A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Keeping a Tejano Sound in Michigan

One Saturday night last June, I walked into the Eagles Club near the Lansing, Michigan, airport, recording equipment in hand, in the midst of a big family celebration for a high school graduation. The guests were finishing a dinner of home-made Tejano (Texan Mexican-American) specialties, and the dance floor was still empty, strobe light glittering above. Members of Lansing’s Tejano Sound Band were setting up: keyboard, drum set, electric bass, saxophone, diatonic button accordion, and the 12-string guitar bajo sexto.

It felt like déjà vu. There was a time when I was known as “the woman who was paid to go to Mexican bars” (a reference to the numerous Saturday night dances that have been a staple of Texas Mexican bands in Michigan and elsewhere). “Paid” because—as a staff member of the MSU Museum’s Michigan Traditional Arts Program—I had spent eight years from the late 1980s to mid-1990s studying Michigan’s Mexican American music. My research had taken me across the state to communities where this music was played in bars, clubs, and at family parties such as weddings, anniversaries, quinceañeras (a girl’s 15th birthday coming of age party), and graduations. Then, about the same time that Tejano Sound Band was formed, I moved out of state. This was my first foray back into state’s Tejano music scene in twenty years.

The evening’s event had brought together family from Michigan and Texas to celebrate the remarkable achievement of young Marco Solis, who had not missed a single day of high school in four years. His proud great-uncle and grandpa respectively were Tejano Sound’s co-founders, Johnny and Richard Vasquez.

Brothers Richard (left) and Johnny Vasquez, co-founders of Lansing’s Tejano Sound Band, 
play bajo sexto and diatonic button accordion. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2014.
The brothers grew up playing music. Johnny and Richard, along with siblings Frank Jr. and Fred, started the band Los Hermanos Vasquez (Vasquez brothers) in the late 1950s when Johnny―the youngest―was just eight years old. The family had come north from Texas as part of the migrant stream that introduced Tejano culture to Michigan in the years following World War II.

The 1950s were also the golden age of conjunto music, a regional style of the Texas-Mexican border that has at its core melodies of the button accordion and rhythmic accompaniment of the bajo sexto, along with drums and electric bass. The Vasquez brothers practiced in their living room, learning songs recorded on 45 rpm records by the great conjunto musicians of the day: Tony de Rosa, Paulino Bernal, Ruben Vela, Gilberto Perez. “We’d take a little bit from everybody,” Johnny recalled, “learn it, sometimes add new music to it, sometimes take it just like it was.”

Los Hermanos Vasquez played at dances and family events, traveling in an old bus with their parents and siblings. They rarely performed at clubs or bars because Johnny was too young to be allowed to stay. Johnny started as the group’s drummer, but early on he was attracted to the button accordion and soon replaced his brother Fred as the group’s accordion player. When, during the mid-1960s, the older Vasquez brothers began joining their father working for General Motors in Lansing, the group disbanded.

Johnny continued his passion for the accordion with other Lansing bands, such as Grupo Aldaco, La Corporación, Los Capitolinos, and Latin Sounds Orchestra. Finally, in 1994, he asked Richard to join him in starting their own group. Tejano Sound Band was born, its name drawing on the popularity of “Tejano music” that by this time included keyboard or synthesizer (sometimes in place of the accordion) and had more influence from rock and roll, jazz, and country than did the older conjunto styles.

Tejano Sound Band has kept the grassroots sound of accordion and bajo sexto, but modernized with the inclusion of synthesizer, saxophone, jazz improvisation, and sophisticated arrangements of original songs and old standards. The current line-up includes Johnny Vasquez on accordion and vocals; Richard Vasquez on bajo sexto and electric bass; Lupe Moreno on vocals; AJ Garcia on bass; Andy Pizaña on drums; MSU Jazz Studies faculty member Diego Rivera on saxophone (or various current and former students); Rolando Revilla Jr., on keyboard, vocals, accordion, as well as sound and musical arrangements; and Mark Garcia (manager).

Tejano Sound Band plays for a family graduation party, 2014. 
From left, Rolando Revilla Jr., AJ Garcia, Mike Heimstra, Bobby Gonzalez (guest drummer), 
Lupe Moreno, Richard Vasquez, and Johnny Vasquez. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.

The band has produced three CDs. To hear examples from Tejano Sound Band’s latest CD “Cierra Los Ojos” (2012), click here. The CD includes “Por El Amor de Una Mujer”― featuring vocals by Lansing native Ricky (Villareal) Valenz and band member Lupe Moreno―which won “Vocal Duo of the Year” at the 2013 Tejano Music Awards in San Antonio.

The latest CD includes original compositions by band members and others as well as standards.
For Johnny Vasquez, however, this music is still about the diatonic button accordion sound he fell in love with as a child. In addition to becoming an accomplished performer of the instrument, he has also developed a cottage industry in accordion repair. Tejano musicians from throughout Michigan send him their instruments. One day after the graduation party, I caught up with Johnny in his home workshop, a small space full of accordions, accordion parts, and memorabilia from his music career.

