The following post introduces James P. Leary, a researcher who has published extensively on Library of Congress collections in the American Folklife Center. Most of the quotations from Leary in this article come from an email interview we did in July 2015, but I also quote occasionally from a lecture he gave at the Library in July 2013.
When James P. Leary spoke in the American Folklife Center’s Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series in July 2013, he outlined an extensive research project focusing on several Library of Congress collections from the 1930s and 1940s. These collections highlight the folksongs and folk music of America’s Upper Midwest, a region that includes Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, along with parts of other states. Now the results of Leary’s work have been published by the University of Wisconsin Press and the recording label Dust-to-Digital. Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946 is a boxed set of recordings containing 175 songs and tunes in twenty-five languages spread over five compact disks. The audio is supplemented by a DVD film based on silent color footage shot by Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax in 1938. The package also includes a 465 page hardcover book of “liner notes,” including performer biographies, song lyrics, translations, comparative annotations, photographs, and background information about the folksong collectors and the circumstances of recording. Although many of the field recordings themselves can be found online, this curated selection is backed by Leary’s extensive and brand-new research, revealing for the first time the full cultural and linguistic range of these remarkable recordings, all of which reside at the Library of Congress.
As a member of the AFC staff, I’ve been aware of Leary’s work as it has progressed, and even helped with a few thorny song questions here and there. Some of my colleagues were more involved, helping with transfers, collection materials, and information throughout the project. So it’s a pleasure for me to introduce readers to Jim Leary and his work.
Jim Leary, Author of Folksongs of Another America
Jim Leary’s appreciation of ethnic and occupational folk music began early in his life, in his hometown of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, a farming and logging town, where Leary was born in 1950. “When I was a kid I used to love to go into Rindlisbacher’s Tavern,” he recalled. “This was a great museum bar that had a lot of taxidermy. Otto Rindlisbacher, who was born in 1895, was a skilled taxidermist, and among the ‘real animals’ he had such things as the fur herring, the owl-eyed ripple skipper, the dingbat, the snow snake, and also Old Satchelass, the world’s largest muskie, which weighed 50 pounds more than the real world’s largest muskie at Louis Spray’s bar just down the street.”
More important to Leary’s investigation of music was the other display at Rindlisbacher’s: a wall dedicated to unusual and homemade musical instruments. “Otto had behind the bar the world’s largest collection of odd lumber camp musical instruments,” Leary explained. “All these instruments were there including some that Otto made.”
Rindlisbacher, one of the many musicians whose life and work Leary’s research has illuminated, was one of Leary’s first field informants. The child of Swiss immigrants, he played the ‘Sweitzer handorgel,’ a diatonic button accordion, and worked in the lumber camps and sawmills of the area. “He learned how to play a lot of different kinds of jigs and reels from French, French-Indian, and Irish background,” Leary recounted. “There were a lot of Norwegians in the area, and he learned how to play a lot of Norwegian music as well, including the Hardanger fiddle.” You can see Rindlisbacher playing his Hardanger fiddle on the postcard above, and hear it in the audio player below:
In 1937, for the National Folk Festival in Chicago, Otto Rindlisbacher organized a musical troupe called the Wisconsin Lumberjacks, who continued performing at folk festivals for years thereafter. In 1938 they performed in Washington, D.C. The Library has recordings from both of these appearances by the group.
Rindlisbacher and other members of that generation were Leary’s introduction to the widely varied traditions of Wisconsin folk music. “I got to know him a little,” Leary recalled, “and I also got to know his friend Ray Calkins, another of the Wisconsin Lumberjacks, whom I interviewed when he was in his 90s. He was still going pretty strong there for a few years.”
Below, hear The Wisconsin Lumberjacks play two themes from Norwegian composer Ole Bull (1810-1870), whose music drew on folk music and in turn became popular with folk musicians. The lead instrument is known in Wisconsin as “Viking Cello,” and is a version of the Norwegian psalmodikon, a one-stringed, fretless, bowed instrument. Viking cellos were typically made out of a pitchfork and a wooden box. The musician is Iva Kundert Rindlisbacher, who was Otto’s wife and musical partner. Her Viking cello, which you can see her playing at left, had a metal “R” welded between the tines of the pitchfork, and used a box inlaid with a Star of David and carved with the Hebrew name of God!
