- Folk Songs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946 by James P. Leary, and: Polka Heartland: Why the Midwest Loves to Polka by Dick Blau
The Upper Midwest is a region rich in musical traditions, but it is not as well studied as other areas of the country. So it is very fortunate that we have these two new books that enlighten us about the music of the region. At first glance, Folk Songs of Another America resembles a book, but it is primarily a collection of five compact discs and a DVD, all bound in a book-like container with extensive liner notes. The recordings were made in the Upper Midwest in the first half of the twentieth century by the well-known folk collectors Sidney Robertson [Cowell] (1903–1995) and Alan Lomax (1915–2002), as well as the lesser-known student apprentice Helene Stratman-Thomas (1896–1973). These researchers, equipped with “federal support from the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, recorded nearly two thousand traditional performances in more than twenty-five languages from representative musicians and singers in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin” (p. 2). The pres ent work contains 174 audio samples as well as a twenty-four-minute documentary film with twelve additional selections. These recordings document the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual music of the region.
Making a similar argument as in his earlier book, Polkabilly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Leary states, “America’s Upper Midwest emerges from these field [End Page 744] recordings as a distinctive American region wherein, from the nineteenth century through the 1940s, a remarkable array of American Indian, Anglo-American, African American, and especially non-Anglo-European peoples maintained, modified, borrowed, merged, and composed songs and tunes from their respective and frequently shared folksong traditions . . . the depth and breadth of the Upper Midwest’s folksong traditions, so complex and ‘so mixed,’ have remained elusive and almost forgotten” (p. 3). He explains that previous publications emphasized English-language performances exclusively, ignoring the majority of the recorded material. The title of Leary’s latest book is explained by his description of it as a “redemptive counter-cultural project” that “effectively challenges and considerably broadens our understanding of folk music in American culture” (p. 4).
Each of the six chapters corresponds to one of the discs in the collection. The first chapter, called “Pigtown Fling,” documents twenty-eight pieces collected by Robertson in 1937. This collection includes performances by French Canadians, lumberjacks, Gaelic Scots, Serbians, and Finns. The second chapter, “River in the Pines,” contains descriptions of twenty-two pieces collected at the National Folk Festivals in Chicago in 1937 by Robertson and in 1938 in Washington, D.C. by Lomax. Robertson captured live performances on stage, while Lomax made his recordings under studio conditions at the Library of Congress. They both recorded mostly the same performers from Wisconsin, who were organized by Otto Rindlisbacher (1895–1975) from Rice Lake. Rindlisbacher, of Swiss-German descent, was a master of many of the ethnic styles from the region. The recordings include performances on accordion and Hardanger fiddle, as well as on instruments mostly hand made by Rindlisbacher: the cigar-box fiddle, Paul Bunyan harp, “Viking cello” made from a pitchfork (psalmodikon), and birch bark horn. There are also songs and recitations in French Canadian and “Scandihoovian” dialects, and yodeling. These selections demonstrate the extensive mixing of ethnic traditions in Northern Wisconsin.
The third chapter, “Harps and Accordions,” features forty-two selections from Lomax’s 1938 fieldwork in the Upper Midwest. They include Ojibwe fiddling as well as French Canadian, lumberjack, German, Polish...