Johnny Vasquez in his accordion workshop, Lansing, Michigan.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2014.
One of the common adjustments his clients request is to create the preferred “Tejano sound” by removing vibrato from the instrument’s sound. Button accordions come from the factory with vibrato, or the pulsating sonic effect caused by rapid and slight variations in pitch. On accordion, vibrato (or what Johnny calls the “wow”) is produced by paired reeds of slightly different pitch. To eliminate the “wow,” Johnny raises or lowers the height of the reeds.

See Johnny Vasquez demonstrate accordion repair as he removes vibrato from a reed block. Normally, Johnny does this work with the reed block still inside the instrument, but clients often send him just the reed blocks to save on shipping expense.

Tejano Sound Band continues the rich legacy of Tejano music in Michigan. And Johnny Vasquez ensures that his fellow button accordion players can perform with the truly Tejano sound they prefer.

Back at the graduation party, Tejano Sound Band’s light machine was flashing different colors, and the strobe light was whirling above the dancers as they moved to the beat of cumbias and rancheras. For family parties such as this, the band mixes in a few original compositions but tends to stick with the old standards that people know and love. Every once in a while, they’ll throw in an instrumental polka, where Johnny Vasquez can ripple the keys of his button accordion. “People just love the feel,” Johnny told me. The instrumental dance music of button accordion and bajo sexto helped shape the very beginnings of this musical style. Why let go of a good thing?

Dancers enjoy the music of Tejano Sound Band, June 2014.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers
Click here to hear Johnny Vasquez and Tejano Sound Band play the classic polka, “Atontonilco.”

This post was written by Laurie Sommers in conjunction with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Fieldwork with Johnny Vasquez and Tejano Sound Band was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Last Waltz for Les Ross Sr. and the Lumber Jäkki

I wanted to be there because I knew it would be something special. This past February, at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, the great Finnish American harmonica player, Les Ross Sr., was performing as part of the group Lumber Jäkki (Finnish for “lumberjacks”). Les was now 90 years old. I knew I wouldn’t have many more chances to hear him.
Les Ross Sr., in rehearsal for the Lumber Jäkki performance at NMU, February 22, 2014. 
Photo by James P. Leary.
The performance almost didn’t happen. The Polar Vortex was wreaking its havoc with gale force winds and white-out conditions pummeling Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Mackinac Bridge was closed for 13 hours. All flights to Marquette were cancelled. Les lived in Marquette, but Oren Tikkanen—one of the Lumber Jäkki who lives in the Keweenaw Peninsula―carried his instruments down to his neighbor’s the previous night, for fear of being snowed in. But it takes more than a snowstorm to thwart a U.P. event. The show went on, but without me. After spending the day in the Detroit airport listening to cancellation notices, I gave up and returned home. It turned out that I missed the last public performance of Les Ross Sr.

Hear Les Ross Sr. on “Slakkijarven Polka,” accompanied by Bob Guidebeck, bass; Oren Tikkanen, banjo; and Randy Seppala, rhythm bones, February 22, 2014. Video courtesy of Northern Michigan University.

The Lumber Jäkki were featured that night as part of “Folksongs from Michigan-i-o,” a Michigan Humanities Council-funded program commemorating Alan Lomax’s 1938 folk music collecting trip across Michigan. Although there were four men on stage—all tremendous performers in their own right—Les was the star of the evening.

Les Ross Sr. was born in 1923 on a farm in Eben Junction in Michigan’s north central Upper Peninsula, an area heavily populated by Finnish Americans. He would have been a teenager in 1938, when Alan Lomax traversed the U.P. in search of folk music for the collections of the Archive of Folk-Song at the Library of Congress. Les’s style of playing (using “tongue blocking” to play both melody and harmony on a single harmonica) was still widely performed at the time Lomax recorded in the region’s Finnish enclaves. Les had learned as a boy from family elders, old 78 records, and from the Finnish-speaking lumberjacks who would hang out at the Blue Moon Tavern in Les’s home town of Eben Junction.

The New Moon Tavern (painted blue!) in Eben Junction has replaced the Blue Moon of Les’s youth, and the old lumberjacks who sang, drank, and passed their traditions on to the young Les Ross are long gone.
Photo by Laurie K. Sommers, 2014.
While Lomax recorded a rich variety Finnish of music in 1938, he never documented the Finnish American lumberjack harmonica style that became Les’s specialty. Fortunately, Les’s skills and the tradition he represented did not go unnoticed by later generations of folklorists and Finnish American musicians. He received a Michigan Heritage Award from the Michigan State University Museum’s Michigan Traditional Arts Program in 2009 and a 2010 U.P. Folklife Award from the Beaumier Heritage Center at Northern Michigan University. Over a decade earlier, his first recording was released: Hulivili Huuliharppu (“Rollicking Harmonica”), a 1998 compilation of Finnish American dance music and songs learned in his youth. There had been radio, television, and festival appearances over the years. And on this cold February night at Northern Michigan University, Les Ross Sr. would perform repertoire from his second and latest recording, Lumber Jäkki: Les Ross, Sr.—Old Finnish-American Songs & Harmonica with Randy Seppala & Oren Tikkanen. The CD had just been finished.

