DETROIT – Detroit is famous for its music, from the Motown hits of the 1960s to the cutting-edge punk of Iggy Pop to the rap of Eminem. Little known, though, is that Michigan was also fertile ground for folk music, brought to the region by immigrants in the early 20th century and played in the logging camps, mines and factory towns where they worked.
Legendary folklorist Alan Lomax discovered the music in 1938 when he visited the Midwest on his famous 10-year cross-country trek to document American folk music for the Library of Congress.
A trove of his Michigan recordings is now being publicly released for the first time by the library, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Lomax’s trip. The release is causing a stir among folk music fanciers and history buffs.
“It was a fantastic field trip – hardly anything has been published from it,” said Todd Harvey, the Lomax collection’s curator at the library in Washington. The Michigan batch contains about 900 tracks and represents a dozen ethnicities.
Lomax, son of famous musicologist John A. Lomax, spent three months in Michigan on his research, which also took him through Appalachia and the deep South. He drove through rural communities and recorded the work songs and folk tunes he heard on a large suitcase-sized disc recorder powered by his car’s battery.
The trip was supposed to cover much of the Upper Midwest, but he found so much in Michigan that he made only a few recordings elsewhere in the region.
The collection includes acoustic blues from southern transplants, including Sampson Pittman and one-time Robert Johnson collaborator Calvin Frazier; a lumberjack ballad called “Michigan-I-O” sung solo by an old logger named Lester Wells; and a similar lament about life deep in the copper mines of the Upper Peninsula called “31st Level Blues,” performed by the Floriani family, who were of Croatian descent.
The 250 disc recordings of about 125 performers, along with eight reels of film footage and photographs, reflect the rich mixture of cultures in Depression-era Michigan, where immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution in Europe and the South came seeking jobs.
Natives of French-speaking Canada, Finland, Italy, Croatia, Germany, Poland, Ireland and Hungary perform the songs, which represent 10 languages.
John and Alan Lomax’s archives at the library’s American Folklife Center encompass 10,000 sound recordings and 6,000 graphic images, documenting creative expression by cultural groups around the world.
Most famous were the field recordings made in the South, including those of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters and Son House.
“This fills in a big chunk of the top half of the middle section of the country,” says Laurie Sommers, an ethnomusicologist who serves as Michigan’s program coordinator for the Lomax project. “Now you have the stories and the sounds of sailors, miners and lumberjacks, ethnic communities who came to work ... and brought their traditions with them.”
One example is Exilia Bellaire, a woman from the Upper Peninsula community of Baraga who recorded “I Went to Marquette.” It’s sung in a mixture of French and English, and Harvey said the song is one of many that “captures (what) occurs when cultures interact with one another.”
Lomax’s Michigan research proved to be challenging. Thieves twice broke into his car and stole equipment and films, and performers would hound him for money or liquor in exchange for recording them. He frequently requested more money from headquarters, in part, he wrote, because “songs in (Michigan) absolutely require beer.”
The recordings weren’t released at the time, in part because the late 1930s were a time of growing suspicion of non-English speaking immigrants in the United States, said Sommers.
Now, the library is releasing a podcast and an e-book, and the University of Wisconsin is releasing a multi-CD set. A traveling exhibit with live concerts will begin Sept. 30 in Mount Pleasant, about 120 miles northwest of Detroit.
Sampson Pittman Jr., 77, son of the blues artist Lomax recorded during his final Michigan session, said it’s fascinating for him to hear the collaborations between Frazier, whom he called “Uncle Calvin,” and the father he lost at 8 years old.
“I started out playing the kind of music I heard him playing,” said Pittman, who has carried the torch as a longtime blues guitarist. “They would tell these stories through the music.”