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Voices Fall-Winter 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the excerpt of “Helen Hartness Flanders: The Green Mountain Songcatcher” by Nancy-Jean Ballard Siegel here.
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Volume 29

Helen Hartness Flanders: The Green Mountain Songcatcher by Nancy-Jean Ballard Seigel

The Flanders Ballad Collection, the largest archive of folk music and folklore from the northeastern states, serves as a window through which we can learn about the people of a region, their traditions, and their oral history. The approximately nine thousand items amassed between 1930 and 1960—including field recordings, manuscripts, song texts, broadsides, and hundreds of books relating to collections and studies about songs of Anglo-American, Canadian, and European origins—contain valuable and sometimes surprising information about our region and our forefathers. For me, this study is a personal tour of folksongs from a bygone era with lively asides by collector Helen Hartness Flanders—my grandmother. In reading her letters, diaries and papers, by going to the towns where she collected, through listening to field recordings and visiting with families of the people who recorded their songs, I am following her experiences and retracing her footsteps—and discovering that a simple committee assignment aroused such passionate interest that it became her life’s work.
Flanders collected songs from Olive May in the 1940s.
Flanders (left) collected songs from Olive May in the 1940s. Photo: Bob Bourdon News Bureau, Mount Mansfield Co. Inc., Stowe, Vermont.

In 1930, Gov. John Weeks, as part of his Commission on Vermont Country Life, appointed Helen Hartness Flanders, along with several other artists and writers, to the Committee on Traditions and Ideals. Her assignment was to find out what songs Vermonters had learned by oral tradition...

Electricity was coming to rural Vermont, however, and Flanders understood the urgency of collecting folk music right then. Let a radio into the house and people would soon stop singing their traditional songs—or worse still, they would become entranced by popular music heard over the airwaves and lose their own style. If the old songs were not collected soon, they would go to the graves with the people who knew them. In fact, most informants were in their seventies or eighties, and many passed away within two or three years of the time Flanders met them.

Following her yearlong assignment with the Committee on Traditions and Ideals and publication of the first of nine books, Vermont Folk Songs and Ballads, Flanders continued to collect...

The first recordings, in the 1930s, were made on wax cylinders, and the car cigarette lighter was used as a source of electricity if the singer’s house had none. Between 1939 and 1949 aluminum and acetate discs were used, followed by reel-to-reel tapes...

When the collection outgrew Flanders’s home, she donated it, in 1941, to Middlebury College, where it is now housed in Special Collections. Listening copies of the nearly 4,500 field recordings are available there as well as at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and at Harvard University. These recordings provide an overview of life and history in a particular region, all transmitted through ballads and folksongs. The informants represented every profession and every ethnic group in the population, and with few exceptions, they sang without instrumental accompaniment.
Flanders with Mrs. Eveline K. Fairbanks.
Flanders with Mrs. Eveline K. Fairbanks (right), one of the singers whose traditional songs she recorded. Photographer unknown. Mrs. Fairbanks was born in England, lived to the age of 91, and was active in civic, social, and church affairs in North Springfield, Vermont. She recorded "Little Harry Huston," a ballad that predates Chaucer’s time and tells the same story as the "The Prioress’s Tale."

The Education of a Collector

Helen Hartness Flanders was born in Springfield, Vermont, in 1890. She lived in Springfield all her life and was active in the community’s arts programs. It is no surprise that in 1930 she was appointed to the committee. She was both a pianist and a published poet, so her love of music and enjoyment of words easily translated into an interest in ballads and folksongs...

She borrowed books from the Dartmouth College Library and contacted folklorists and other collectors. The two people most responsible for guiding her early song-collecting experiences were Harvard scholar and collector Phillips Barry (1880-1937) and Maine collector Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (1865-1946). Barry, founder of the Bulletin of the Folklore Society of the Northeast, taught her the techniques of fieldwork. Through extensive correspondence and during his yearly visits to her home in Vermont, he advised her on how to recognize song origins. Eckstorm, collector of Native American and Anglo-American Folklore from Maine, became a close friend and collaborated with Flanders on folksong articles in Maine newspapers.

One of the people with whom she corresponded was collector Alan Lomax. She, like several collectors of that era, felt territorial about the region where she was collecting. In a 1939 letter, she wrote to him, "I am recognizing that by November 3, I am letting you come into Vermont to go about as I do, with potential addresses of unknown quantity." The majority of recordings collected during Lomax’s ten-day visit, by prior agreement, bear the names of both Flanders and Lomax.
In the Field

Finding singers was a challenge...

Flanders spoke to friends and neighbors, asking if they remembered songs in their families. Then she wrote messages to the granges and women’s clubs and placed an open letter in all the Vermont newspapers. After she contacted school superintendents in Vermont, students went home and began asking their parents and their grandparents what songs they knew.

