Friday, July 4, 2014

Jim Leary: Folksongs of Another America- field recordings from the upper Midwest, 1937–1946

Screen shot from actual UW Press Catalog

As I was at work looking over the latest UW Press new release catalog, I was shocked to see Jim Leary's new project advertised.  Jim is co-director for the Center for the Study of Upper Midwest Culture.  Last time I talked to him he told me that the project was coming along but that he had no release date.  Now we know that it is Feb. 2015 and hopefully it changes how everyone looks at music from the Upper Midwest.

Jim's 30+ years of research will go into a illustrated book, 5 CD's and a DVD.  I am so excited about it that I had to ask a few questions of Jim, even though the release is still a half a year away.

Why is this new release important to you?

I grew up in Rice Lake, in northwestern Wisconsin, where Otto Rindlisbacher and his brothers ran the Buckhorn Tavern and cafe. In the 1960s I learned that Otto had been recorded for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s. The 1960s, of course, was the time when the Folksong Revival was in full swing, with its mostly southern American and topical song influences, but I began to wonder about the folksongs of the Upper Midwest's peoples. In the 1950s and 1960s in my hometown and roundabout German, Czech, Ojibwe, Scandinavian, Slovenian, and Swiss performers could be heard live on local radio, at weddings, and at the local ski lodge. I also learned a handful of "dirty" songs from school friends that I now know were sung in the nearby lumber camps.  

The songs and tunes of Upper Midwesterners have been largely hidden from public knowledge, and largely ignored by cultural institutions, in part because of their stylistic and linguistic diversity. But these songs and tunes, which underwent all sorts of fascinating changes from their indigenous and immigrant origins, have a lot to tell us about the region's experience and the richness of America's folk music.

Can you remember what originally got you into music from the Upper Midwest? Can you go into detail about a couple of experiences?

I think I was into the region's music from before I can remember, since I grew up exposed to and liking the mix of roots music and song that swirled in my home territory, but I was lucky to discover as a sophomore in college that you could study folklore in a university setting. I earned an M.A. in Folklore at the University of North Carolina in 1973. Among other things, I discovered that very little research had been done by folklorists in the Upper Midwest, and also that a lot of what had been done included unpublished/unreleased documentation and recordings in the Library of Congress. My dad gave me fifty dollars as an M.A. present. I spent half on beer, like a good Wisconsin boy, but used the rest to buy a cassette tape recorder, a cheap microphone, and some cassette tapes. I went back home to Rice Lake and started seeking out older neighbors to record their folk traditions, among them an old Irish farmer and logger, George Russell, born in 1885. He was full of jokes and stories that he'd learned around 1900, including about Ole and Lena, Pat and Mike, and lumberjacks, but he was also full of stories about local house parties with fiddlers like the Irishman "Red" Donnelly and the French Canadian Bartholomew "Bat" DeMars.  Interviewing folks like George got me excited about pursuing the larger story of "ordinary" rural and working class peoples in the region and their folk musical traditions. Over the years, I've had the good fortune to interview and record several hundred traditional musicians in the region, including a handful who made recordings for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s, or as youngsters witnessed their parents and neighbors being recorded. 

What Upper Midwest music resonates with you the most and why do you think that is?

I'm most attracted to people making music for their communities, and the ways in which working musicians draw on older forms but also cross-pollinate musically with their neighbors, while at the same time responding to the world around them. So I like that dynamic between tradition and change. Some of my favorite performances in Folksongs of Another America mix English with a "foreign" language, invoke local people and places, and make use of unexpected instrumentation, like playing an Ojibwe women's drum dance melody on fiddle, or sawing a sad old Irish air on Scandinavian psalmodikon made from a pitchfork.

You have had long career documenting Upper Midwest culture.  What kind of legacy do you think you are helping to build? 

Through books, essays, museum exhibits, public radio programs, films, documentary sound recordings, the creation of websites and archival collections, and talks  I've been fortunate to work on my own and, mostly, with lots of other people to put the Upper Midwest and its vital, diverse, and dynamic folk traditions on the cultural map in the United States and the larger world. As a public folklorist dedicated to populist, pluralist, public, and collaborative work, I've tried to create productions that are accessible to the communtiies from which they came, to educators, to scholars, and to the general public. And I'm continuously helping with  the expansion of accessible library and archival collections that, in the case of field and home recordings of traditional music, make those materials available in perpetuity.

Where do you hope the future of your research and folk music of the Upper Midwest is headed?

