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American Folklife Center Collections: Michigan

This guide provides access to ethnographic resources documenting expressive culture in the state of Michigan at the Library of Congress.

Introduction

Alan Lomax, filmmaker. Aapo Juhani playing the accordion. Screenshot from film footage shot by Alan Lomax during his fieldwork in Michigan in 1938-1939. Archive of American Folk Song films, 1936-1942 (AFC 1990/017). Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

The collections of the American Folklife Center contain rich and varied materials from Michigan that document the diversity of the state's folk traditions. Among its unique recordings are cylinders of Ottawa Indian music and speech; Finnish immigrant songs and folklore; Lithuanian folk music; interviews with migrant farm workers; lumber camp songs; Detroit blues music; Irish music and songs, and Great Lakes ballads.

Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings

In 1938 the Library of Congress dispatched the pioneering folklorist and song collector Alan Lomax—already a seasoned field worker at age 23—to conduct a folk song survey of the Great Lakes region. He traveled in a 1935 Plymouth sedan, toting a Presto disc recorder and a movie camera. When he returned nearly three months later, having driven thousands of miles on barely paved roads, it was with a cache of 250 instantaneous discs and eight reels of film documenting the incredible range of ethnic diversity and expressive traditions primarily in Michigan.

The Alan Lomax collection of Michigan and Wisconsin recordings (AFC 1939/007) documents Irish, Italian, Finnish, Serbian, Lithuanian, Polish, German, Croatian, French Canadian, Hungarian, Romanian, and Swedish songs and stories, as well as occupational folklife among loggers and lake sailors in Michigan and Wisconsin. Lomax’s itinerary took him from Detroit through the Saginaw River valley to the northern counties of the Lower Peninsula, including Beaver Island. Crossing the Straits of Mackinac, he collected across the Upper Peninsula to the far northern Calumet area and then along the Lake Superior coast to easternmost Wisconsin. Recordings of Aapo Juhani playing Finnish music (pictured) are available in this collection.

In addition to the recordings presented online, field notes and other manuscript materials from the Michigan trip are available online in the Alan Lomax Collection manuscripts. Alan Lomax shot silent film footage of some of the people who performed for him (part of Archive of American Folk Song films, 1936-1942, AFC 1990/017). This film footage is available in the American Folklife Center's reading room.

Additional Collections of Interest

The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to digital content are provided when available.

Podcasts and Blog Posts

Public Programming

In 2013 folklorist Jim Leary gave a talk at the Library of Congress, calling attention to historic field recording collection from America's Upper Midwest. This a distinctive region wherein a staggering array of indigenous, immigrant and enslaved peoples have collectively maintained, merged and modified their folk song traditions for more than two centuries. During the 1930s and 1940s, Sidney Robertson Cowell, Alan Lomax and Helene Stratman Thomas set up field studios in homes, hotels, community halls, church basements and parks throughout Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin to record roughly 2000 folksongs and tunes. Since the late 1970s, working incrementally with many generous individuals, partners, and organizations, folklorist Jim Leary has been part of a movement bent on bringing this body of extraordinary folk music of the Upper Midwest to the attention of the larger public. This talk occured shortly before the publication of Leary's 2014 book, Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946.