Leary’s early visits to people and establishments imbued with local Wisconsin spirit led to more formal pursuit of folklore as a field of study. “In summer 1973 I earned an M.A. in Folklore at the University of North Carolina,” he recalled. “My Dad gave me some money as a present, and I bought a tape recorder, a microphone, and some tapes. Soon after, I was recording an old Irish neighbor from back home in Wisconsin. He was born in 1885, had worked in lumber camps, and was a wonderful storyteller. He neither played music nor sang, but he knew people who did. So little by little I began to seek out storytellers and musicians in hopes of discovering more about the cultural traditions of the Upper Midwest–a region that had been largely neglected by folklorists.”
Leary gradually became what in the field is called a “public folklorist.” This designation (which also covers the folklorists here at the Library of Congress) involves not just studying folklore, but also presenting it in some way to the public. Public folklore activities include festivals, concerts, museum exhibits, films, radio and TV presenting, and publishing, as well as archiving, preservation, and advocacy for traditional arts. “From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, I was very lucky to work on a lot of public folklore projects for a lot of organizations in the region,” Leary said, “and also to meet and collaborate with like-minded folklorists and scores of wonderful musicians from diverse yet interrelated traditions ranging from old time fiddling to powwows to polkas.” From 1988 through 1995, for example, Leary and Richard March co-produced about 150 half-hour regional music documentaries for their Down Home Dairyland show on Wisconsin Public Radio.
One other experience strongly influenced Leary to create Folksongs of Another America: his research at the Library of Congress. He became aware of the Library’s holdings in the area of Upper Midwest folk music in a time-honored way: by visiting his local library at home. “The old Carnegie Library in my hometown had a copy of the Library of Congress LP, Folk Music from Wisconsin, issued in 1960. I came across it in the late 1960s and began to wonder if there was more,” he remembered.
Confirmation came in the summer of 1976, when Leary visited Washington D.C. to work for the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife (now the Smithsonian Folklife Festival). When he had time off, he went to the Library of Congress, where Joe Hickerson, head of what was then the Archive of Folk Culture, showed him the card catalog, vertical files, and other resources on the music and performers from his region. “It was stunning and exciting to realize the extent of recordings made in my home region,” Leary said.
These dual paths, doing fieldwork side by side with archival research, led Leary to this enormous project. “By doing fieldwork with musicians, all of whom had their own histories and connections, and by delving into archival collections, I began to understand the full range of the Upper Midwest’s roots music, and how there was an ongoing dynamic relationship between continuity and change,” he said. “By the late 1970s I had acquired cassette copies of some of these recordings, including performances in languages I couldn’t identify at the time. And along the way I was also lucky enough to meet a dozen or so people who were either recorded for, or witnessed the recordings made for, the Library of Congress between 1937 and 1946. I felt that their stories needed to be told, and I began to imagine what became this project.”
The Library of Congress Field Recordings
Leary is quick to acknowledge that the heart of this work is the recordings made for the Library of Congress from 1937 to 1946. The pioneer among the folklorists who recorded them was Sidney Robertson (1903-1995), who was born Sidney Hawkins, and later known as Sidney Robertson Cowell; her collection dates to 1937. Robertson had been educated at Berkeley and was very interested in classical music. Her interest in folksong went back to her days as a schoolteacher in California in the 1920s. While in Washington visiting friends in 1936, she went to the Archive of American Folk Song, then in the Library of Congress’s Music Division, where she met the honorary curator, John A. Lomax, and his son, Alan Lomax, the Archive’s “Assistant-in-Charge.” She also visited the office of Charles Seeger, who was in charge of the Music Unit of the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration. Seeger was impressed with her curiosity and her skills, and he hired her on as his assistant.
