Here we have a treasure, a cornucopia of songs and tunes recorded in the Upper Midwest during the late 1930s–mid-1940s by Sidney Robertson, Alan Lomax, and Helene Stratman-Thomas. There are over 200 cuts on the five CDs and one DVD; the thick book these disks flank is an extensive, meticulous, and engaging collection of liner notes. The limits of the set are only those of the field recordings made by these open-minded collectors during those years. Leary selected (and carefully cleaned up) a nice balance of representative and exceptional cuts. The broadest organization is by collector; within that they are largely organized by ethnicity, freely defined. An additional category is "lumberjacks," most but not all of whom were British in background, while others were immigrants from points east and south within the United States.
Since the three collectors mined much the same geographic and cultural turf, the ranges of ethnicities on the CDs overlap considerably, as do, in a few cases, individual performers. Conflating the lists, we encounter groups labeled by Leary as, in alphabetical order, African American, Austrian, Belgian, Cornish, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French Canadian, German, Ho-Chunk, Icelandic, Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, lumberjack, Luxemburger, Norwegian, Ojibwe, Oneida, Polish, Scots Gaelic, Serbian, Swedish, Swiss, and Welsh. The DVD comes out of Lomax's activity in 1938; although a documentary of just 24 minutes, it touches on a half-dozen of those groups.
The text accompanying each cut starts with a list of performers, the medium or media, the place and date of performance, and the name of the collector. The meat and potatoes of the notes for a given tune occupies from part of a page to several pages and gives plenty of biographical information about the performer(s), something about the genre of the tune, lyrics of songs (both the original lyrics and a translation, if not sung in English), and some information about the history of the text and sometimes of the tune.
In terms of genre, non-narrative songs dominate, though there are a few Child ballads, quite a few broadside ballads, instrumental dances and tunes, songs with instrumental participation, and a handful of vocal performances that involve careful timing but either unpitched or unusual vocal production. These include short tales, a spoken game, chants intended to cure hiccups and toothaches, a knife-grinder's call, another sales call, several yodels, "mouth music" for dancing, and a dance tune with dance calls. Several songs are set to melodies that recall those of well-known songs from oral tradition. These include a member of the tune family most closely allied with "Barbara Allen," here joined with the lyrics of the widely distributed broadside "Locks and Bolts"; a Scottish call to arms set to what seems to me to be the tune "London Bridge Is Falling Down"; a lyric "Shanty Song" sung to the tune "Jimmy Crack Corn"; a version of "Pretty Polly" borrowing the tune "Vilikins and his Dinah"; an Oneida hymn with a tune recalling "Amazing Grace"; and so on.
There are no notations of music, but there are nearly 100 black-and-white photographs of the performers as well as of a few of the collectors. Attractive woodcuts by Leary's daughter, Isabella, announce each section of the book and adorn the cardboard inserts housing the CDs. The work involved in transcribing and translating [End Page 365] song lyrics, which is stunning in amount and quality, involved quite an extensive team. The translations from Western European languages are uniformly excellent, and I would expect that all of the other translations are just as accurate and graceful. This reviewer was especially taken with the recordings and photographs of instruments. These included primitive or simplified instruments such as bits of birch bark, cigar-box fiddles, and psalmodikons (called the "Viking Cello" by the players). Of course, there are also instruments linked with the ethnicities of...