Helen Hartness Flanders was a spirited Vermonter who spent thirty years searching for old New England ballads, thereby preserving the musical traditions of New England folk life. She was born in Springfield, Vermont on May 19, 1890. Her father was an inventor and engineer who later was president of a machine–tool business, a business that was an essential part of the economy of the Connecticut River Valley. She graduated from Dana Hall in 1909. While at Dana she was active in the glee club and a member of Le Cercle Français, the French club. On November 1, 1911, she married Ralph Flanders, a mechanical engineer and businessman, who was elected a United States Senator from Vermont from 1946—59. In 1930, Mrs. Flanders was asked by the Vermont Committee on Traditions and Ideals to record songs in Vermont that were passed orally from person to person. Later, she expanded this search to all of New England. She roamed the back woods of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire and the seacoasts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut searching for the last of the ballad singers. Visiting lumber camps, potato fields, and seaports with her dictaphone, Mrs. Flanders interviewed lumberjacks, river men, basket weavers, farmers and scissors grinders, usually at night when they had finished working. Mrs. Flanders said, “The fascination of this research may be that of an antique collector, only there are no signs indicating where treasures may be found. The person who knows these old songs looks the same as the person who does not.”
Many ballads were from overseas and were continually being changed as they moved across the ocean and from seacoast to mountaintop throughout New England. Mrs. Flanders discovered a paymaster in Burlington, VT, who had learned history from his Yorkshire grandfather’s singing of border ballads, an old Irish woman who remembered convent songs filled with legend and superstitions, and a Polish girl who remembered a song her mother sang that was discovered to be the only known Polish version of Child No. 10. Even Helen Temple Cooke, the principal of Dana from 1899-1938 and a native Vermonter, contributed a traditional song from her grandfather, “The Dog and the Gun.”
With the advent of the radio, these old musical tales that had been sung for centuries started to disappear. People no longer sang to distract themselves while they worked; instead they listened to the radio. Mrs. Flanders understood how important it was to record and transcribe these ballads before they died with the older people who sang them.
Mrs. Flanders’ years of sleuthing led to a collection of well over 4500 songs and instrumental tunes collected in New England between 1930 and 1966. Known as the Flanders Ballad Collection, it is one of the most valuable archives of folk material in the country. This collection of field recordings and notes, photographs of performers, texts of songs, manuscripts, copybooks, broadsides, chapbooks, and personal papers are maintained by Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT. Visit the Middlebury College website to find out more about her collection and to see photographs of the people she interviewed.
Mrs. Flanders published numerous books of ballads, including her first book, Vermont Folk Songs and Ballads, in 1931 and the four-volume Ancient Ballads Traditionally Sung in New England in 1965. These books are in the Helen Temple Cooke Library in the Alumnae Authors Collection. Mrs. Flanders lectured on early ballads at colleges as well as at the Library of Congress. She wrote poems and produced an anthology of contemporary Vermont poems. Mrs. Flanders validated the rich oral tradition of New England ballads and saved these treasures of American folklore from extinction.