Photo of Helen Hartness Flanders about 1945
Helen Hartness Flanders about 1945. Photo: Clara Sipprell.
Flanders also lectured and wrote magazine articles...Everywhere she went, she honored the people who sang. She frequently reminded listeners that without their willingness to share this music, there would not have been a collection.

Informant Marjorie Pierce, when interviewed in her ninety-sixth year, recalled the collecting visits and spoke of Flanders’s genuine interest in every member of her family. The informants shared their songs because Flanders let them know that they played an important role in the preservation of a living legacy. When the head of one family passed away, she brought her equipment to the house so that the family could hear his voice one last time...


Thirty years, five hundred singers, and approximately forty-five hundred songs later, Flanders had created a massive collection. The list of song titles indicates an active transmission of ballads from the settlers’ musical heritage from the British Isles...

Examples from the Collection

The northeastern states yielded far more than Child ballads, however. People sang about Old World history ("Bonaparte on St. Helena’s Shore"), local events ("The Stratten Mountain Tragedy"), and recent history ("The Last Fierce Charge"). Song stories took place on land, on sea, in people’s memories, and in their imaginations.

The early part of the twentieth century was the heyday of lumber camps in remote forests. It was in the bunkhouse at night that the loggers sang, and a favorite theme was their daily encounter with danger. In "The Jam on Gerry’s Rock," a river driver is killed when the logs break loose...

Religion helped sustain people through the hard times in rural Vermont, but they expressed their faith in different ways. Many hymns are included in the collection—for example, the singing of Belle Richards and Lena Bourne Fish from New Hampshire...


A beautiful and moving example of religious singing is the recording of Jessie Anthony’s "Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down." The daughter of a former slave, Jessie Anthony lived in Massachusetts. She contributed two dozen gospel songs for the collection and participated in at least one of Flanders’s concert-lectures.

...Snowstorm ballads form a group all their own in the Flanders collection. "In the Dense Woods" is a true winter tragedy set to music. When Jim Furnald becomes lost in the forest, three hundred souls join the search party, and after three days he is finally found—sitting on a log frozen to death...
The ballad Suffolk Miracle

"Suffolk Miracle" was sung by Mrs. E.M. Sullivan, a native of County Cork, Ireland, who lived in Springfield, Vermont, and was bedridden at the end of her life, when Flanders collected this ballad from her. She published it in New Green Mountain Songster with the following comment: "For true ballad lovers, this is one of the 'big' ballads. Child #272."

There was a squire liv’d in this town,
He was a squire of high renown
Had one daughter, a beauty bright,
And he called her his "Heart’s Delight."

[One or more verses are missing]

When her father came this to know,
He sent his daughter far away,
Sends her over fifty miles or more
To detain her of her wedding day.

One night as she was for her bed bound,
As she was taking out her gown,
She heard the knock and the deadly sound,
"Loosen those bounds that we have bound.

"I have your horse, and your mother’s cloak,
And your father’s orders to take you home."
She dress’d herself in rich attire,
And she rid away with her Heart’s Desire.

She kept on with him behind,
They rode far faster than any wind,
And every mile he would sigh
"O my lovely jewel, my head it aches."

A Holland handkerchief she then took out
And tied his head with it around;
She kissed his lips and she then did say,
"Oh, my love, you’re colder than any clay."

When they came to her father’s gate,
"Come down, dear jewel," this young man said,
"Come down, my darling, and go to bed,
and I’ll see your horse in his stable led."

And when they came to her father’s hall,
"Who’s there, who’s there?" her father called,
"It is I, dear father, did you send for me,
By such a messenger?"—naming he.

Her father, knowing the young man being dead,
He tore his grey hair down from his head;
He wrung his hands and he wept full sore;
And this young man’s darling cried more and more.

The next day to the grave they went,
And although this young man had been nine months dead,
He had a Holland handkerchief
Around his head.

New Englanders also had concerns about people being lost in the moral sense: succumbing to the evils of alcohol. The "Drunkard’s Dream" recounts the miseries of a wayward father who, drink in hand, leaves his family to suffer and be forgotten. "The Bird Song," an odd little temperance song, charmingly passes along its message in the chorus: "tea total tea total."

Love stories—good and bad, true and fictional—were immortalized in broadsides, ballads, and folksongs. In the high drama genre, the collection includes several ballads in which a penknife is used for vengeance, and in at least one verse, blood oozes from a damsel’s pale bosom: She couldn’t escape her evil-minded lover, or her brothers failed to save her in time, or her father considered her lover unworthy and, when she wouldn’t obey, "laid her in her gore."...
Edison dictaphone used by Flanders in field research
In the field, Flanders used this Edison Dictaphone, Model 12, and a Soundscriber, which made seven-inch disks.
Dozens of well-known ballads—"The Lass of Mohea," "Barbara Allen," "On Springfield Mountain," and "Frog Song"—appear in the collection in numerous text and tune variants. Lily Delorme of Cadyville, New York, recorded an example of another form of variation, song localization. Her version of "The Banks of Lake Erie" is a regional cousin of "The Streets of Laredo."

