In the fall of 1938, America’s greatest folklorist, Alan Lomax, embarked on a race-against-time mission to document the voices of Michigan’s cultural and musical melting pot before they disappeared forever. From Detroit, to Traverse City and Charlevoix, to lastly trekking across the Upper Peninsula, Lomax’s documentation of Michigan’s folk music was instrumental to the Library of Congress’ research into the cultural heritage of the state. The following story was first featured in the 2014 April edition of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Alan Lomax had only been in Detroit a week, but his car had already been broken into—twice. On the evening of August 8th, after a late night of recording Hungarian folk singers in the city’s Delray neighborhood, someone muscled his way into Alan’s 1935 Plymouth Deluxe four-door and stole the recording head from a newly purchased Presto instantaneous disc recorder. Then, a day later, thieves stole what was left of the Presto, along with Alan’s guitar. For a man who had come to the Upper Great Lakes on a mission to record first-hand the yet undocumented folklife of the region, the theft was a blow that put the entire trip on hold. “The tale of my disasters in the past few days is almost epic,” read a brief telegram from a distressed Alan to his boss back in Washington, D.C. “Indeed, if I were a voodooist, I should certainly now be consulting a doctor, and he would be bathing me in some decoction or other.”
This was not yet the Alan Lomax who discovered the great bluesman Muddy Waters. Or who would be the first person to record Woody Guthrie. Nor the self-exiled expatriate who had arguably and accidentally planted the seeds for rock’s British Invasion by bringing southern black American music to England in the early 1950s.
Those, and other titles for the man who is considered without much argument the most important American folklorist of the 20th century, would all lie years ahead. But in the late 1930s, at age 23, Lomax was a mere servant of the Library of Congress. His matter-of-fact title was simply the “Assistant In Charge.” His domain: A fledgling division of the library known as the Archive of American Folk-Song, for which he traveled the country in a near-obsessive, race-against-time mission to document a diverse and disappearing American folklife that he and others felt was being eradicated by the no-longer-slow march of mass technology.
Early tours of the country by Lomax and his famous folklorist father, John A. Lomax, had populated the library’s archive with stories and sounds primarily from the American South. Such “field trips” yielded thousands of recordings and stories from salt-of-the-earth performers, real-life cowboys, radical balladeers, and verbose and colorful raconteurs. Some, like the folk and blues musician Lead Belly, who Alan and his father discovered in a Louisiana prison, even went on to become folk heroes of national renown. But the library’s archive was still full of holes. Though the Lomaxes had recorded hundreds of discs over numerous years, parts of the country, like the upper Midwest, still stood as great unexplored voids. It was with this in mind that the library dispatched its Assistant In Charge for a three-month, three-state mission in August 1938, during which Alan would survey folklife in the Upper Great Lakes across Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Watch a Video of Northern Michigan Students Rehearsing for a Lomax-inspired Concert:
Alan’s brush with the voodoo of Detroit would not, it turned out, telegraph the tenor of his Great Lakes journey. Even before his bad luck struck, Alan had already had a string of good days recording in the cultural melting pot that was 1930s Detroit. Shortly after his arrival, the tall, tactful Texan with an audible accent ventured into Detroit’s Serbian neighborhood along the river, the library’s Presto recorder spinning steadily as Serbian workers played and sang songs in the “shadow of a Chrysler plant.”
The following day, Lomax found himself a guest at a Polish-Serbian wedding in nearby Hamtramck, an experience that left Alan in a state of “musical vertigo” as the sounds of the Old Country mixed and melded with the younger generation’s furious appetite for American jazz. “Really I could stay here in Detroit for a couple of months and never run out of material,” he noted in his journal. The call of future adventures farther north and a quickly dispatched replacement recorder from the library, however, put future sessions in Detroit on hold. “The machine received this morning in good condition,” Lomax telegrammed to D.C. headquarters. “Am off for what I hope will be a fruitful trip. Next address, until changed, General Delivery, Charlevoix, Mich. Many, many thanks.”