After accompanying the elder Lomax and Frank C. Brown in Alabama and North Carolina, Robertson began her own recording trips. In 1937, these took her to the Midwest, where she served as the regional representative of the Special Skills Division.
“The first recordings in ’37 were done by Sidney Robertson in Cloquet, and up on the Iron Range; in Duluth with a Scots Gaelic singer; with Serbs in Eveleth, and with Finns in Cloquet and Virginia and Ely, all in Minnesota,” Leary explained. “She also recorded in the Rhinelander and Crandon areas of northern Wisconsin with lumberjacks, and she recorded Swedish, Lithuanian, Norwegian, and Finnish music at the 4th National Folk Festival in Chicago, including Otto Rindlisbacher’s group The Wisconsin Lumberjacks.”
One of the lumberjacks Robertson encountered was Robert Walker. In addition to being a singer with a large repertoire, he was the uncle of Warde, Pat, and Bogue Ford, singers who feature in Robertson’s Wisconsin collections and also her California collections, which are online at this link. Below, hear Walker sing the logging ballad “Lost Jimmy Whalen.”
Robertson was very excited by Wisconsin and Minnesota, and wrote to Alan Lomax to encourage further collecting. Lomax couldn’t resist the summons, as Leary explained: “He was interested, of course, in occupational songs, lumberjack and Great Lake songs for books that he and his father had been doing on American folksong. But he also had a strong awareness of the kind of ethnic and cultural and linguistic diversity in the region. And so he came out in 1938, late summer and early fall, and did fieldwork.”
Alan Lomax (1915-2002) was the most prolific fieldworker for the Library of Congress from 1933 until 1942. After that, he continued to record folk music until the end of his life, and the Library has acquired his later collections. Thus, all of Lomax’s cultural documentation resides at the American Folklife Center. The Library is currently celebrating Lomax’s centennial year, which you can read about at this link.
Lomax’s collections were the result of a conscious decision by the Library to undertake regional documentation of American folksong in recognition that the voices of ordinary people have a place at the national library. For his Upper Midwest sojourn, Lomax , who was already a seasoned fieldworker at age 23, traveled in a 1935 Plymouth sedan, toting a Presto disc recorder and a movie camera. When he returned nearly three months later, having driven thousands of miles on barely paved roads, it was with a cache of 250 instantaneous discs and eight reels of film documenting the ethnic diversity and expressive traditions of the region. Lomax’s itinerary took him from Detroit through the Saginaw River valley to the northern counties of the Lower Peninsula, including Beaver Island. Crossing the Straits of Mackinac, he collected across the Upper Peninsula to the far northern Calumet area and then along the Lake Superior coast to easternmost Wisconsin. The resulting collection, the Alan Lomax collection of Michigan and Wisconsin recordings (AFC 1939/007), documents Irish, Italian, Finnish, Serbian, Lithuanian, Polish, German, Croatian, French Canadian, Hungarian, Romanian, and Swedish songs and stories, as well as occupational folklife among loggers and lake sailors in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Among the Croatians Lomax encountered were Vladimir Floriani (pictured above) and his family band. The group played both old-time American music (what would then often be called Hillbilly or Barn Dance tunes), and Croatian Tamburitza. In the player below, see Lomax’s color footage of this intriguing family band.
Another of Lomax’s best singers was Exilia Bellaire, a native of Baraga, Michigan. Fluent in both French and English, Exilia and her husband, Mose Bellaire, sang folksongs in both languages. In the player below, hear Exilia sing what folklorists call a “macaronic song”: one in which two or more languages are mixed. In this case, the beginning of each line is in English and the rest in French.
In the video player below, see Lomax’s film of Mose and Exilia singing another song:
Lomax’s collection (much of which is online at this link) was a resounding success in almost every way. He even shot the color film you see here, and many more sequences, which Leary includes on a DVD. (This is particularly impressive for such early fieldwork.) But the trip still wasn’t as complete as Lomax wished. “He imagined in three months doing fieldwork through this entire three-state area on a rapid recording survey,” Leary recounted, “but when he got to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan he really got hung up with all of the French Canadians and Finns and other people there and had such a good time. He made it into Odanah, Wisconsin to the Bad River Ojibwe reservation for one recording session but that was it for recordings outside Michigan.”