The recording was a labor of love by Finnish-Americans Randy Seppala and Oren Tikkanen, each a U.P. musical institution in his own right. Randy met Les Sr. through his good friend, the late Les Ross Jr., who had encouraged his father to play in public. Oren had a Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship with Les Sr. in 2002 to learn his style of harmonica playing. Both Randy and Oren played with Les Ross Sr. and the Finnish American All-Stars, the band that featured Les Sr. and his repertoire in recent years. As Randy describes it, the more Les played, the more he seemed to remember old songs learned from the lumberjacks he heard as a youngster. Most of these songs had bawdy lyrics—not surprising, given their origin with a male occupational group that spent weeks if not months away from female companionship. (Lomax also collected his share of off-color songs from former lumberjacks and lakes sailors in 1938.) Les had rarely sung these songs in public. But Randy and Oren understood their importance to the Finnish folk culture of the region, and began performing with Les as the Lumber Jäkki.

Cover image from the Lumber Jäkki CD, courtesy of Randy Seppala.
On February 22, the audience of about 130 lucky souls got to hear Les Ross, Sr. perform a selection of songs from the new CD, plus a few other favorite dance tunes. I hope they took Oren’s album notes to heart as they listened: “Imagine that you are sitting by the woodstove in a logging-camp bunkhouse on a winter’s night. Perhaps someone has smuggled in a forbidden bottle, and it’s making the rounds. The boys are in good humor, and Les Ross, Sr., begins to play and sing…”

Hear Les Ross Sr. on “En Minä Kaikkia Rahojani Juonu” (I Didn’t Drink All My Money), a selection from the 2014 CD, accompanied by Bob Guidebeck, bass; Oren Tikkanen, banjo; and Randy Seppala, rhythm bones and washboard, February 22, 2014. Video courtesy of Northern Michigan University.

Few people knew that Les was terminally ill at the time. His wave to the audience after the final tune marked the end of an era. He died four months later, June 26, 2014. With the Lumber Jäkki that night, he played his last waltz.

Hear Les Ross Sr. play the well-known “Vagabond Waltz,” accompanied by Bob Guidebeck, bass; Oren Tikkanen, banjo; and Randy Seppala, rhythm bones, February 22, 2014. Video courtesy of Northern Michigan University.

To order the CD Lumber Jäkki: Les Ross, Sr.—Old Finnish-American Songs & Harmonica with Randy Seppala & Oren Tikkanen, contact Copper World in Calumet.

Special thanks to Randy Seppala, Oren Tikkanen, Dan Truckey, and Jim Leary.

In memory of Les Ross Sr.

This post was written by Laurie Sommers in conjunction with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Chinese Orchestra for Michigan State University

I first encountered the Silk Road Chinese Orchestra (SRCO) at an April 17, 2013 concert at Marshall Music in Lansing. It was quite by chance that I noticed the small flyer advertising the event. I thought that the concert would be a rare opportunity to see a traditional Chinese orchestra in the Lansing area (and for free!). To my delight I learned that— rather than a traveling ensemble― this was a Michigan State University student group founded by Shanghai native, Shujing (Andrea) Xu. Shujing was inspired to start the orchestra based on her own experience with similar ensembles in China: from 2009-2010, for example, she served as student director of the Student Orchestra of Shanghai.

Now in its third year, the SRCO recently added this photo to its Facebook page,
taken at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum on MSU’s campus in fall, 2014.
Photo courtesy of SRCO, used with permission.

Although inspired by much older antecedents, this type of Chinese orchestra— set up in a Western format with a conductor, stage, and music stands— first appeared in China in the 1930s. These ensembles typically feature a mix of traditional Chinese and Western instruments: bowed strings, plucked strings, winds, and percussion. Compositions often highlight or contrast the different timbres of the various sections of instruments.

This photo, taken at the SRCO’s second annual spring concert in March, 2014, shows the sections of instruments. From left, the bowed two-string spiked fiddle erhu; (back row) the hand cymbals and temple blocks of the percussion section; the wind section, featuring the side-blown flute dizi; the Western cello and string bass; and (foreground) two guzheng or Chinese zithers, liuqin (small, pear-shaped fretted lute) and pipa (larger fretted lute). Directly behind the conductor is the trapezoidal yangqin, a Chinese hammer dulcimer. Founder Shujing (Andrea) Xu is the liuqin player, second from right. Photo courtesy of SRCO.
Hear the SRCO of MSU play the well-known piece, “Blooming Flowers and Full Moon,” which concluded their spring concert held in the Cook Recital Hall of the MSU College of Music, March 27, 2014.

This performance illustrates the tonal nature of music played by Chinese traditional orchestras. The piece is characteristic in its use of a unison texture contrasted with different sections of instruments (such as flutes, plucked strings or bowed strings) each playing the melody while the rest provide accompaniment. Video by Haochen Han, courtesy of SRCO.

Shujing Xu has worked tirelessly to make the SRCO a success. She began her study of the liuqin at age four while attending a special school for the arts in Shanghai: the small size of the instrument was deemed especially suitable for a young girl. She continued to play and study. When her university career brought her to MSU, she thought, “Is there any Chinese orchestra here that I can play with?” Initially, she shared her musical artistry as a solo performer, first at a monthly meeting of MSU’s LATTICE (Linking All Types of Teachers to International Cross-Cultural Education), and later at various cross-cultural events such as World Culture Day, Chinese Night, World Friendship Day, and the Greater Lansing United Nations Peace Day.