For my part, now that I'm in my 60s, I'm likely to do less fieldwork and more writing and producing, as well as laboring to put accumulated research materials into good archival order.  Looking ahead regarding folk music in the region, I'm heartened that younger folks are revitalizing and researching the region's old time and ethnic and indigenous musical traditions. The powwow scene and related spinoffs have sparked a lot of new drum songs; there are third and fourth generation Czech and German bands like Copper Box doing new songs that fuse polka with rock, Cajun, and conjunto; Brian Miller's delving into regional Irish and lumbercamp songs and tunes is exciting; there are your great Minnesota Fiddling and Leonard Finseth projects; A. Trae McMaken in Michigan has an amazing site that makes old time Michigan fiddling accessible, as does the Flint musician and field researcher Paul Gifford;  there are lots of active Finnish bands, and in Finland the "Finnish Bruce Springsteen," J. Karjalainen has had several number one CDs based on Finnish American recordings from the Upper Midwest. So I'm beginning to think that musicians, researchers, media producers, and audiences in the Upper Midwest who appreciate roots music are realizing how much is here, and the extent to which what's taken root here is part of what makes regional life unique. I've had a small part in making that happen, and I hope it carries on in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Brian Miller and Upper Midwest Lumberjack Music

Brian Miller has been one of my musical heroes lately.  He has been on a mission to research and perform the forgotten folk music of our home state.  He comes at it from an Irish bent, so naturally he has looked to the Irish lumber camps as the source for his inspiration.

What was behind the first inspiration to study and learn such archaic music as logging music of the Upper Midwest lumber camps?

I have been studying, learning and enjoying Irish traditional music since I first fell in love with it as a high-schooler in Bemidji around 1997. In 2007, a singer from New England, Judy Cook, gave a workshop on “Songs of the Lumbermen” as part of the sporadic series of events I run here in St. Paul for the Traditional Singers Club. At the workshop, Judy sang a song, “The Shantyman’s Life,” that I thought had a great melody and a very Irish flavor. When she said it was collected in Bemidji I was blown away. I had no idea music like that had anything to do with my hometown. I have since been obsessed with these Irish-influenced songs collected in the Upper Midwest and the stories behind them.

Tell us 2 or 3 stories of times where playing or learning these songs “made sense.” What were the times when you either connected with the songs or audience in a way that you knew what you were doing was right?

I have had many wonderful, encouraging experiences performing and talking about these songs all over Minnesota and elsewhere. Probably the most exciting was the first time I met Elsye Maguire. Elsye was born in 1909 in her father’s logging camp on Kitchi Lake (north of Cass Lake, MN) and grew up there with her mother cooking for the lumberjacks that spent the winter in the bunkhouse next to their house. She told me that many of the men were of Irish ancestry and that they sang and played fiddles in the dining hall each Sunday. She used to “dance a jig” on the tables with her siblings. I have visited Elsye at the assisted living facility she lives at in Bemidji several times since meeting her in 2011 (when she was just 102—she’s now 104). She was never a singer herself (she did chord on piano for local fiddlers), but she has described for me the way the guys used to learn songs from each other including humming along when someone was singing to help learn the melody. She often says “People don’t understand these things anymore. But they weren’t born in a lumber camp!”

In addition to Elsye, I have been approached several times while performing, by audience members who have connections to the lumber industry either through family or friends. A woman in Marshfield, Wisconsin recently sent me a tape of her dad singing three songs he learned while working on the Flambeau River, and a man at a show in Hinckley has promised to try to dig up a manuscript of songs scribbled down from a singing neighbor who had songs from the lumbering era.

Sometimes, what really makes my work feel worthwhile is how utterly forgotten these traditions of informal solo singing are. Some people seem shocked that Minnesotans, especially men in a lumber camp, might have sung old songs to pass the time. So I feel motivated to refamiliarize people with the idea.

What has been the most inspirational research in the old Upper Midwest songs and explain why?

The biggest discovery I’ve had as a researcher was when I was able to identify close to fifty song recordings of Minnesotan singers that have been hiding in a box at the Library of Congress since the 1920s. The singers are Michael C. Dean (lived in Pine County, MN from about 1885-1917 and Virginia, MN from 1917-1931) and three members of the Phillips family of Chamberlain, MN (near Akeley). I have done a lot of work with printed song collections and with historical documents tracing the lives of singers but there is nothing like actually hearing a voice from the past. Finding and acquiring those recordings has allowed me to learn “Minnesotan” folk songs by ear and really get a feel for the way they were sung. These recordings are also, I believe, quite a special find for the history of our state.

What can the future hold for these songs? What is your vision for the future of yourself and Northwoods Lumberjack music in general?

My hope is that people start singing some of these songs again. More broadly, I hope there can be a growing perception that the Upper Midwest is a place that traditional folk music comes from – that it has a long and storied history here and that it can be explored and revived the same way folk music from places like Appalachia, Cape Breton, Quebec and Newfoundland has been explored and revived. For myself, I plan to keep learning songs, performing songs, writing about songs, giving talks and increasing access to these field recordings.

What is in the near future for you? Exciting plans coming up?

My exciting news this past month was that I was awarded the Parsons Fund Award from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The award funds a week-long research trip to the AFC that I have planned for the end of this month (June). I will spend the week poring over the AFC’s collection looking for more info (and hopefully recordings and photos) on Minnesota-based singers. I am working toward a new edition of Michael C. Dean’s 1922 self-published songster The Flying Cloud with his biography added as an introduction and melodies added in, from the recordings and other sources, to accompany the song lyrics. I have been researching Dean’s life and music for over five years now and his story is spellbinding—to me at least! I also hope to make the Dean and Phillips recordings as an online digital library so that more people can hear them.