5 Questions About Folksongs of Another America

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, James P. Leary discusses his book Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946

Read Bud Kliment’s full review here and in the forthcoming issue 48.2 of Oral History Review

What’s it about and why does it matter?

From 1937 through 1946 Sidney Robertson, Alan Lomax, and Helene Stratman-Thomas—fieldworkers for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress—recorded roughly 2000 songs and tunes in more than twenty-five languages from performers in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin: Ojibwe fiddlers, Swiss yodelers, Croatian tamburitzans, Norwegian psalmodikon quartets, Oneida hymn-singers, Irish lumberjack balladeers, Welsh choruses, Bohemian brass bands, Ho-Chunk hand drummers, and much more. Yet for seven decades only the songs in English were published, implicitly favoring a monolingual, mono-cultural false impression over a decidedly plural reality. Folksongs of Another America reveals at last the long-hidden diversity and depth of the Upper Midwest’s folk musical traditions through digitally restored sound recordings and film footage; still photographs; transcribed, translated, and annotated lyrics; and glimpses of performers’ lives and communities. At once a restoration and a critique, this print/media production not only testifies to the Upper Midwest’s historical contributions to America’s folk cultural legacy, but also reassesses prevailing conceptions of American folk music and song.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

I’m a folklorist who was born and raised in a small northwestern Wisconsin farming, logging, and resort community wherein peoples of varied Native and European descent have long intermingled. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I encountered a remarkable range of local musical traditions through live radio, wedding dances, powwows, taverns, and dance halls. In the 1970s, struck by the complicated ways in which my neighbors sustained, adapted, combined, and created cultural traditions within regional and historical contexts, I began conducting archival research, ethnography, and tape-recorded interviews. The musicians whose repertoires and reminiscences I documented were all deeply indebted to performers from prior generations. Several of them had even been recorded by Library of Congress fieldworkers during the 1937-1946 span, while others either witnessed those sessions or knew the performers. Their powerful experiences and oral testimony inspired more interviews and related research incrementally resulting in Folksongs of Another America.     

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Published historical sources regarding the life of an “ordinary” person typically reveal only the few spare facts found in public records and local newspapers. Occasionally the latter might report that a person loved singing old songs or played for generations of wedding dances, but to learn more you must ask someone who knows. Since the mid-1970s I’ve had the pleasure of asking scores of venerable, veteran singers and musicians about their life histories or artistic autobiographies as performers. In 1989, seventy-six year old Sylvester Romel—from whom Alan Lomax recorded a song in 1938 about a Polish immigrant mill worker’s misfortunes—told me that he’d learned the song from his mother, Anna Losinski Romel, while they were milking cows: “She was a good singer. She did know, oh, about a hundred songs. And not from papers, she had that in her head. Just like we did . . . That’s the only way.” Such first-hand accounts are the only way to acquire those missing folk musical details, and collectively Syl Romel and kindred performers, through eloquent interviews, provided the small essential fragments from which I was able to form a big regional picture.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Bud Kliment’s OHR review of my book sagely calls attention to the close relationship between folksong and life history recordings that emerged in the 1930s through the Works Progress Administration, especially the Federal Writers’ Project. The overarching goal of Depression-era songcatchers and oral historians was to document America’s many voices through the experiences of diverse working people expressed in their songs, tunes, stories, and vernacular observations. My efforts draw on a series of interviews augmented by contemporary digital tools—including sound restoration, genealogical databases, and newspaper search engines—to extend and illuminate nearly forgotten oral historical evidence establishing the enduring contributions of Indigenous and immigrant performers to American life and culture.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

When Folksongs of Another America was published, I was heartened by many thoughtful reviews, including one from the Los Angeles Times confessing astonishment at the English, French Canadian, German, Irish, Norwegian, Ojibwe, Swedish, Swiss, and other strands suffusing the repertoires of woods workers: “Who knew that the songs of Wisconsin lumberjacks were as odd and singular as the stuff being made in Appalachia or the Mississippi delta?” As a hardcore populist, pluralist, and progressive from the Upper Midwest, I want readers to know that this region is as varied and worthy of attention as any other, and its essence can be found in the lives, words, and songs of its people.