Shujing (Andrea) Xu, founder of the SRCO at MSU, rehearses on her liuqin.
During fall and spring semesters, the ensemble practices about eight hours weekly.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2013
In 2013, with encouragement from Kang Li, an academic advisor at MSU, she decided to form MSU’s first Chinese orchestra. “At first I started with Chinese Facebook and a mailing list from CSSA (Chinese Student and Scholar Association),” she recalled, “to ask if people could play instruments and wanted to be in my orchestra. I collected names, and found scores through my teacher in China.” One major difficulty was getting instruments. Few students bring their instruments from China. With help from the University’s Confucius Institute, Office for University Outreach and Engagement, and other organizations, she was able to obtain instruments. She held auditions, recruited a conductor, and worked to adapt the scores to the instruments and varied abilities of the orchestra members. The ensemble maintains a rigorous practice schedule and performs on campus and in the community. In 2014, SRCO appeared at MSU’s Global Festival, local celebrations of Chinese New Year, and the Broad Museum of Art, among other events.

SRCO conductor Shupeng Zhang with yangquin player Yaoting Xu, in rehearsal, 2013.
 Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.
In recognition of her contributions to international and cross-cultural awareness at MSU and in surrounding communities, Shujing was awarded a 2014 Homer Higbee International Education Award from MSU’s Office of International Programs. The text of the award reads in part, “The SRCO provides an opportunity for Chinese students to celebrate their cultural heritage while connecting with other Chinese students on campus. Their music also serves as an important creative outlet for them, a time-out from their rigorous studies. The success of SRCO is due to Shujing’s exceptional musical talent, leadership capacity, high intelligence, hardworking spirit, and maturity. She has made a great impact on the MSU campus, at local schools, and in surrounding communities—volunteering her time so that others might have an experience that enriches them culturally and enlivens them personally.”

Hear Shujing Xu play an arrangement of “Li Xianglan” at the 2014 SRCO spring concert.


The piece is an instrumental version of the haunting song of lost love made famous by Hong Kong singer and actor, Jacky Cheung. It is a tribute to the late Yoshiko “Shirley” Yamaguchi (stage name Li Xianglan), a Chinese-born singer, actress, and politician of Japanese heritage who recently died at the age of 94. Video by Haochen Han, courtesy of SRCO.

This post was written by Laurie Sommers in conjunction iwth the Michigan Traditional Arts Program (MTAP). Field research with the SRCO in 2013-2014 was funded by a grant awarded to MTAP from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Brian Bishop: Third Generation Michigan Violin Maker

On a breezy fall day, as a bumper crop of hickory nuts crashed on the roof, I visited the workshop of Brian Bishop, a skilled maker of violins and violas who works out of his home in Dimondale, Michigan, just west of Lansing on the Grand River.

Brian Bishop, of Brian Bishop Violins, working on a viola top, 2013. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers. 
Brian was in the midst of making a viola for a graduate student at the Michigan State University College of Music, an outgrowth of the excellent relationship he has developed with MSU string faculty over the years. The workshop overflowed with tools, jigs, fixtures, jars of special varnish, and pieces of seasoned maple and spruce.

Brian Bishop came to violin making through his interest in fiddle, an instrument he took up in the mid-1970s when he began working at Elderly Instruments in Lansing. As he wrote in his blog in 2010, “It soon took over a good deal of my life.” In the 1980s he first met violin maker Keith Doerr of Union City, Michigan, and from 1991-94 Brian changed the course of his life’s work with a four-year violin-making apprenticeship with Keith and his brother Ray.

Brian Bishop, Feb. 6, 1992, holding the first two violins he completed
under his apprenticeship with Keith Doerr.
Courtesy of Brian Bishop.
Keith at the time was in poor health and not expected to live long. He took Brian as his last apprentice. Fortunately, Keith’s health allowed Brian to complete the apprenticeship. He spent three days per week over four years living with Keith, making 25 instruments. He also spent an additional two years studying with Ray Doerr, concentrating on varnish-making and developing a greater understanding of how arching and plate graduation can create different tonal results.

Brothers Keith and Ray Doerr (of Union City and Kalamazoo respectively) learned from their father, Ray Doerr, Sr. The senior Doerr was a wood pattern maker who became a self-taught violin maker. Ray Jr. and Keith were both born in the 1910s. Ray had won a Fisher Body scholarship to the college of his choice and chose to study engineering at the University of Michigan. Eventually both Keith and Ray followed their father’s footsteps in violin making.

Brian’s copy of the Violin Makers Handbook, by Ray Doerr. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.
While many West Michigan musical instrument makers of their generation came to the craft through skills learned in the furniture industry, the Doerrs approached violin making differently. A Brian explains, “They were tool and die guys. They were very much into their mechanical processes, and much more jig and fixture oriented than a lot of makers are. They would use tools for a lot of basic early stage processes. At the end stage, it’s all the same hand work―scraping, using knives and gouges. At the beginning it’s more machine tools, because that is what they were skilled at. Their training was to come up with ideas and applications for machine tools to do certain jobs in a cleaner, better way, or to accomplish certain goals with a mechanical process. That’s what sets them apart. Frankly, when I thought about it, I wasn’t attracted to that. I thought, ‘Do I really want to learn this sort of non-traditional method of making violins?’ In the end, two things won me over. I really liked Keith, and the other thing was, I would look at his violins, and I thought his fiddles were great. If the worst thing that happens is I make a violin as nice as this, I guess I could live with that.”

Hear Brian Bishop talk about his apprenticeship with Keith and Ray Doerr.

Brian still keeps notes from his apprenticeship with the Doerr brothers. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2013.
The Doerr legacy is tangible. Brian still uses Ray’s formula for a soft, flexible, oil-based varnish. “I remember well one winter when we made 10-15 gallons of varnish,” Brian recalls. “We use an oil varnish; linseed oil is the base―then you cook it 500-600 degrees. We did it in his basement, venting into the chimney. You start adding various gums and resins. A lot of guys have commented on my varnish being very attractive, sort of similar in quality to some of the old Italian varnish. That’s because its similar oiled-based varnish, as opposed to spirit varnish, or synthetic varnishes now available. So I did varnish making with Ray. Haven’t done any since; haven’t had to. I’ve got enough for the rest of my life.”

Bottles of varnish made by Brian and Ray, using Ray’s distinctive formula.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2013.

In addition to the varnish, the shop contains tools, wood, templates, jigs, and fixtures that came from the Doerr’s after they passed away. Certain fixtures—like the iron (as in clothes pressing iron) crafted into a wood bending tool, and the bowling ball attached to a clamping plate that allows Brian to approach the task at hand from the most advantageous angle—are Doerr inventions.

Brian holding one of his instruments, which has an unusual sycamore back. 
The Doerr’s bowling ball holding fixture, topped with a clamped 
mold, is pictured to his left. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2013.

Brian was Keith Doerr’s last apprentice. Another Michigan violin maker, Ed McCoppin, who lives outside Monroe, Michigan, lists Keith and Raymond Doerr among his teachers, although he didn’t finish a full apprenticeship. Like many contemporary makers, he has taken a number of summer workshop classes to further his training. Elon Howe of Newaygo, Michigan, has an eclectic background that included tips from Ray Doerr but not a formal apprenticeship. So Brian Bishop remains the best example of the Doerr legacy. Twenty years later, he still remembers the words of wisdom from his teacher and mentor, Keith Doerr:

"One time I’d screwed something up, and talking to Keith, I was bemoaning the fact that this is so hard! He said, “Brian, if it was easy, everybody would do it, and you’d ask people if they wanted fries with it. He was pointing out that this is very specialized, rare thing. Even if you make one violin, you can legitimately call yourself a violin maker."

From those first 25 instruments, Brian has gone on to complete a total of 155, selling his instruments by word of mouth and through Psarianos Violins (Troy and Ann Arbor). If Keith were still around, he would smile and say, “Brian Bishop is definitely a violin maker.”

Brian Bishop, of Brian Bishop Violins, poses with the top
and back of a viola in progress, 2013.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.

This post was written by Laurie Sommers in conjunction with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program, the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

2015-2017 National Folk Festivals Location Announced!

This just in from Julia Olin, Executive Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts:

Greensboro, North Carolina
courtesy of the National Council for the Traditional Arts website

"Dear Colleagues,

We are pleased to share with you that Greensboro, North Carolina, has been selected as host city for the 2015-2017 National Folk Festivals. The festival’s three-year tenure in downtown Greensboro will begin with the presentation of the 75th National Folk Festival over the weekend of September 11-13, 2015.

Since 1934, the National Folk Festival has provided a way for people to embrace the dazzling array of cultural traditions that define our nation, celebrating the diversity and vibrancy of American culture through music, dance, traditional craft, storytelling, food and more. To date, this free-to-the-public "moveable feast of deeply traditional folk arts" has been held in 27 communities around the country.

The National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) chose Greensboro through a nationwide competitive process involving 32 American cities. This marks the first time the festival will be held in North Carolina.

As always, the festival will showcase the very finest performers from all parts of the nation, representing a broad diversity of cultural traditions. Six to seven stages ranging in size from large, open-air venues to small, intimate stages will offer continuous performances throughout the three-day event. There will be a pavilion where festivalgoers can dance non-stop, plus workshops, regional and ethnic foods, puppetry, parades, crafts exhibits and demonstrations, a family area and a festival marketplace.

The festival will also celebrate deep traditions for which North Carolina is famous, as well as shine a light on the living heritage of immigrant groups new to the region, reflecting the evolving character of the host city and state. Greensboro's unique history has been shaped by the pacifist traditions of its 18th-century Quaker founders, a pivotal battle of the American Revolution in 1781, the city's emergence as the center of the textile and furniture industries, the beginnings of the Civil Rights sit-in movement in the 1960s, and the arrival of new populations from around the globe.

The NCTA is producing the 75th, 76th and 77th National Folk Festivals in partnership with ArtsGreensboro, and in cooperation with the City of Greensboro, the Greensboro Convention & Visitors' Bureau, Action Greensboro, and other local groups.

We hope to see you in Greensboro this coming September. Our new web address is www.ncta-usa.org."

If you enjoy our presentations of traditional culture at the Great Lakes Folk Festival, it might be worth it to make a trip to North Carolina!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Michigan Barn Preservation Network Seeks Nominees for "Barn of the Year"

From the Michigan Barn Preservation Network press release:

Seeking Nominations
2015 Barn of the Year

Postmarked by January 9, 2015


Nominate a Barn!

The Michigan Barn Preservation Network (MBPN) seeks nominations for the 2015 Barn of the Year Awards. Each year, the MBPN honors those who make the extra effort to maintain their historic barn with integrity. We recognize that barns must adapt in order to survive, so we recognize those who have modified their barns in a sensitive, creative manner to accommodate an alternative use. Owners include individuals, businesses and public organizations.  To reflect these variables, the MPBN has developed the following award categories:

1)    Continuing Family/Private Agricultural Use
2)    Family/Private Adaptive Use
3)    Non-profit Agricultural or Adaptive Use
4)    Commercial Agricultural or Adaptive Use

Barns will be judged for completeness of information presented in the application, sensitivity and integrity of repairs or modification, visual appeal, creativity, thoroughness of work, and effort expended to repair and maintain. The winning nominations will be presented an award at the MBPN annual conference in March at Michigan State University.

Three items are required for the submission: a written narrative, photographs, and a completed MBPN Survey form. The Application form and the Survey form can be found on the MBPN website (www.mibarn.net) under the Resource tab.

Nominations must be postmarked by January 9, 2015.

For more information contact Barn of the Year Committee Chairman Jerry Damon at runningbuds@aol.com

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review of "Earth Stories" Quilt Exhibit at the MSU Museum

“Cooking with the Sun,” detail, Jennifer Day (photo courtesy of the artist)
Jonathan Rinck of the International Sculpture Center has written an article reviewing Earth Stories, and art quilt exhibition on view at the MSU Museum until November 26. Rinck writes...

"These quilts span an astonishingly broad array of environment-related subject matter, from wind-farming to consumerism.  By offering such a superb fusion of craftsmanship and concept, Earth Stories obliterates any lingering division between craft and fine art, while emphatically making the point that the arts really can make a real-world difference."

 Stop by before the exhibit moves on to the University of Central Missouri Gallery of Art and Design. As Rinck says, "this is not your grandmother's quilt show."

Click here to read the full article!

Monday, November 10, 2014

New Exhibit at MSU's LookOut! Gallery Highlights Chilean Textiles


From November 3 through November 21, 2014, visit the RCAH LookOut! Art Gallery for "Tapestry as Testimony: Arpilleras of Chile," an exhibition of Chilean arpilleras from the collection of Eliana Loveluck, and for "Broken," an installation addressing human trafficking by Sally Thielen and Susan Clinthorne.
Beyond LookOut! Art Gallery's hours of M-F, 12 to 3 p.m., you can visit the exhibition during the following events, which are free and open to the public.

Additional events include...

Sewing Workshop

On Tuesday, November 11, 2014, from 7 to 9:30 p.m., the RCAH Sewing Club will host an arpillera workshop in coordination with the RCAH LookOut! Art Gallery's "Tapestry as Testimony: Arpilleras of Chile" exhibition of Chilean arpilleras from the collection of Eliana Loveluck.
Participants will visit the exhibit and then go to the studio to create art in response to the question of, "How do you tell a story about social justice or sense of place in a single image?"
All materials are provided, but feel free to bring fabric scraps, buttons, and trim.
Political themes are encouraged but not necessary. Sewing is also not necessary, but is an option.

Panel Discussion

On Thursday, November 13, 2014, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in C202 Snyder Hall, join MSU Peace and Justice Studies and the RCAH for a panel discussion about arpilleras in the context of General Augusto Pinochet's brutal dictatorship. Light refreshments will be available in LookOut! Art Gallery after the panel discussion.


On FridayNovember 14, 2014, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in LookOut! Art Gallery, meet artists Sally Thielen and Susan Clinthorne in conjunction with the MSU Center for Gender in Global Context human trafficking film screening and conference.

Click here for more details about the exhibition!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Cultivating Connectivity: Folklife and Inclusive Excellence in Museums

Marsha MacDowell discussing lau hala papale (hats woven of palm leaves) with Hawaiian master artists Harriet Soong and Gladys Grace in Carriers of Culture: Native Basketry, Folklife Festival, 2006. Photo by Minnie Wabanimkee, courtesy Michigan State University Museum.

MSU Museum Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage C. Kurt Dewhurst, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Cultural Specialist and Curator Diana Baird N'Diaye, and MSU Museum Curator of Folk Arts Marsha MacDowell have joined together to write an article for Curator: The Museum Journal's latest issue. The article in entitled "Cultivating Connectivity: Folklife and Inclusive Excellence in Museums" Read the abstract below:

"Today there is a growing global awareness of the need to address issues related to the safeguarding and use of both tangible and intangible heritage. By engaging with communities in the documentation of local cultures—especially their folklife, or in other words, their traditional intangible cultural heritage—museums can create collections that will serve as foundations for museum research, exhibitions, and programs that have more resonance with and relevance for those communities. Interactions of these kinds—in particular those of the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the Michigan State University Museum, home of the Michigan Traditional Arts Program, as well as collaborations between the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Great Lakes Folk Festival, and other programs around the world—have served as important platforms for public discourse about a variety of issues and have produced programs and exhibitions both at home and around the world."

Click here to read the full article

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Questing With Alan Lomax

“What a place Traverse City is a-coming to be!” Retired lumberjack Lester Wells once sang these words while sitting with his aging buddies in Lautner’s Place (now Union Street Station—still a bar with live music!) in downtown Traverse City. Folklorist Alan Lomax recorded the song by cutting a 12-inch disc on the spot with his Presto Instantaneous Disk Recorder. The year was 1938, and Lomax—then a 23-year-old Assistant in Charge at the Archive of Folk-Song―was in the midst of a 10-week folk music collecting trip of the “Lakes States,” gathering examples of Michigan’s rich trove of traditional song to enrich the Archive’s holdings at the Library of Congress.

Seventy-five years later, a new generation has discovered Lomax’s recordings and made them their own. The Quest—A Celebration of Community, was an innovative after-school arts program serving seven underserved northwest lower Michigan schools that culminated in a grand finale concert May 9, 2014. The finale took place in front of several hundred friends, family and community members in the historic Traverse City Opera House, located just around the corner from where Lomax made his 1938 Traverse City recordings.

“Traverse Town,” 2014 version, performed at the Quest finale, Traverse City Opera
House, May 9, 2014, featuring student songs and artwork backdrops.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.


This video promo for the Quest was produced, filmed, and edited by Earthwork Music Collective member John Hanson, who also was one of the musicians who worked on the project. The soundtrack includes two songs developed by participating students: “Little Sleeping Bear,” inspired by the Anishinaabeg origin story of Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Manitou Islands; and “Traverse Town,” inspired by Lester Wells’ 1938 recording of a song of the same title. Used with permission.

The project’s press release describes the Quest as “a collaborative production inspired by Alan Lomax’s 1938 Michigan folksong recordings. Throughout the spring, middle and high school students from Benzie Central, Brethren, Forest Area, Frankfort, Kalkaska, Manistee, and Suttons Bay Schools have been preparing for the performance by studying local history, exploring personal journeys, learning songs from the Lomax archives, and writing new material for the concert production.”

Seth Bernard, co-founder of the Earthwork Music Collective and with Josh Davis, co-director of the Quest, explained, “What’s been coming out is music that is true to the times that we live in and also dips into the rich, local cultural heritage.” Bernard selected 15 Lomax Michigan recordings as springboards for collaborative songwriting. He chose songs that represented the geography of Lomax’s journey across Michigan—from Detroit to the western U.P.—and that had connections to the students’ home area.

Quest co-director Seth Bernard, center, performs with students during the Quest finale.
Photo courtesy of SEEDS/Earthwork Music, 2014.
In the hands of Seth and the eleven other Earthwork musicians who worked with the students, Lomax’s aging recordings inspired collaborative songwriting and the creative process. The musician-educators infused the students with excitement about the mystique of working with a collection that, since it was not yet online and widely available, few people had heard. “It’s like receiving a transmission from someone who was in Michigan years ago, right there in their community,” Seth explained. “And this legend, Alan Lomax, made it possible to participate in the creative process in a new way.”

Alan Lomax returned to Traverse City in more ways than one! Throughout the performance, 
the audience heard a sampling of the 1938 Lomax recordings that inspired the student work, 
listened to the “voice” of Lomax explaining his impressions of Michigan, and watched as three
 students manipulated a life-size paper mache Lomax puppet, created under the guidance of 
puppeteers from Blackbird Arts. 
Photo courtesy of SEEDS and Earthwork Music, 2014.
Listen to “Alan Lomax,” as read by Josh Davis, during the Quest Finale.

The Quest emerged from a remarkable synergy of timing and organizations. SEEDS—a Traverse City non-profit—was in the final stages of a 21st Century Learning Center grant to provide experiential after-school arts and academic enrichment opportunities for underserved youth, in collaboration with Earthwork Music and Blackbird Arts. Seth Bernard and SEEDS executive director Sarna Salzman were brainstorming about creating something wonderful for their last semester of funding.

Enter Todd Harvey, curator of the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress and AFC’s Michigan 1938 Project to digitize Lomax’s Michigan field recordings. The Library hoped that these Michigan materials would inspire new models for making archival holdings accessible and interesting new audiences, including young people. Through family connections, Todd had learned about the work of the Earthwork Music Collective in the Traverse City area, a group of Michigan musicians that believes in the intrinsic and historical power of music to raise both community and self-awareness and serves to facilitate and encourage original music in the state of Michigan and beyond. Todd reached out to Seth about the Lomax Michigan materials at just the right time, offering to make the digitized recordings available prior to their planned public launch on the Library of Congress web site. Seth knew that the Lomax Michigan Collection could form the basis for an amazing quest that would explore musicking, place, personal journeys, creativity, and collaboration.

