|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
"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
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
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
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."