(The following is a guest post by Guha Shankar, folklife specialist with the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.)
A fall landscape of orange and red foliage rushes by a car winding down a long road…a stern-faced singer draws his bow across a single-stringed lute and sings a ballad in Serbian about the 1389 Battle of Kosovo… an elderly couple softly recite Finnish hymns in the parlor of their home…a man and woman trade French song verses in call and response style by the fading light of day.
These sounds and images are only a few of the astonishing range of roots music and cultural communities in the American Upper Midwest that were recorded 75 years ago this week for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax, legendary folk song collector and then assistant in charge of the Library’s Archive of Folk Song. It is just as eye-opening that the 23-year-old Lomax set out on his pioneering tour of Michigan, the “most fertile source” for folk songs in the summer and fall of 1938, alone in a Library car. He had with him little else but his recording kit, which consisted of an instantaneous disk cutting machine, dozens of blank disks and remarkably, a 16mm film camera. He returned to Washington after three months on the road with nearly a thousand recorded songs and several hundred feet of motion picture images (sadly, several rolls of film were stolen on a stop during the expedition and never recovered).
Now, on the 75th anniversary of that trip, the American Folklife Center, which houses the Alan Lomax Collection, and several institutions are jointly commemorating the journey. The two film clips below are excerpted from a longer documentary that, together with my colleague, Jim Leary, University of Wisconsin folklorist and noted cultural historian of the region, I produced and edited for the Library of Congress. The documentary marries the all-too-brief silent film footage that Lomax shot to audio disk recordings of the same performers; the microphone can clearly be seen in the shot on several occasions. But, given the absence of any recording logs or other notation about the filming and what music was being played at that exact moment, the choice of the audio track that I joined to the picture is based solely on reasonable conjecture, decided upon by Leary. On several instances, I slowed the film frame rate severely in the digital editing system to accommodate a few more seconds of audio. Jim Leary is also producing a set of archival recordings of the region’s musical communities culled from the Library’s Lomax collection that will include more than 40 full-length tracks from Lomax’s 1938 trip.
In this first clip, Lomax filmed the Floriani family, a Croatian tamburitza group that also played more popular styles of music, in the front yard of their home in Ameek, Mich. It is a town in the “Copper Country,” which is a reference to mining, the main industry in that part of the state. There are several shots of a mine in the first part of the clip under which the song “31st Level Blues” is playing. It is about mine work – “31st level” refers to the depths that miners have to descend to do their jobs – and the lyrics amplify the hard toil and weariness of the occupation and the antagonism that characterized relations between mine workers and bosses. The second song highlights the group’s facility as tamburitza performers and the track used here is a traditional Croatian ballad, “Majko Moje” (My Mother)
Keep an ear and an eye out for more such performances in the days and weeks ahead, drawn from the American Foklife Center’s Archive.