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Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series: Texts from the Event Flyers

From Virginia to Vermont: A Trek from Slavery to Freedom

Featuring Jane Beck, Director of the The Vermont Folklife Center

Image: Jane Beck with a photo of Daisy TurnerJane Beck first met Daisy Turner on a September afternoon in 1983. Margaret MacArthur, well-known folk song collector and singer from Marlboro, Vermont had sent Beck, who at that time was serving as Vermont Folklorist for the Vermont Arts Council, a newspaper article on Daisy. MacArthur recounted that Turner not only had an interesting story, but that she knew all kinds of traditional ballads. Margaret had always intended to go record her, but had never done so. Jane, intrigued, called to see if she might visit, and after attempting to explain that she was interested in Daisy's story, Daisy (at that time 100 years of age) suddenly turned the tables on her and boomed over the phone in a strong, resonating voice, “Are you a prejudiced woman?” Somewhat startled, Jane responded that she didn't think so and Daisy invited her to come any time.
Daisy Turner was born in Grafton, VT on June 21, 1883, the daughter of Alec Turner (1845-1923), a former slave. When Beck first met her she was 100, and she was to live another 4 and a half years. As Jane talked with her on the steps of her house she forgot her age and was drawn into the power of her story. A gifted narrator, Daisy painted vignettes with her words, and accented her accounts with the rise and fall of her voice, her motions, her use of repetition and a sense of immediacy. Because she did not want to be recorded that day, Beck grabbed a pad and frantically scribbled notes. Daisy's stories spilled out in rapid-fire succession, and Beck found herself wondering if she could ever remember it all. But she returned again and again, every week or two for the next three years. Over that time their relationship developed and deepened. Before long Daisy was willing to allow the intrusion of the tape recorder and those visits resulted in over 60 recorded interviews. What poured out was a spellbinding family saga with Turner's father, Alec, a central figure in the tale. Beck was struck by what a remarkable window Daisy provided on antebellum life in Virginia through her father's first-hand accounts-- portraying early memories and events, details of life and practices on the plantation: She heard of Alec's father's funeral, his run-ins with authority, how he learned to read, his escape from the plantation, meeting Colonel Ferdinand Dayton and joining the First New Jersey Cavalry. After the War Daisy related how he eventually found his way to Vermont to work in the lumber woods. He was able to buy some of the land he logged and there he settled his family at a site that became known as Journey's End. One of Daisy's regrets was that her father had never been able to collect his Civil War pension and Beck began to do some research for her in Washington and to bring back the results to share with her.
Alec Turner was deeply religious, honest, compassionate, hard working and a giant of a man whose strength was the stuff of legend. Despite his lack of formal education, he was both astute and profound, standing as a symbol of triumph to his family. His story is an inspiring saga of one man's triumph against all odds. But it is also a testament to the power of the words of a spellbinding narrator. Daisy proved to be a woman of words, a master orator, and has kept the story of her father, indeed of her family, fresh and alive.

Jane Beck
Executive Director
Vermont Folklife Center External link

Jane Beck received her PhD in Folklore in 1969 from the University of Pennsylvania and has served as the founding director of the Vermont Folklife Center since 1984. The Vermont Folklife Center is a cultural heritage organization which is dedicated to preserving and presenting the folk arts and traditions of Vermont and the surrounding region. The Center employs the oral interview as its major research tool and maintains an archive of 4000 taped interviews. Through ongoing field research the Center documents and conserves cultural heritage through exhibit, media, publications and educational projects, bringing recognition to the skills, talents and traditions of Vermonters, past and present. Through work for the Vermont Folklife Center, Beck has been involved in curating over twenty exhibitions, producing a number of publications and several radio series. Among those, one of the most memorable was Journey's End: The Traditions of Daisy Turner and her Family, which won the prestigious Peabody Award.

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   November 9, 2010
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