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.

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