Join me as we go on an expedition to deepest, darkest… Michigan? Yes, the Michigan of 1938 – represented on Michigan-I-O: Alan Lomax and the 1938 Library of Congress Folk-Song Expedition - was a very different place to the Michigan of today. The state was more sparsely populated and the people lived closer to the land. Lumberjacks in the verdant forests and fishermen on the wild Great Lakes kept the traditional songs alive, as well as created their own original music.
In Detroit and the smaller cities, enclaves of first and second generation immigrants from Ireland, Finland, Serbia, Poland, Germany, Croatia, Hungary, and Canada kept links to their native cultures alive through storytelling and the passing on of folk songs from their native lands. They hadn’t yet been dissolved into the melting pot of America. It was enough of a different world from now that if it hadn’t been preserved by famed folklorist Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress, it would most likely be lost.
Lomax was only 23 and still early in his career, but he had already made field recordings throughout the American South and as far afield as Haiti and the Bahamas. In late July of 1938 The Library of Congress sent Lomax to survey and document the traditional folk life of the Great Lakes region (Michigan in particular) in sound recordings, film, and still photos. Along the way, Lomax also kept field notebooks documenting his impressions and noting recording details. His journey lasted over three months and he moved from place to place in his search for authentic cultural representatives, often acting on tips from citizens he encountered along the way. One especially fruitful tip landed Lomax in a tavern in Traverse City where he spent a full day recording the songs of the local lumberjacks and sailors.
The songs gathered on Michigan-I-O illustrate the diverse patchwork quilt of ethnic settlement in the region. From the lead-off Cajun-sounding fiddle tunes “Black Tar on a Stick / Up and Down the Broom”, we’re then launched into the giddy chorus of “Polish Wedding Song” and the ragtime of “Thirty-First Level Blues”. Before the collection is over, we’ve travelled through a world-weary acoustic blues (“This Old World’s in a Tangle”), an exotic and half-crazed Yugoslavian svirala flute solo (“Pastirska Pesma”), and a jolly accordion ode (“Finnish Waltz”).
And let’s not forget one of the highlights, the comic and ribald “Keyhole in the Door”, sung acapella by one Ed Thrasher: “…a garter on either leg she wore / She was a charming creature / Through that keyhole in the door.”
Curiously, the compilation’s title song, “Michigan I-O”, is not found here, though it was recorded on the expedition. In that tavern in Traverse City, Lomax recorded an 82-year-old retired lumberjack singing the tune, which was about the difficult working and living conditions in the lumber camps. It’s also ironic (and a little amusing) to note that the song inspiring the title of a collection released to celebrate the heritage of Michigan includes the lyrics “There is no bigger hell than Michigan I-O” and “that godforsaken country-o called Michigan I-O”.
Michigan I-O is intended as a separate audio accompaniment to the digital publication of the same name, which contains text, images, film, and additional music. A traveling exhibition by the Michigan State University Museum and a series of podcasts produced by the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center add to the dissemination of information on this heretofore overlooked, but important chapter in the Great Lakes region’s history.
This was the popular music of the time, in the sense that it was “music made by folks for folks.” Though it may seem far removed from our present day culture, we can connect to it on a human level. For, these are songs of hardship and joy, regret and celebration – in essence, songs of everyday life. In remembering the past we retain our link to the traditions that made us who we are as a people today. This makes Michigan-I-O a worthwhile and welcome addition to the documented folk history of America.