Today’s guest blogger is James Leary, author of Folksongs of Another America. An award-winning multimedia publication, it is now available in a paperback from UWP, with accompanying audio and video online, as explained below. Leary will also be speaking about this project, and related folk music projects, at the annual Great Libraries of UW–Madison event on May 17.
The original publication of Folksongs of Another America (FSOAA) ambitiously combined a hardbound book, five compact disks, and a DVD in an elegant yet bulky single package weighing nearly four pounds. The years of research, writing, sound and film restoration, and overall production that underlay its existence were matched by hard-won grants to bring retail costs within an average buyer’s reach.
The response was exhilarating: stellar reviews from far and wide, awards that included a Grammy nomination, events in Minnesota and Wisconsin featuring new performances of old songs culled from FSOAA, and a sold-out press run before a year elapsed. But with neither copies in the warehouse nor likelihood of new grants for reprinting, we faced the sad prospect of FSOAA’s disappearance just as interest was building.
A new paperback edition of the book with companion website is our best solution. Trimmer in heft and price than its predecessor, the paperback book swaps the accompanying costly disks for free online access to the music and video. Sound files for all five original CDs—plus the film/DVD Alan Lomax Goes North, coproduced with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress—are now accessible online in the Folksongs of Another America Collection through a partnership of the University of Wisconsin Press and the University of Wisconsin–Madison Libraries.
Hats off to Dennis Lloyd, director of University of Wisconsin Press, and Ed Van Gemert, director of the UW–Madison Library System, for partnering to create the two companion pieces. The songs and tunes in Folksongs of Another America had been hidden for too long to let them vanish once again. May their persistence spur new understandings and performances, along with ongoing recognition and appreciation of the many peoples, tongues, and sounds that—whether past or present, from mainstream or from margin, deservedly acknowledged or unjustly ignored—have always made America great.
But wait, there’s more! FSOAA necessarily focused on a relatively small yet representative set of songs, tunes, and recitations from the hundreds collected by fieldworkers Sidney Robertson, Alan Lomax, and Helene Stratman-Thomas from 1937 to 1946. I worked with many experts to sonically restore the selected tracks and to transcribe and translated lyrics. From my research, I provided new contextual, biographical, and comparative background. But the rich fund of other recordings by Robertson, Lomax, and Stratman-Thomas have raw sound and spare documentation. They await future researchers who will discover, ponder, and pursue them.
So I’m delighted that this new FSOAA website complements several three other sites that further reveal the complexity and diversity of
the Upper Midwest’s folk musical traditions. The first is the Wisconsin Folksong Collection, produced by the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Mills Music Library and Digital Collections Center, which presents field recordings made by Robertson and Stratman-Thomas.
The second related site is the Library of Congress’s Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings from 1938, , offering his sound recordings “in their raw form, as full disc sides without speed correction or other digital processing.”
The third site is a digital repository called Local Centers/Global Sounds. It offers post–World War II home and field recordings featuring diverse Upper Midwestern folk/vernacular musicians. It also includes digitized tracks of 78 rpm recordings that were performed by or that influenced regional musicians. This repository is a collaborative project of the Mills Music Library, the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, and the Digital Collections Center, all at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
We encourage readers and listeners to roam these sites. In the realm of 78s, many will be familiar with widely available classic recordings made in the 1920s by performers in the “Race” and “Hillbilly” series of American record labels. Yet we cannot fully grasp the richness of American roots music without also experiencing such stellar Upper Midwestern Germanic, Nordic, and Slavic “Foreign” series performers as the Swedish comic vaudevillian Olle i Skratthult, the Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Gunleik Smedal, the Finnish accordion virtuoso Viola Turpeinen, the singing Polish mountaineer Karol Stoch, the trumpet-playing Bohemian bandleader Romy Gosz, or the German concertinist Hans “Whoopee John” Wilfahrt.
Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His many books and documentary productions include Wisconsin Folklore, So Ole Says to Lena, Polkabilly, Accordions in the Cutover, Downhome Dairyland (with Richard March), and Pinery Boys (with Franz Rickaby and Gretchen Dykstra).is professor emeritus of folklore and Scandinavian studies, and cofounder of the