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, 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.