Luckily, other fieldworkers were inspired by Lomax’s example. “When Lomax wasn’t able to complete his three-month survey of three states,” Leary explained, “he wrote to the University of Wisconsin music department seeing if someone would take up the challenge of trying to record traditional music in the area.” Lomax wrote to Leland Coon in the music department of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Coon, in turn, asked Helene Stratman-Thomas, a professor in his department, to take on the project.
Helene Stratman-Thomas (1896-1973) had degrees in both business and music, and was hired in 1930 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to teach music theory, conduct the women’s chorus, and work as the business manager for the Pro Arte string quartet. In addition to this, she was given responsibility for what came to be known as the Wisconsin Folk Music Project. “In the summer of 1940, summer of 1941 and the summer of 1946, after the war, she made different field trips and recorded over 700 songs and tunes,” Leary said. Stratman-Thomas also took many photos of her singers and musicians, which are now at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
(One other name also turns up as a fieldworker in the notes to these collections: Robert Draves. Leary explained his involvement. “At Lomax’s request, Stratman-Thomas was on the lookout for vulgar lumberjack songs. But since they wouldn’t sing those songs in front of a woman, a guy named Bob Draves, one of her assistants, recorded those songs while Helene waited out in the car!”)
The traditions documented by Stratman-Thomas were as diverse as those recorded by her predecessors. Her discs include music and song in Ho-Chunk, Oneida, Canadian French, Belgian French (Walloon), Welsh, German, Austrian German, Swiss German, Luxemburger, Dutch, Italian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Lithuanian, Finnish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic, as well as English dialects spoken by all these ethnicities plus Irish Americans, Welsh Americans, Cornish Americans, African Americans, and Anglo Americans.
Among the more unusual traditions recorded by Stratman-Thomas before the War was the singing of Christian hymns in the Oneida language. One of these, “Tsyatkatho,” was sung by Wallace Smith and Albert Webster, whom Stratman-Thomas considered among the best singers she recorded. Hear that performance below:
Another interesting performance recorded by Stratman-Thomas and Draves is a slightly risqué love song in Welsh known as “Siani Bach,” which would translate to “Dear Janie.” Known in many forms since the mid-nineteenth century, “Siani Bach” also appears to be the source of a common sea chantey which was sung in both Welsh and English, generally known as “Hob y Deri Dan Do.” Hear John Williams and a chorus of his friends sing it in fine harmony, in the player below:
In addition to the selections above, many of the Wisconsin recordings by Robertson, Stratman-Thomas, and Draves, are online, and can be explored at this link.
The History of the Project
Despite the Wisconsin LP and a few other Library of Congress LPs featuring some of the Upper Midwest songs, Leary explained, a lot of the music he was interested in had never been released to the public. The main reason for this, he told me, is that most of them are in languages other than English. “Back in the 70s, the American Folklife Center convened a conference on ethnic recordings in America,” he said. “At the time, Joe Hickerson wrote that in the 1930s the United States Government and the Library were disinclined to make much of the so-called foreign language recordings because of an ideological stance toward monolingualism in the United States, kind of a melting pot philosophy. So that’s one reason why most of these recordings have been hidden or forgotten. But another reason is just the challenge of dealing with those languages, because they include 25 languages not counting dialects thereof. And many of the songs are also in kind of mixed language–mixing English with the various languages. Or, sometimes they use esoteric occupational terminology from logging or mining or farming or unusual idioms from various locales.”
