Mother Make My Bed

CD Review

Memory and Melody

Niece records great-aunt's Vt. folk song collection

By Sally Pollak Burlington Free Press Staff Writer

Traditional folk songs tell tales of local history and colorful characters-narrative tunes passed from grandfather to grandchild, from great-aunt to young niece, around the family piano or fireplace. This blend of tuneful tales,family singalongs and regional history is found in "Mother Make My Bed." a new recording by Burlington singer Deborah Flanders. The 12 songs on Flanders' CD were culled from some 9,000 folk songs collected by her great-aunt, Helen Hartness Flanders. "I felt like I found my voice again," said Flanders, 42, a tour coordinator for an international travel company who has sung in recent years in a bebop sextet and classical choir. "It sort of brings you back to where your soul is," Flanders said. "And to understanding how people entertained themselves before television. Singing is a very spiritual thing to do; it's a way to bring you back to your heritage."

Flanders' heritage is especially tied to singing and to this project, which began more than 70 years ago with her great-aunt's backroads search for folk songs. Helen Hartness Flanders, daughter of a Vermont governor (James Hartness) and wife of a United States senator (Ralph Flanders), was born in Springfield in 1890. A piano player whose arthritis kept her from pursuing a musical career, she was asked in 1930 by the Vermont Commission on Country Life to travel around the state collecting and recording songs that represented Vermont's heritage before they were lost. Helen Hartness Flanders used this recording equipment, now stored at Middlebury College, to collect traditional folk songs.

What Flanders thought would be a year-long project lasted until the 1960s, as the initially reluctant recorder of oral history found her life's work, her voice. She traveled to remote farms and homes throughout New England, recording songs that originated in Europe and those that were written in the colonies. The more removed the homes were from modern technology, the more likely their inhabitants were sources of songs, said Jennifer Post, a librarian at Middlebury College and curator for the collection of songs. In these homes with little or no influence from television and other media, people entertained themselves. The songs passed from generation to generation were fluid: Lyrics were misconstrued and forgotten, reworked and embellished as the circumstances of people's lives changed.

Helen Flanders learned through word of mouth which families might have songs to offer. She also placed notices in rural newspapers about her project, sometimes including snippets of lyrics from a song she was trying to track. Her work, called the Flanders Collection, is housed at Middlebury College. Songs that were recorded by dictaphone, acetate discs and finally reel to-reel tape recorders, have been dubbed onto cassette tapes and are available in listening rooms to the public. "The interest has been in holding on to a heritage, which at this point, much of it is lost," Post said. "The idea of telling stories through songs is a piece of it. Other pieces have to do with individual's memories of the experience of singing in families.... They serve as a framework for song traditions that still exist to- day, as well as ways of sharing cultures."

Helen Flanders was initially discouraged from the project, said her sister-in-law, Frances Flanders, 86, grandmother of Deborah Flanders. She was told taciturn Vermonters would be disinclined to share their songs. "Even Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was a family friend, had said you won't make much progress with

Vermonters on this," recalled Frances Flanders of Springfield. She worked with Helen Flanders on her four-volume book, "Ancient Ballads Traditionally Sung in New England." "But as Helen kept talking to Dorothy, she uncovered in Canfield's memory some folk songs," Frances Flanders said, "disproving her theory that Vermonters don't know them."

For Deborah Flanders, a Montpelier native who is the fifth of nine siblings the project brings together facets of her life: Flanders was raised in a music-filled household in which all five sisters and four brothers took piano lessons, lining up at the family upright for their 30-minute practice sessions. "Singing was sort of the glue that held the family together," said Flanders, a 1973 graduate of U-32 High School. "Both my father and mother felt that music was the essential part of life, and singing was the one thing I felt I could do."

Deborah Flanders was a teenager when her great-aunt died in 1972. Though she knew as a child about her work, she didn't discover the extent of her ancestor's collection until she was in her 20s. About five years ago, she decided to record some of the songs and went about selecting her repertoire based on the melody. "The melodies had to speak to me," she said. "The stories were secondary: I had to feel like I could sing these songs and be comfortable with them."

The project stalled because Flanders was busy with work, with her singing group Mixed Company, and with making ends meet. Her interest was recharged in October 1996, when local folk guru Pete Sutherland, a Monkton fiddler, agreed to collaborate on the record. Flanders had been taking voice lessons from his wife, Karen. Sutherland wrote the musical arrangements for the CD, and played accompanying piano, fiddle, and harmonium. "Besides his diverse background in folk music, there was this incredible fit," Flanders said. "I felt like this was meant to be."


"Mother Make My Bed," a CD by Burlington singer Deborah Flanders. The CD contains New England folk songs that were collected and preserved by her great-aunt, Helen Hartness Flanders. The songs were arranged and include accompaniment by Monkton musician Pete Sutherland.


The recording is available at several area stores, including Pure Pop Records, Barnes & Noble Booksellers.


The songs on the CD are from a collection of about 9,000 New England folk songs that Helen Flanders preserved. The collection is housed at Middlebury College and is available to the public. For information, check out the web site: