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.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Michigan Folksong Legacy: Alan Lomax’s 1938 Folksong Collecting Trip

“Michigan proved to be the most richly varied region for folk music that I had ever visited, combining as it did the lusty tradition of the Northern woods singer with an infinitely varied pattern of immigrant European, Indian, and even Appalachian and Southern Negro music.” Alan Lomax, 1939

 In 1938, a young folk music collector named Alan Lomax—destined to become one of the legendary folklorists of the twentieth century—came from Washington, DC to record Michigan’s folk music traditions for the Archive of American Folk-Song at the Library of Congress. Michigan was experiencing a golden age of folk song collecting, as local folklorists mined the trove of ballads remembered by aging lumberjacks and Great Lakes sailors. Lomax was eager to record these uniquely American song traditions. He also was the first collector to document a broad spectrum of Michigan’s ethnic folk music. In just ten weeks Lomax recorded more than 120 performers from Detroit to the western Upper Peninsula. 

Alan Lomax demonstrates Presto disc recorder at the
 Library of Congress, ca. 1940, a machine similar to the 
one used in MichiganFrom Alan Lomax Miscellaneous 
Photographs, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. 
Courtesy of Alan Lomax Estate.

 During 2013-2014, the Michigan State University Museum is coordinating public programming to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Lomax’s seminal Michigan journey. This includes the traveling exhibition “Michigan Folksong Legacy: Grand Discoveries from the Great Depression,” and a multimedia performance event “Folksongs from Michigan-i-o” (“Michigan-i-o” is the name of a lumberjack ballad). Major funding has been provided by the Michigan Humanities Council and the Great Lakes Traditions Endowment at Michigan State University Museum, with additional support from the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress; the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at the University of Wisconsin; and the Association for Cultural Equity. For more information, see the Michigan Folksong Legacy home page.

 This still image from Lomax’s color movie footage shows Pajo Tomic 
singing a Serbian epic accompanied by gusle, Detroit, 1938.

 Lomax began his Michigan odyssey in Detroit—then an industrial metropolis of 1.6 million—but spent most of his time in small towns and rural areas. Lomax recorded an astonishing variety of vocal and instrumental styles, among them sailor and lumberjack ballads, African American blues, Hungarian czardas, Serbian epics, Polish wedding marches, Irish reels, French Canadian songs, and Finnish waltzes. He recorded in taverns, hotels, net sheds, ethnic clubs, back yards, and family homes, cutting 12-inch discs or shooting silent color movie film on the spot. The recordings captured traditions handed down orally from generation to generation, sung and played for homegrown entertainment.

Listen to harmonica player Hjelmar Forster of Calumet play the Finnish waltz “Kulkurin Valssi/Vagabond Waltz,” recorded by Alan Lomax, 1938.

 Listen to Beaver Island fiddler Patrick Bonner play the Irish reel “Up and Down the Broom,” recorded by Alan Lomax, 1938.

Patrick Bonner, pictured here in the 1950s, was a former lake 
sailor and long-time Beaver Island fiddler who recorded tunes, 
poems, and songs for Lomax in 1938. 
Courtesy of Beaver Island Historical Society.
 Lomax was especially interested in what remained of Michigan’s lumberjack culture. Between supper and bedtime, lumber camp bunkhouses or shanties once resounded with homegrown entertainment: stories, songs, stag dances, card games, and music played on instruments like concertina, fiddle, dulcimer, and bones. To locate singers, Lomax collaborated with Michigan folklorist Earl Clifton Beck at Central Michigan College of Education (now Central Michigan University), whose life’s work was collecting songs and lore of the “shanty boys.” For Beck, these songs were “commentaries on a rapidly disappearing mode of life.” 

Lumberjack cook shack, Antrim County, 1880s. Lumberjacks were the 
source of a rich occupational ballad tradition. 
Courtesy of Michigan State University Museum.

For the most part, lumberjack songs have vanished along with the great virgin forests of Michigan’s past. Native Minnesotan Brian Miller is one of the few contemporary singers to research and perform songs of the lumberjacks. Miller took part in the multimedia program “Folksongs of Michigan-i-o,” held as part of the Lomax Michigan Legacy project at Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library, October 22, 2013.

 Listen to Brian Miller perform “Once More A-Lumbering Go,” a lumberjack ballad learned from Lomax’s 1938 field recording of lumberjack Carl Lathrop (St. Louis, Michigan).