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Collection highlight: Wisconsin recordings from the 1940s

Helene Stratman-Thomas (1896–1973) emerges from this cavalcade of (Wisconsin folk music) scholarship as neither the first, nor the most persistent, nor the most prolific, nor the most expert collector of Wisconsin’s musical folklore, but she is, and perhaps always will be, the most significant. — James Leary, The Wisconsin Patchwork: A Companion to the Radio Programs Based on the Field Recordings of Helene Stratman-Thomas

With a heavy recorder and a thin budget, University of Wisconsin–Madison music professor Helene Stratman-Thomas and recording technician Bob Draves rolled down Wisconsin roads in search of folk music. The year was 1941, a time when many first-generation immigrants and big lumber camp veterans were still alive and performing.

The two traveled from town to town — “The average speed was 70 miles an hour,” Bob would later recall — covering thousands of miles to record in all regions of the state. Within a few years it would become impossible to capture such voices and experiences. Much of what Stratman-Thomas caught on those precarious shellac discs have never been recorded before or since.

The trip marked the beginning of Helene’s six-year folk song collecting effort that would result in the preservation of nearly 800 performances representing more than thirty ethnic and regional groups. The originals are part of the American Folklife Center Archive in a collection titled, Robert F. Draves and Helene Stratman-Thomas collection of Wisconsin recordings (AFC 1941/012). Copies of the recordings are housed at the Mills Music Library at University of Wisconsin–Madison. UW also provides online access to the recordings as part of its Wisconsin Folksong Collection, 1937-1946 and holds Stratman-Thomas’s papers. Also included in the online collection are songs collected in Wisconsin by Sidney Robertson Cowell during the summer of 1937 for the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration. The Wisconsin Historical Society holds image taken during these collecting trips.

This collection is part of a larger body of collection work conducted in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin from 1937-1946 by Sidney Robertson, Alan Lomax, and Helene with federal support from the Library of Congress. Nearly 2000 traditional performances in more than twenty-five languages were recorded, and those recordings are at the American Folklife Center Archive. They will also be the subject of Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946 to be published this fall by the University of Wisconsin Press. The publication combines five compact disks, a DVD, and a book. Hear Leary’s recent talk about the project.

The Helene Stratman-Thomas Collection of ethnic music recordings is especially rich in the songs of French-Canadian, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Cornish, and German immigrants. It also contains the music of Native American groups (in particular the Ho Chunk); occupational songs by lumberjacks, sailors, miners, railroadmen, and cranberry pickers; and Appalachian music performed by Kentuckians who settled in northern Wisconsin.

At a time when American folk music collecting centered on mainly Anglo- and Afro-American songs, or regionally focused works on Cajuns, Hispanics, and various American Indians, Helene’s work stood apart. She was open to all kinds of musical expression, which enabled her to record everything from Czech and Bohemian brass bands to Norwegian hardanger and Polish goraly fiddlers. Other never-before captured tunes came from psalmodikons and tamburica quartets, Oneida choirs, Welsh Gymanfa Ganu singers, and Swedish, Norwegian, Hollander, and Luxembourger balladeers.

 Note: A version of this post first appeared on a University of Wisconsin-Madison Mills Music Library website. The revision appears here with permission.

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