EAST LANSING (AP) – The Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing on Sunday will be the first stop of a traveling exhibit and performances celebrating the 75th anniversary of what was supposed to be a three-month song collecting tour through the Upper Midwest.
It commemorates a trip that began in Detroit on Aug. 1, 1938, by 23-year-old Alan Lomax, who carried a Presto instantaneous disc recorder and movie camera to gather folk music from the Upper Midwest, according to the Lansing State Journal. Lomax was then in charge of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk-Song.
He thought he would collect songs in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, but ended up recording mostly in Michigan. He recorded just one musician in Wisconsin and no one in Minnesota. From Detroit to Ironwood, Lomax recorded more than 1,000 songs that remained largely in archives and ultimately far overshadowed by other music Lomax collected. He was the first to record Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie and other more influential artists.
The Michigan State University Museum, American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and others are collaborating on the exhibit. The Library of Congress is digitizing the Upper Midwest songs, with a new CD set of recordings coming out next year. Color film clips shot on the trip also will be shown for the first time.
“We just want to make sure that this stuff is known again in Michigan,” Todd Harvey, curator of the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, told the newspaper.
From northern Michigan’s Posen, are Polish fiddlers’ versions of “Turkey in the Straw” and “The Irish Washerwoman.” From the Upper Peninsula’s Baraga is a French-language version of a song by country yodeler Jimmie Rodgers. The collection also includes a song about life in the copper mines called “31st Level Blues.”
“These songs are not just pieces of music recorded and preserved on a 12-inch record,” said Laurie Sommers, who is working on the project for the MSU Museum. “They’re documents of the culture of the communities that produced them.”
The performers’ story has not been properly told for complex reasons, said James Leary, director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the person who is compiling the CDs.
The rich story of the Upper Midwest “comes out of the lives and culture of a lot of indigenous and immigrant people who weren’t well educated, who came from very humble backgrounds,” he said, “but nonetheless had these strong aesthetic values and talents that come out through these songs.”
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