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Vermont heritage

04/10/03 12:00AM By Tom Slayton
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When Helen Hartness Flanders began her lifework of collecting Vermont folksongs in the 1930s, she said she did not expect to find much left of Vermont's traditional folk culture. In fact, she found enough to fill volumes of notes and hundreds of miles of recording tape.

More recently, when the Vermont Folklife Center and producer Ev Grimes began a series of programs on Vermont folklore for Vermont Public Radio, Grimes, too, said that she was pretty sure she wouldn't find much, since it was common knowledge that Vermont's traditional folk culture had withered away. Wrong again. Researchers uncovered more than enough material to fill several hours of programming. Some 40 years after Helen Hartness Flanders began her work, Vermont's folk culture was still there, simply waiting to be found.

And that's still the way it is today, say folklorists at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. Despite a Vermont that is obviously changing rapidly, despite Interstate highways, the Internet, Dr. Phil, and the nationwide mass-marketing of mass culture, somehow Vermont's traditional heritage remains vital. You can see that as you watch fiddler Ron West of Richford teaching traditional fiddle tunes to his young pupils. You can see it in the young - and not so young - people who come to learn contra dances, and sometimes dance all night. You can hear it in the family gatherings where Gordon Tallman of Hyde Park reads his rhymed verses about deer hunting, maple sugaring and another Vermont tradition - tolerance.

Of course Vermont is more connected to the larger world than it has ever been, and mass cult offerings are overpoweringly available today. But by the same token, much of Vermont remains determined to stay out of the mainstream. The era of kitchen junkets and quilting bees may be gone, but many elements of the culture that produced them are still vital and alive.

The Vermont Folklife Center, which documents and preserves the traditions and voice of Vermont, and Vermont Life Magazine join forces each year to make two important Vermont Heritage Awards, one to a traditional artist - a living treasure, if you will, whose work has deep roots in family or community. And one to a teacher who uses history or heritage to creatively educate about traditional Vermont. It's a way of celebrating what's best and most characteristic about Vermont - the traditional arts and artists who make music, tell stories, sew a quilt, weave baskets or carve and craft in wood - whatever the art form, you can bet that there's a Vermonter who learned the craft from a friend or relative and is carrying on the tradition.

In a rural Vermont that changes more and more each day, these traditional threads woven through our contemporary life are valuable and vital. We need to recognize and honor them, because they help us keep the best of Vermont alive and well in our hearts.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine.
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