- Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946 produced by James P. Leary
When I was a child, my father occasionally sang fragments of a few Swedish and Danish songs he had heard while growing up during the Depression Era in a small Wisconsin town settled mostly by Scandinavian emigrants. Just a generation removed from his parents' arrival to the Upper Midwest from Sweden and Denmark, my father all his life sought to assimilate into the elite culture associated with the Eastern US megalopolis. Yet, while never conversant in his parents' native languages, he sang fragments of songs from those Old World cultures because they were a vital part of who his parents were and, by extension, who he was.
People connected to the Upper Midwest (specifically, the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) through birth, family, and/or residency—indeed, anyone seeking to more clearly understand the confluence of ethnicities that shaped the unique cultural landscape of that region—will welcome the new book/CD/ DVD set Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. Featuring more than 400 pages of liner notes that interpret the wide-ranging folk music included on the accompanying five CDs and one DVD, Folksongs of Another America is the first-ever project to comprehensively explore the diversity of Upper Midwest music traditions, and the set goes a long way toward depicting that region's distinctive sense of place. This documentary project grew out of a collaboration between Dust-to-Digital—the innovative Atlanta-based media company responsible for many noteworthy releases of historical recordings and illustrations—and the University of Wisconsin Press. Both drew on their strengths, Dust-to-Digital contributing straightforward yet memorable design work and innovative marketing, and the University of Wisconsin Press insisting upon sophisticated scholarly context in the interpretation of such complex material. By any standard, Folksongs of Another America was one of the standout documentary projects released in the United States during 2015.
Entitled to not-so-subtly suggest that the region has heretofore been woefully underrepresented in the canon of folkloristic research projects (indeed, many projects that have purported to examine American folk music have marginalized music traditions associated with the Upper Midwest), Folksongs of Another America offers groundbreaking scholarship. Producer/ author James P. Leary—a highly regarded folklorist who founded the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and a former Journal of American Folklore editor)—applied a lifetime of regional research and service toward this project.
At the core of Folksongs of Another America are five CDs offering rarely heard or never-before-released field recordings collected in the Upper Midwest by three Library of Congress-affiliated documentarians during the golden age of field recording activity across the United States (1937–1946). Recordings on the first CD, made during 1937 in Minnesota and Wisconsin by folklorist Sidney Robertson, document musicians from English-language as well as non-English-language cultures (Finnish, Scots Gaelic, and Serbian, for instance). Incorporating recordings from the 1937 and 1938 National Folk Festivals (independently captured by Robertson and Alan Lomax) of the musical group known as the Wisconsin Lumberjacks, an out-fit based in the Chippewa Valley area of Wisconsin, the second CD showcases performances [End Page 492] for mainstream audiences of the diverse music repertoire associated with northern Wisconsin's lumber camps. The third CD documents Lomax's 1938 collecting forays in Michigan and thus represents the music of amateur performers from several ethnicities (Finnish, French Canadian, German, Irish, Lithuanian, Ojibwe, Polish, and Swedish) then living or temporarily residing in that state. The set's final two CDs compile material recorded in Wisconsin by Helene Stratman-Thomas during successive collecting trips in the early and mid-1940s. All the recordings were skillfully restored and mastered by Grammy Award-winning sound engineer Michael Graves.
Folksongs of Another America includes 187 performances by more than 200 singers and musicians. That these field recordings are...