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