Earthwork musician-educator Sam Cooper (black hat) works on collaborative
songwriting with students from Brethren.
Photo courtesy of SEEDS and Earthwork Music, 2014.
The Quest unfolded over four-months, fostering a deep and rich integrated arts-learning experience for participants. It had already been a special year for re-introducing Michiganders to the 1938 Lomax recordings. I had been organizing a series of multimedia performance events titled Folksongs from Michigan-i-o, funded by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, that featured highlights of Lomax’s 1938 audio and video with live music. The performance events were timed to coincide with a traveling exhibition—Michigan Folksong Legacy: Grand Discoveries from the Great Depression—all of which toured to locations in or near where Lomax actually recorded 75 years ago. Everywhere the program went, people were enthusiastic.

Great Lakes ballad interpreter, Lee Murdock, performs as part of Folksongs from Michigan-i-o
at the St. Ignace Public Library, with banners from the Michigan Folksong Legacy exhibit as a backdrop.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2014.

At every location, someone whose family had been recorded by Lomax showed up. In Traverse City, we sold out Milliken Auditorium at the Dennos Museum Center. But there, as elsewhere, the audience was older, comprised of those who remembered Lomax. There was scarcely a middle or high school student among them. The Quest changed all that. On that magical May evening, I watched as young people re-invented Lomax and the songs he recorded. Seth described the new songs as “a combination of original songs, inspired by our home places, and re-writes of old folk songs from the Lomax Michigan treasure trove, a truly magnificent collection.” I found myself on the edge of my seat, waiting to hear what came next.

Students from Kalkaska celebrated place in “Kalkaska is Awesome.” The song opened with a
chorus based on the “come all ye” formulaic opening of many traditional ballads recorded
 by Lomax in 1938: “Hey, everybody, come on along, Kalkaska is awesome, we can tell you in song!”
Photo courtesy of SEEDS and Earthwork Music, 2014.
All the songs were terrific, but I’ll highlight three of my favorites. “The Presto Machine,” performed by Forest Area Schools, is a rock anthem of Lomax’s Michigan journey. Each of the three verses evokes a song Lomax recorded in 1938: the lumberjack ballad “Once More a-Lumbering Go”, sung by Carl Lathrup of St. Louis, Michigan; the hobo song “We’d Rather Be a Couple of Bums,” sung by Mason Parmer of Newberry; and the Great Lakes disaster ballad “The Gallagher Boys,” about a shipwreck that occurred between Traverse City and Beaver Island in 1873, sung by Dominick Gallagher of Beaver Island.

Lyrics to “The Presto Machine”
Listen to “The Presto Machine.”

“Hoedown Showdown (Sissy Walking in Brethren)” was inspired by the 1938 Lomax recording of Archie Stice singing the lumberjack ballad “Wild Mustard River.” Earthwork musician-educator Sam Cooper worked with students from Brethren Schools on creating this song. In her blog, Cooper wrote, “It's a rather gruesome lumbering song that memorializes the young Johnny Styles, who catches his foot in a log jam and meets his end under the rushing river. So, we changed up the meter of the song and sang about life near the Tippy Dam [on the nearby Manistee River] as the kids have (or would like to) experience it.”

Watch students from Brethren Schools, Manistee County, perform “Hoedown Showdown” (Sissy Walking in Brethren). The excerpt includes a clip from “Wild Mustard River” that provided source material for the students’ songwriting, and Seth Bernard explaining some of the process. Video by Laurie Kay Sommers.

Finally, there is “Comb the Whole World Over (Michigan I Call My Home).” Musicians Ben Cohen and Akile Jackson used their mobile beat lab to facilitate hip hop empowerments with students. Undergirding “Comb the Whole World Over” is a sampled track that includes sound bytes from 1938, including Lomax’s voice identifying one of his recordings as “2266 B1 and 2” and an excerpt of Carl Lathrup’s rendition of “Once More A-Lumbering Go.” “Once More A-Lumbering Go” also inspired the 2014 version of the chorus, which morphed original lyrics—“I’ve roamed the wildwoods over, and once more a-lumbering go”—into “I’ve combed the whole world over, Michigan I love the most.” Students also wrote original rap lyrics about Michigan as “home.”

Comb the Whole World lyrics

Listen to Forest Area students perform “Comb the Whole World Over (Michigan I Call My Home)”

As director for the Michigan Lomax Legacy Project at the Michigan State University Museum, I recorded the Quest final concert for the MSU Museum’s Cultural Collections. I wouldn’t have missed it! After the dress rehearsal, I told the more than 50 participating students that, like Lomax, I had made a career by documenting and collecting folk music. I explained that I was there to record them, so that perhaps some day someone would sing and be inspired by their songs, just as they were inspired by the songs Lomax collected. Everyone cheered.

Combined schools engage the audience at the Quest Finale, 2014. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.
Since learning about the Quest, I’ve found myself wondering what Alan Lomax would have thought of all this. My guess is that he, too, would have loved it. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! (Although someone might have needed to explain “Sissy Walking” ...)
Perhaps the pre-chorus to “The Presto Machine” best captures the essence of both this amazing project and the 1938 recording expedition that inspired it:

”Everyone has a story, Made into song. And they’ll live on.”

Written by Laurie Kay Sommers in conjunction with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.