September 23rd, 2014
Prof. Jim Leary teaches folklore studies here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and works tirelessly to document and gain recognition for the culture of the Upper Midwest, i.e. – Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I reviewed his book about The Goose Island Ramblers, Polkabilly, a few years ago and it can be found here.
His latest work is to be published in February by the UW Press and is called Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. Several years in the making, this looks to be his magnum opus. It’s a 94-page book accompanied by 5 CDs of music and a DVD featuring a documentary which looks at Alan Lomax’s trek to the Upper Midwest in 1938 to make field recordings.
I found a nice interview with Prof. Leary up at the Upper Midwest Old-Time blog which gives the reader some of Leary’s background and has him speak about his passion for the region and its culture. I also discovered the video below from the Library of Congress. Since I haven’t watched it yet, I can only presume that Leary makes the case for Upper Midwestern folk music traditions.
There’s a revealing quote in the interview which bears highlighting:
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.
In my review of Polkabilly I opined that Upper Midwestern folk music is surely ignored, in part, because polkas, waltzes, and blazing Hardanger fiddling did not help form the basis of rock & roll. Here Leary brings up “linguistic diversity”, i.e. – a lot of the music wasn’t in English. I can certainly understand why songs sung in German, Polish, or an American Indian tongue wouldn’t have an impact on popular music but why cultural institutions and, from what I’ve read, academic institutions, have avoided Upper Midwestern folk music baffles me. I suppose two world wars can put the damper on researching German influence on American culture. If in a cynical frame of mind, one could also speculate that in the 1950s and 60s with an Anglo-/African-American folk music revival going on, examining the folk music behind the songs of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary was more glamorous and/or more “relevant” than pondering how Ojibwe and Finnish musical traditions melded in the lumberjack camps of northern Wisconsin.
Regardless, I am very much looking forward to this set and it will be interesting to see how it is received.