Folklife Center’s new podcast taps into Vermonters’ stories

Archives are important; they chronicle our lives, catalogue our stories and serve as the living history of a community. But archives are also good at collecting dust. Even the most meticulously cared for archives (no dust to be found) have a way of being forgotten — lost in the multiplicity of other records.
For example, did you know in downtown Middlebury there are more than 5,000 taped audio and video interviews and 20,000 historic and contemporary photographs, plus transcripts, field notes, family memoirs and musical recordings? Yes, really. They’re all housed in the Vermont Folklife Center’s state-of-the-art, climate-controlled archive.
In an effort to tap into those resources and make them more accessible, the local non-profit has recently launched a podcast — aptly named “VT Untapped.” Podcast host Mary Wesley and editor Erica Furgiuele aim to combine archival material and content from the Folklife Center’s ongoing ethnographic research to tell unique stories about Vermonters in each episode. There are two episodes out now — one on a Putney drag queen troop and the other on a hunter’s unlikely friendship — subsequent episodes will be released monthly.
“The Folklife Center’s mission is to document, sustain, and share the diverse cultures of Vermont,” said Executive Director Kathleen Haughey in a recent press release. “‘VT Untapped’ provides the ideal platform for us to share the experiences of Vermonters whose lives and stories we have documented over the past 35 years.” Haughey believes the podcast will bring the work of the Folklife Center to a broader audience and foster greater understanding among the state’s residents.
“Archives serve a vital purpose, but accessing their content can sometimes be challenging,” said Andy Kolovos, the center’s director of archives and research. “Through our podcast, we’re bringing these recordings out of the archive and into the world.”
Wesley agrees. “It’s a way to make our work go further,” said the Lincoln native who now lives in Burlington. “Our hope is that by sharing these stories in a new way, we will get people to revisit the larger collections. We’re proud of our work, and we want it to be enjoyed.”
Like, for instance, the 13-minute-33-second podcast episode “Deer stories” is a snippet of a 12-part audio documentary. Wesley hopes people will be inspired to dig into the archives to hear more.
“The podcast is really just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “And we’re just beginning… The archive is untapped in that way. It’s really exciting to get into the material we’ve already done, and I can’t wait to see what we are going to uncover.”
As the host, Wesley thinks of herself as a guide, and hopes to convey the value of getting a glimpse into the lives of Vermonters past, present and future. “These archives are who we were, who we are and who we want to be,” she said. “It’s a continuity.”
With the help of the Vermont Folklife staff, Wesley strings it all together. She sits in the Vermont Folklife Center’s sound booth in the basement of the 88 Main St. headquarters by herself, with a microphone, digital recorder and laptop, and pretends she’s talking to someone.
“Because I kind of am,” she explained. “When you hear it on the podcast that’s the tone I want to strike.”
Often, Wesley reads her lines multiple times. “It’s like playing a role,” she said. “It’s goofy.”
Playing the role of podcast host, goofy as it may be, is not actually that far out of Wesley’s comfort zone. When she’s not working for the Folklife Center, she’s probably in some town hall calling a contra dance.
“I’m comfortable using my voice,” said 35-year-old Wesley, a multi-generational Vermonter who learned after she got into calling that her grandparents were also contra dance callers. “A caller is someone who tells people what to do in a friendly way.”
But it’s more than that.
“We’re holders of tradition and stories,” said Wesley, drawing out the connection to the Vermont Folklife Center’s mission. “It definitely ties into this idea of taking care of Vermont stories.”
Wesley began calling dances after graduating from McGill University in 2005 with her degree in Anthropology. She joined the Vermont Folklife Center in 2009/2010 as an intern for a project on “callers, then and now.” But then she left for Portland, Maine, where she received audio training at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
After graduating in 2013, she pursued calling as a full-time gig. But she couldn’t stay away from the Folklife Center. In 2014 she worked on a one-year, grant-funded project — the New Neighbors Project — that built a K-12 curriculum around recordings of refugee and immigrant communities, supported by Young Traditions Vermont and the Vermont Folklife Center.
Back to calling… but in 2016 she started burning out. “It was a gig-life,” she said. “Too much time on the road.” And Wesley found herself a steady job at the Folklife Center.
“They’re kindred spirits,” she said of the Center. “It’s so nice to come back here.”
She still calls for the Queen City Contras on the second and fourth Fridays at the First Congregational Church in Burlington, and for special events.
“I became a caller because I’m not enough of a musician to be in the band,” she said, half-joking. “It’s a great way to meet people and become part of a broader community.”
Check out the first two episodes of “VT Untapped” wherever you get your podcasts and subscribe to share in our Vermont culture.

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