The following is a guest post by Aimee Hess, Library of Congress Publishing Office, and Todd Harvey, American Folklife Center.
The American Folklife Center, in collaboration with the Library of Congress Publishing Office, has recently published Michigan-I-O: Alan Lomax and the 1938 Library of Congress Folk-Song Expedition, a digital publication containing text, images, music, and film from an important Library of Congress field trip. The book’s author (and one of the authors of this post) is Todd Harvey, curator of the Alan Lomax Collection and related collections at the Library of Congress.
The Publishing Office has the broad mission of sharing the Library’s collections with scholars, researchers, and the general public. In support of that mission, each year the Publishing Office sifts through the Library’s vast collections and consults with subject specialists to produce books, calendars, and other products that tell unique cultural stories. Todd recently worked with them on another book, The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax (co-published with W.W. Norton, 2012). After the success of that book, which focused on the photographs Lomax took during a collecting trip to the Deep South in 1959-60, we hoped to delve even further into the extensive Lomax collection. On the eve of the 75th anniversary of Lomax’s trip to Michigan, during which he recorded 250 discs and shot eight reels of film over three months, we set out to mark this achievement with another quality publication.
From the beginning, we knew that a digital format would best showcase the Michigan collection, which is largely comprised of rare film and audio. The color film excerpts, for example, reveal the Michigan landscape of 1938 as well as the captivating individuals Lomax met and recorded. To watch Pajo Tomic play a Serbian epic on the gusle, or to read Lomax’s notes about Ilona Halinen’s difficult life and then to actually see her, singing a mournful song as she sways back and forth in a rocking chair, is a powerful experience previously available only to the most dedicated researcher. The aged telegrams, letters, and handwritten field-notes immerse the reader in what was essentially an epic road trip filled with many successes and a few remarkable disasters. And the interactive elements of the book – pop-up notes and direct links to catalog records and related collections – make the book both thorough and entertaining.
The book’s title came from the traditional song “Michigan-I-O,” which Lomax captured in early September 1938 when he spent a day recording in Traverse City, Michigan. Acting on a tip that Lautner’s Place on Union Street was a hangout for sailors and lumberjacks, he recorded seven discs of lumbermen songs and Irish songs in the tavern.
Lomax’s recording of “Michigan-I-O” is interesting for a number of reasons. It’s a regional song closely related to “Canaday-I-O” and it stops just short of the dire ending in a western epic in the same song family, “The Buffalo Skinners.” In that song, the cowboys who are tricked and robbed of their wages leave the company man’s “bones to bleach on the range of the buffalo.” Similarly, “Michigan-I-O” chronicles the miserable disparity between the luxuries that the company agents promise prospective workers and the dreadful living conditions in the camps. In the song, the workers retaliate against the bosses and wreak their pent-up frustrations at being robbed, cheated, and oppressed, a theme common in folk songs. It must have appealed not only to Lomax’s interest in song families, but also to his progressive political sensibilities.
In this recording of “Michigan I-O”, the 82-year old Lester Wells, described in Alan’s field notes as “another tough and intelligent oldster,” sings a rousing version of the song he learned in the lumber camps during the 1880s.
Although many Library publications are available digitally, producing a “born-digital” book was a new endeavor for the American Folklife Center, the Publishing Office, and Dust to Digital, our publishing partner. Fortunately, Dust to Digital’s Lance Leadbetter was game for the challenge. His company, which publishes rare recordings of folk, blues, and gospel music alongside historical images and descriptive texts, provided an enthusiastic outlet for this material. Producing a digital book from scratch was a thoroughly enjoyable learning process, and we are very proud of the finished product. Michigan-I-O casts a deserving light on this little-known but culturally significant episode in Lomax’s celebrated ouevre. We hope to continue publishing innovative books that highlight other treasures of the Folklife Center’s collections. For more information about Michigan-I-O, please visit Dust to Digital’s Michigan-I-O page.