On the way north to Charlevoix came, among other things, short stays in the Mount Pleasant area, where Alan recorded stories from Saginaw lumberjacks and a few tales about an emerging folk hero named Paul Bunyan. Once in the North, he caught the ferry to Beaver Island. The isle’s Irish immigrants spun stories of Lake Michigan shipwrecks over a complimentary round of drinks; after a few more drinks came a slew of bawdy songs with titles like “No Balls At All.” “Irishmen, fishermen, sailormen, lumberjacks + their ballads. … This country + the people are very photogenic,” Alan wrote. “The only trouble with these Irish is that they take more treating than any group I’ve struck. It may be that I’ll need another $50 advance.” Days later, the scene was repeated at a Union Street bar in Traverse City, where the drinks and songs flowed as fast as the library’s tab would allow.
Only a month had elapsed since Alan’s string of mixed luck in Detroit, but the Michigan field trip was already proving more fruitful than Alan or anyone at the library had anticipated. Perhaps it was because Alan himself was a Southerner, but the unspoken assumption of the library’s work up to this point was that the richest material might lie in the American South. But a folk-life that rivaled the South in content and eclipsed it in diversity had quietly taken shape in the Upper Midwest. There, Europeans from dozens of countries had immigrated during the preceding decades, many to work in the booming mining industry in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Much of that cultural richness still lay intact in 1938. Indeed, when Alan and his Plymouth floated on the ferry across the Straits on September 7, he was on his way to an undocumented world that, in many ways, was every bit the ethnic melting pot of the urban East.
Fresh off the boat, Alan used his 1938 Texaco road map for a guide, following the network of red and blue lines, which indicated roads that were at least semi-surfaced. He spent a few days in St. Ignace, recording 10 discs of logging songs and Great Lakes sea shanties unknown outside the region before making a mad dash for Michigan’s Copper Country. There, among the wooded hills of Michigan’s remote northern half, Lomax found an urbanlike quilt of immigrant nationalities that seemed to defy explanation. Encouraged by a fortified libations allowance from the library, performers from Finland, Lithuania, Italy, France, Croatia, Norway, Sweden, Poland and Slovenia all sang and played into the Presto’s microphone. Alan himself was overcome with the excitement of a 16th-century explorer: “Am getting such grand stuff can’t afford to leave,” Alan wired the office back in Washington. “In many ways it is the most interesting country I have ever traveled in.”
Lomax would spend five weeks in all in the Upper Peninsula, finally emerging on the Wisconsin side in early October. The allotted time for the entire Great Lakes mission, which was to include neighboring states, was now almost up. As if on a scavenger hunt, he had followed every lead about where to find willing performers, strategy that usually ran counter to good time management and geographical prudence. Despite the fact the Upper Peninsula only spans about 300 miles east to west and 100 miles north to south, Alan managed to add more than 2,300 miles to the Plymouth’s odometer in just 26 days. Now, running low on funds and time, Alan’s boss at the library subtly prodded him about firming up a return date. As long as he could, Alan deflected or ignored the appeals. In the end, Lomax had to take solace in the idea of a return trip to the region the following summer. The timely completion of his mission, it seemed, had been compromised by the ethnic majesty that was Upper Michigan.
The legacy of that Michigan trip now lay in 250 discs, six linear inches of notes and correspondence, eight reels of film footage and a handful of photographs that Lomax had been careful to ship back to headquarters from points along the way. More importantly, it represented a huge step forward in the library’s larger mission to document the disappearing folk-life of the country. In the course of three months, Lomax had made sure that Michigan, at least, was no longer completely unknown territory.
Lomax never did make that return trip to the region, though his work over the next half century, both in the United States and abroad, would make him the most renowned American folklorist of the century. Like Lomax’s own legacy, that of his recordings grows more important with each passing year. He and the library’s predictions that mass media would largely eradicate the cultural diversity of the old America have largely proven true. For Michiganders, however, there is still a clear view of the past, thanks to a few month’s work by the Assistant in Charge.