Besides nonsense songs, riddles, and folktales are songs that depict people having fun. In "Jones’ Paring Bee," neighbors gather to pare apples and end the evening dancing to a fiddle. "Green Mountain Boys" is about farmer boys who sneak away from their chores for a night on the town and end up at a dance, where they take a brief fancy to French girls.
Loss and nostalgia songs express many types of situations. The son leaving Ireland for America leaves the motherland as well as his mother. In "No One to Welcome Me Home," a weeping mother is left standing on the shore, covering her face with her apron. "The Banks of the Potomac" is one of many songs reminding us of the realities of war—the dying soldier gives final instructions to his comrade about what to tell his mother, his sister, and sweetheart. "The Brooklyn Fire" presents both the tragic event and a bold new hero. Songs also picture the plight of the Native Americans. "Indian Sitting in His Canoe" recalls the days before the conflict between native peoples and the European settlers.


The influence of the Irish in the Flanders Ballad Collection is tremendous. Coming to New England in droves, the Irish sang ancient ballads, songs popular in Ireland before they left, and once in America, new songs describing their own pioneer experience—unemployment, poverty, and prejudice—as well as bouncy patter songs such as "Clancyֵs Wooden Wedding" or "Mrs. Fogarty’s Christmas Cake."...

Though not represented in great numbers, French Americans deserve mention. ...The men in the fur trade who transported their goods downriver by canoe sang as they paddled. The rhythm of the paddles, dipping in and out of the water, transformed "A la Claire Fontaine," a lyrical tune, into a spirited work song.


Sadly, the tradition of singing has not been carried down to the recent generation in the informants’ families. Relatives of the singers smile with pride as they reminisce about the old ones, but the young ones don’t know the traditional songs. Some children and grandchildren weren’t even aware that their elders sang and were convinced only on hearing tapes of the field recordings. The French Americans are the exception. During a collecting session in the Lecours family’s kitchen last summer, I was told, "That’s what we do when we get together." Singing is still part of their life even though the style has changed with the times. The format is still call-and-response, but a cappella singing is less common, now that some family members play guitar. Before or after a song, someone is likely to mention the name of a family member who has passed away. Swapping stories about the person who used to sing a certain song and, in their eyes, owned that song is very much a part of the French American musical gatherings today.

...The volume and variety of materials in the Flanders Ballad Collection are a testimony to that human desire to express and transmit traditions, personal memories, and historical records. Between the lines of these songs are the legacies of human beings who lived in a time when people sang, and when singing had the power to enrich and define their lives.


Photo of Nancy-Jean Ballard SeigelNancy-Jean Ballard Seigel is a Vermonter currently living in Bethesda, Maryland. In 2001 she received an award from the Parsons Fund for Ethnography at the American Folklife Center (Library of Congress) for her research on Helen Hartness Flanders. She is pictured here with Alan Lomax.

Flanders understood the urgency of collecting folk music right then. Let a radio into the house and people would soon stop singing their traditional songs—or worse still, they would become entranced by popular music heard over the airwaves and lose their own style. If the old songs were not collected soon, they would go to the graves with the people who knew them.

In 1934, Amelia Stankewicz of Springfield, Vermont, recorded Child ballad #10, "The Two Sisters," in Polish. My interest in this variant of the ballad was the start of a transatlantic adventure. When several years ago I was to visit friends in Warsaw, I packed a copy of this field recording and the Polish text, with a translation. (The wax cylinder recording was badly damaged, but my mother had prepared a transcription of the tune.) I wanted to learn whether Stankiewicz’s version was still known in Poland. My friends arranged a meeting with two English-speaking ethnomusicologists at the University of Warsaw. They couldn’t find Stankiewicz’s tune, but they did tell me that the ballad (known there as "Maliny") is still sung and probably originated from a folktale. At the end of our meeting, they presented me with a tape of Eastern European variants of "The Two Sisters." I, in turn, gave them a tape I had made of four friends each singing a different version of "The Two Sisters."

For further information

Flanders, Helen Hartness. 1931. Vermont Folk-Songs and Ballads (with George Brown)

______ 1934. A Garland of Green Mountain Song (with Helen Norfleet).

______ 1937. Country Songs of Vermont (with Helen Norfleet).

______ 1939. The New Green Mountain Songster (with Elizabeth Flanders Ballard, Phillips Barry, George Brown).

______ 1953. Ballads Migrant in New England (with Marguerite Olney).

______ 1960-65. Ancient Ballads Traditionally Sung in New England (4 volumes) (with Tristram Coffin and Bruno Nettl).

A description of the Flanders collection, including an index of the songs and singers, is available online at the Middlebury College library website.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Fall-Winter 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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