I don't even think she always grasped the big picture. But if I had  to describe it, I would say Martha was called to do nothing short of  breathing life into our languishing, battered culture. Martha probably  wouldn't have put it that way, but, in effect, that is what she did.
  It's hard whenever we lose a loved one, but it's harder still when we  lose visionary leaders like Martha. Then, instead of their confident  clairvoyance, we are left to our own tentative, dim  understanding. We feel  we have been thrust back into darkness.
  I confess I am still stunned by Martha's death. I don't understand how  she could be gone when she had so much more to do, when we needed her so  much. I'm not a religious person, but I have my own primitive belief in a  sort of Great Spirit and I keep expecting it to realize how ridiculously  unreasonable it was to take Martha away from us. Any moment now it will see  the error of its ways, it will recognize the obvious cosmic blunder and  return her to us. In the year that Martha Pellerin has been gone, this is as  far as I've come toward accepting her death.
   Apart from my small vision of my role in life, I'm as much in the dark  again as anyone else. At some point, those of us who relied on Martha for  insight and direction will have to decide whether to keep flailing hopelessly  around in the dark or use what Martha taught us to move forward on our own.  I'm working on it, Martha. I'm moving ahead with my small vision. I hope to  join others who have kept the fire burning all along, and I hope others will,  in turn, join me. If not, this is where I'll be.