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Inquiring Minds: Alan Lomax Goes North

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(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)

The second clip features Mose and Exilia Bellaire, French-Canadian residents of Hancock, Mich., singing “Dites moi pourquoi un?”  It is a version of “The Carol of the Twelve Numbers,” which has been documented throughout Europe and North America as far back as the mid-nineteenth century.
The 75th anniversary projects also include a series of podcasts produced by the Library, a potential e-book, “Michigan-I-O,” slated to be published by Dust to Digital Records, as well as public programming consisting of lectures and concerts, a traveling exhibition, and the dissemination of recordings to the communities in Michigan. In addition to the Library, participants in the projects include the Michigan State University Museum, Michigan Council for the Humanities, the Great Lakes Traditions Endowment; the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Culture at the University of Wisconsin, the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE), and the Finlandia Foundation.

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.

Comments (5)

  1. How beautiful it was for Mr. Lomax to have the forethought to capture those moments. A national treasure!

  2. Living here in Calumet Township (Upper Michigan), I’ve been hearing about the Floriani family and their tamburitza playing for many years. How sweet to see and hear them. And by the way, at the close of that clip, the shot looking down at the railroad trestle above Lake Linden and Torch Lake is less than a mile from my house. To think that the almost-mythical Alan Lomax stood there with his camera, a 10 minute walk from where I’m sitting!

    Thank you, kiitos, merci, grazie, hvala…

  3. Wha
    t a fascinating, worthwhile project. So glad this old footage will be seen at last, as a real film!

  4. It would be nice to be able to download these to watch, as I am one who does not have internet at home, and can’t watch this at work, si I can’t watch. After all, there’s no realistic reason to restrict them. I wonder what they are like.

  5. I want to thank Mr Lomax for the awesome history he reproduced here. My grandparents singing and my Dad as a boy dancing, was such a joy. The knowledge of the library of Congress already having the family history there has made my journey so much easier.May our entire generation as well as more generations to come, have all they need to know of our families history.

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