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.

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