Vermont Folklife Center - Digital Archive

Martha Pellerin Collection of Franco-American Song

Dublin Core


Martha Pellerin Collection of Franco-American Song


About the Resource

The Martha Pellerin Collection of Franco-American Song is an online database of French and English language songs drawn from two sources: nine song-book manuscripts collected by Martha Pellerin that date to the mid-twentieth century, and a series of six interviews conducted by Martha with Alberta Gagné of Highgate, Vermont in 1998.

The songs that make up the collection include traditional French Canadian materials, commercial popular songs from Canada, France and the United States, family songs, personal songs, bawdy songs and religious songs. The Pellerin Collection is not a complete or inclusive document of Franco-American and French Canadian song. Rather it is a record of the performance repertoires of particular individuals of French Canadian descent, including Martha's parents Yvonne and Hervé, as well as those of Irma Labonté, Adelard Guay and Alberta Gagné.

These fragile, hand written notebooks and audio recordings preserve music vitally important to each of the individuals who took the time to record them on paper or audio tape. These are songs that were shared socially and tied to the identities of the individual performers, their families, neighborhoods, ethnicity and the periods in time in which they were learned and sung. Whether or not they are songs that traveled from France to Quebec with the earliest Francophone settlers to North America or songs learned from the radio while driving between Highgate, VT and Montreal, these songs and the communal performance of them were a fundamental aspect of what it meant to be Franco-American in Northern New England in the middle part of the twentieth century.

As French Canadian families moved across the international border to begin new lives in Vermont–becoming part of the industrial workforce in cities such as Winooski, Barre, Rutland, and Burlington, and farming in the rural countryside in towns throughout the state–they brought with them both the language and traditional culture of French Canada. A key cultural practice that these French families brought to Vermont was music-making–both fiddling for dance (often accompanied by piano, percussive foot tapping, and/or spoons) and acappella song-and-response style singing. These musical traditions were integral to social interaction within the French community, simultaneously affirming connections within family networks, strengthening relationships between families, and asserting French identity and the continuity of French culture in the Anglophone world of their new home.

Into the mid twentieth century Franco Americans in Vermont, although numerous, were often either ignored or treated as second class citizens whose “foreign” traditions were of no particular significance to the cultural make up of the state. As a result, the rich musical heritage of French Canada remained invisible to the cultural mainstream, and musical traditions that were carried on in communities around Vermont were known only to the families that participated in these house parties. Starting in the 1960s this began to change, first with the rise to prominence of Burlington fiddler Louie Beaudoin, and later through the performances of such outstanding artists as La Famille Beaudoin, Martha Pellerin, and most recently Michele Choiniere.

Over the past twenty-five years the Vermont Folklife Center (VFC) has acted in partnership with each of these artists, most especially Martha Pellerin with whom we conducted field research, organized master classes, planned festival presentations, created curriculum materials, booked concerts, and generally worked to build public awareness of Franco American culture and help Franco American descendants connect to their cultural legacy. A traditional singer herself, one of Martha’s passions was to document Franco American song traditions in Vermont, which she accomplished both by making field recordings with older people who knew the tradition and by collecting the personal songbooks of individual singers. These songbooks were always handwritten, usually on discarded paper such as obsolete account books and outdated calendars. And they represented the personal repertoire of the individual singer with the complete lyrics of every song they customarily sang at family gatherings.

Martha’s songbook collection was given to the VFC archive by her husband, John, and shortly before her death we laid the groundwork for a plan to make this material available to a broad public audience. This was particularly important project to Martha because with the changes of contemporary life, the kinds of family events in which this repertoire was conventionally passed from generation to generation were no longer taking place. As Martha observed, “We were able to learn these songs orally because we heard them all the time. We had the opportunity to learn this through oral tradition, and our kids aren’t getting that opportunity...” Although the tradition is well documented in archives such as our own and at Laval University in Ste-Foy, younger singers and others interested in Franco American culture do no have easy public access to this material. So after ten years in the offing, the occasion of the Quadricentennial is clearly the right time to finally bring the Pellerin Songbook Project forward.


Gagné, Alberta (Singer)

Biographical Note:

Alberta Gagné (1908-1999) was born in Roxton-Falls, Quebec to Édouard and Ozanna (born Gagné) LaRoche. She was the second-youngest daughter and had eleven siblings, of whom only her younger sister Beatrice (1916-2013) was still living in 1998 at the time of this recording.

Alberta immigrated to Vermont with her family in 1913. Her father bought a farm in Highgate Springs and Alberta grew up there. She first met her husband Antoine Horace Gagné (1904-1966) when he was in his early teens and accompanied his mother, who came to the Laroche farm to visit her cousin Ozanna, on a family visit.  Alberta married Antoine in 1926 and they farmed for a short period before relocating to Newport, New Hampshire where Antoine worked in the mills and Alberta took charge of raising their fifteen children. During WWII, Alberta worked in a coat shop and joined her husband in millwork when the war ended. In 1998, eleven of Alberta’s children were still living, including her second eldest daughter Laurianne (1930-2013) who sings and plays guitar in these interviews.

Gagné, Laurianne (Singer, Musician)

Biographical Note:

Laurianne Gagné (1930-2013) was the second eldest daughter of Alberta and Antoine Gagné. She married Lionel H. Gagné (1929-2013) and they moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where Lionel worked construction as a cement finisher and he and Laurianne raised eight children. They moved back to Highgate in 1969, where Lionel built a home and continued working construction until his retirement in 1991. In 2020, Laurianne was living in Highgate Springs, Vermont.

Gagné, Normand Donald

Biographical Note:

Normand Donald Gagné (1932-2017) was the youngest of sixteen children born to Lucien and Dolores (Betournay) Gagné. His parents immigrated from Quebec to Vermont in 1926 and Normand was born in Highgate on July 27, 1932. Normand attended and graduated from St. Anne's Academy in Swanton, class of 1951. He worked alongside his father on the farm until he purchased it in 1958 and continued to farm with his wife, Georgette (Larose), and son, Mark, until 2001. Alberta Gagné was Normand’s paternal aunt. According to the obituary notice which appeared in The Saint Alban’s Messenger: “Normand’s greatest passions were flying his own plane and attending many fly-ins. He was proud to wave his wings over the farm. He was credited with starting the Highgate hockey youth program in the 1960s and was also known as the ‘Father of Missisquoi Hockey,’ having coached the T-Birds from 1971-73 and ‘79-82 and later coached the Highgate North Stars. For many years, Normand and Georgette hosted Franco-American soirees with family, neighbors, and friends which Normand loved. Normand was a die-hard New York Yankees and Boston Bruins fan. He also enjoyed deer hunting with his sons, fishing with his cousins, watching Mary, Carly and Katie play high school softball, traveling to historical landmarks and trips twice to Alaska.”


Pellerin, Martha