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Navigating AFC Collections Geographically: Midwest Region

A large barn near a field.

Large dairy barn outside Frankenmuth, Michigan. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2019. Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The following is a guest post by American Folklife Center head of reference, Judith Gray.

Staff at the American Folklife Center continue to use new digital tools to support remote discovery and access for our resources by users of all kinds. Whether you are a community scholar, a teacher, an academic researcher, a creative artist, or a curious consumer of local culture we hope that our geographically-oriented research guides offer an entry point into the rich collections and resources maintained at the Center! Find the full menu of Library of Congress Research Guides at this link.

In this post, we focus on the guides for the Midwest, comprised of the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. According to The Midwest volume of the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures, this region, sometimes viewed as “Hinterland” and sometimes as “Heartland,” is still a crossroads of migration and commerce that represents the nation both “in microcosm and in flux,” merging into all of the ambiguities of “Borderland” (p. xviii).  The states surrounding the Great Lakes and the upper reaches of the Mississippi River encompass much of what is frequently described as the “Rust Belt” for its mining and industries while also being heavily involved in food production from dairy and pork to corn and soybeans to wild rice and cherries and cranberries. As the traditional territory of multiple Native American tribes and now also the home of many European, Asian, and Hispanic immigrants and their descendants, the region is diverse. The 2013 public lecture, Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946, by folklorist Jim Leary, mentioned in several of the guides to the region, amplifies this particularly with regard to music.

Our research guides for each state and territory provide information about collections related to that state or territory—including links to those materials available online—as well as tips for searching the Library’s online catalog. In addition, we’ve gathered other American Folklife Center resources related to a given state or territory, such as blog posts, podcast episodes, online finding aids, and webcasts of public programs. Here are some of the items you’ll find in the Midwest Region guides:

The American Folklife Center Collections:  Illinois research guide features the Center’s 1977 Chicago Ethnic Arts Project collection. The online presentation is accompanied by a podcast and a Chicago blues and jazz StoryMap. Of related interest is the Illinois Arts Council collection. Featured online is the 2015 performance of the Sones de México Ensemble, and the Occupational Folklife Project interviews with Illinois production potters and ironworkers.

In The American Folklife Center Collections: Indiana research guide, the Alan Lomax Indiana and Ohio collection from 1938 includes songs and stories from the state in the first half of the 20th century. Decades later, at the time of the Library of Congress Bicentennial in 2000, Indiana’s Congressional delegation added documentation on a great variety of local traditions and celebrations as the Indiana portion of the Local Legacies Project.  More recent is “Ranger Lore: The Occupational Folklife of Parks,” including documentation of the work life of park rangers, naturalists, and personnel at a variety of Indiana state parks, while featured online is a concert by the Not Too Bad Bluegrass Band from Bloomington.

The American Folklife Center Collections: Iowa research guide points to collections from the 1910s of Mesquakie songs, to three collections by Marcus Bach from the 1940s collectively entitled “Preserving Iowa’s Religious Heritage,” to fiddle tunes and hammered dulcimer music and more. Featured in the Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection, 1982-1986  is documentation of a Czech school in Cedar Rapids and a Dutch school in Pella.  More recently, interviews were conducted among immigrant workers in Iowa’s meat-packing industry as part of the Occupational Folklife Project.

American Folklife Center Collections: Michigan introduces the Alan Lomax collection of Michigan and Wisconsin recordings with additional information in related blogs and a podcast. Also online are samples of Michigan speech and conversation in the Center for Applied Linguistics collection. A recent documentation project provides interviews with home health-care aides in the state as part of the Occupational Folklife Project.

The American Folklife Center Collections: Minnesota research guide provides information reaching back into the 19th century, with some of the earliest Native American recordings gathered by Alice Fletcher in 1899 and by Frances Densmore in the 1910s as well as a 1954 program honoring the 104-year-old last survivor of the Union Army in the Civil War.

Personal histories from Minnesota residents in various parts of the state were gathered by the Center for Applied Linguistics and can be heard at the link. Featured, in addition, are interviews with Minnesota homeless-shelter workers as part of the Occupational Folklife Project.

American Folklife Center Collections: Missouri provides information on Missouri-French songs from the Old Mines area, recorded on cylinders by Joseph Médard Carrière in the 1920s, as well as Dennis Stroughmatt et L’Esprit Creole performing Upper Louisiana French Creole music in 2012. Other genres are heard on the recordings made at the 1954 National Folk Festival in St. Louis, while online features include the Gannon Family presentation of Irish music and dance.

The American Folklife Center Collections: Ohio research guide provides an overview of collections including that of Anne Grimes, the Ohio journalist/musician/folklore historian, and of the Cooperative Recreation Service, the publishing and distribution center for kits, songbooks, and pamphlets of folk games and songs from the United States and around the world. Featured is the website focused on Captain Pearl R. Nye and his documentation of the culture and music of those who lived and worked along the Ohio and Erie Canal as well as the performance in 2013 of Harmonia, an Ohio group presenting East European music.

The American Folklife Center Collections: Wisconsin provides connections to songs gathered in collaboration with University of Wisconsin staff from more than twenty ethnic groups and Native communities in the state between 1940 and 1946. Also noted are the earlier cylinder recordings gathered by ethnologists like Frances Densmore and Alanson Skinner in the state’s Chippewa, Menominee, and Ho-Chunk communities.  Occupational folklore has been an interest in Wisconsin documentation from the early gathering of lumberjack songs through several recent online projects focused on occupations as diverse as ironworkers, teachers, and potters.

As this brief introduction shows, there is a lot to learn from these guides whether you plan to browse the collection materials online or are planning a trip into the reading room. We hope that researcher, students, and folks who, perhaps just want to experience some folklore or folk music from a particular state will find these new guides a good place to start.

Be sure to visit the Library of Congress Research Guides pages in order to discover the full spread of resources on offer! And, also know that American Folklife Center staff have generated (and continue to produce) guides focused on a wide range of topics. You can find the growing body of these rich and dynamic resources from the American Folklife Center here.

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