Leary felt he was up for the challenge of dealing with multilingual song lyrics, largely because of the network of friends and colleagues he has built up over the years, both among academically trained folklorists and within the ethnic communities of the Midwest. “I’m very lucky to have gotten to know a great many folklorists over the years who are fluent in languages other than English,” he said. “Without their assistance, and without being able to exchange songs and information with them digitally, this project would never have happened. Once Liusa Del Guidice or Tom McKean or Tom DuBois, for example, provided me with the original lyrics in Italian or Scots Gaelic or Finnish, plus English translations, it was easy to use a combination of library and internet sources–especially those created by folksong archives and specialists–to track down background on a song or tune. Likewise, since I’ve been doing fieldwork in the Upper Midwest with culturally and linguistically diverse musicians since the 1970s, I’ve gotten increasingly familiar with their song and tune repertoires, which in turn connect strongly with what was recorded by kindred performers in the 1930s and 1940s.”
Besides research on the songs, Leary did a tremendous amount of research into local communities, and into the individual biographies of the people recorded by Lomax, Robertson, and Stratman-Thomas. “I felt that it was not enough to simply attach a name to performance,” he explained. “One ought to know something about the lives of the performers. Folk music is not made by anonymous undifferentiated uncreative ‘folk,’ but rather by individuals who have their own particular experiences and who make choices about how to express themselves as human beings bound up with their community and their era. I was often moved and amazed by some of the performers’ lives–Selma Elona Halinen, Emery DeNoyer, Bernice Bartosz, Winslow White Eagle, and many more–and without their experiences and their voices the songs they sang would mean far less.”
How did he find out so much about people who had been recorded in the 1930s and 1940s? He began, once again, at the Library of Congress. “The original fieldworkers–Sidney Robertson, Alan Lomax, Helene Stratman-Thomas–occasionally offered rich information in their field notes or correspondence,” he explained. But more often, the fieldworkers merely recorded the performer’s name, approximate date of birth, and the place and date of the recording. For these selections, more work was needed, and once again, Leary’s network of friends and colleagues, and his knowledge of local history resources, were key. “The original performers or their descendants whom I was lucky enough to meet were all very generous with information and, sometimes, photographs,” he said. “Thanks to online genealogical and census sites, newspaper search engines, grave site registers, white page phone and address information, and basic internet queries, I was able to track down quite a bit. In a few instances a query sent to a newspaper yielded great local responses in communities where quite a bit of recording had been done. I also had access to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s remarkable library and could delve into collections of reminiscences from around the region.”
Finally, Leary credits the Library of Congress, especially the American Folklife Center and its current and former staff, for creating and maintaining such compelling source material. “I love working at the Library of Congress and make it a point to do so whenever I’m in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The American Folklife Center’s Reading Room has a staggering wealth of rare materials easily at hand. And with a little notice, or even without, the staff are knowledgeable and generous. This particular project would have been impossible, for example, without Todd Harvey’s command of the Lomax Collection, Guha Shankar’s dedication to restoring digital film footage, the prior work of Cathy Kerst and Nicki Saylor on Sidney Robertson Cowell’s fieldwork, and Joe Hickerson’s assistance and encouragement way back in 1976.”
“For folklorists,” he concluded, “the Library is a vast, reliable, accessible memory of our field and, more importantly, of the ‘ordinary’ people whose traditional artistry is worthy of preservation and praise.”
The Wisconsin Folksong Collection, 1937-1946 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has online versions of many of the recordings made by Sidney Robertson and Helene Stratman-Thomas, as well as photographs of many of the performers.
The Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings at the Library of Congress has online versions of many of the recordings made by Alan Lomax in 1938.
Jim Leary’s 2013 lecture on this project is on the Library’s website as a webcast. Follow this Link to find it!
AFC’s Alan Lomax Pages will lead you to more resources about this collector.
AFC’s Michigan 1938 project included blog posts, an e-book, podcasts, and other programming around Lomax’s trip to Michigan. Find them at this link!
The Association for Cultural Equity has more great Alan Lomax collections online.
You can find out more about Sidney Robertson Cowell at this link from the Center for the Study of Upper Midwest Cultures.
There is also more biographical material, and great songs and tunes, in Cowell’s collections from California.
Nicole Saylor wrote this previous Folklife Today post about Helene Stratman-Thomas.