Folk Songs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946.
Polka Heartland: Why the Midwest Loves to Polka. Photos by Dick Blau, text by Rick March. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015. [200 p. ISBN 9780870207228 (hardcover), $29.95; ISBN 9780870207235 (e-book), varies.] Bibliography, notes, index, illustrations.
The Upper Midwest is a region rich in musical traditions, but it is not as well studied as other areas of the country. So it is very fortunate that we have these two new books that enlighten us about the music of the region. At first glance, Folk Songs of Another America resembles a book, but it is primarily a collection of five compact discs and a DVD, all bound in a book-like container with extensive liner notes. The recordings were made in the Upper Midwest in the first half of the twentieth century by the well-known folk collectors Sidney Robertson [Cowell] (1903-1995) and Alan Lomax (1915-2002), as well as the lesser-known student apprentice Helene Stratman-Thomas (1896-1973).
These researchers, equipped with "federal support from the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, recorded nearly two thousand traditional performances in more than twenty-five languages from representative musicians and singers in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin" (p. 2). The present work contains 174 audio samples as well as a twenty-four-minute documentary film with twelve additional selections. These recordings document the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual music of the region.
Making a similar argument as in his earlier book, Polkabilly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Leary states, "America's Upper Midwest emerges from these field recordings as a distinctive American region wherein, from the nineteenth century through the 1940s, a remarkable array of American Indian, Anglo-American, African American, and especially non-Anglo-European peoples maintained, modified, borrowed, merged, and composed songs and tunes from their respective and frequently shared folksong traditions ... the depth and breadth of the Upper Midwest's folksong traditions, so complex and 'so mixed,' have remained elusive and almost forgotten" (p. 3). He explains that previous publications emphasized English-language performances exclusively, ignoring the majority of the recorded material. The title of Leary's latest book is explained by his description of it as a "redemptive counter-cultural project" that "effectively challenges and considerably broadens our understanding of folk music in American culture" (p. 4).
Each of the six chapters corresponds to one of the discs in the collection. The first chapter, called "Pigtown Fling," documents twenty-eight pieces collected by Robertson in 1937. This collection includes performances by French Canadians, lumberjacks, Gaelic Scots, Serbians, and Finns. The second chapter, "River in the Pines," contains descriptions of twenty-two pieces collected at the National Folk Festivals in Chicago in 1937 by Robertson and in 1938 in Washington, D.C. by Lomax. Robertson captured live performances on stage, while Lomax made his recordings under studio conditions at the Library of Congress. They both recorded mostly the same performers from Wisconsin, who were organized by Otto Rindlisbacher (1895-1975) from Rice Lake. Rindlisbacher, of Swiss-German descent, was a master of many of the ethnic styles from the region. The recordings include performances on accordion and Hardanger fiddle, as well as on instruments mostly hand made by Rindlisbacher: the cigar-box fiddle, Paul Bunyan harp, "Viking cello" made from a pitchfork (psalmodikon), and birch bark horn. There are also songs and recitations in French Canadian and "Scandihoovian" dialects, and yodeling. These selections demonstrate the extensive mixing of ethnic traditions in Northern Wisconsin.
The third chapter, "Harps and Accordions," features forty-two selections from Lomax's 1938 fieldwork in the Upper Midwest. They include Ojibwe fiddling as well as French Canadian, lumberjack, German. Polish, and Finnish traditions. The fourth chapter describes the documentary video on the DVD, which was compiled front silent film clips made by Lomax during his fieldwork. These color film clips include the lumberjacks from Wisconsin, Serbs from Detroit, Croatians from Copper Country, French Canadians from Baraga, and Finns of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. For each film clip, Leary selected appropriate accompanying music and spoken passages from Lomax's correspondence, read by fellow Texan Bill C. Malone. In six weeks time, Lomax recorded "about a thousand songs," yet felt that "there was enough material ill the region for years of work" (p. 185).
The final two chapters document field recordings of Stratman-Thomas. At the time of her fieldwork, she was a graduate student in the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin. Lomax had contacted the Dean there and encouraged further field research in Wisconsin, offering to provide the recording equipment. Stratman-Thomas completed three collecting journeys throughout Wisconsin in the summers of 1940, 1941 and 1946, making more than seven hundred recordings. The first selection of her recordings, described in a chapter entitled "When the Dance is Over," documents Native American, French Canadian, Belgian, Cornish, Welsh, African American, Anglo-American, lumberjack, and Irish American traditions. The second part, "My Father was a Dutchman," includes samples of German, Austrian, Swiss, Luxemburger, Dutch, Italian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Lithuanian, Finnish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic traditions.
For each recording, this collection contains thorough and extensive descriptions of the performers, and transcriptions of the songs in their original languages, together with English translations. Interspersed in the text are numerous illustrations of the performers and their instruments. The documentation alone stands as an important history and ethnography, but the greatest value comes from listening to the recordings and reading about them in detail. Although the book contains fewer than ten percent of the total recordings made by these collectors, Lean 's sample and accompanying documentation vividly bring to life a full picture of the musical traditions of the Upper Midwest.
Polka Heartland, by Dick Blau and Rick March, is a study of the polka culture of Wisconsin. Blau participated in an earlier landmark polka study with etlinomusicologist Charles Keil and his wife Angeliki, published as Polka Happiness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992). As with the earlier book, the present stitch relies heavily on compelling photographs of polka musicians and dancers in action-but here mostly in color. March also adds a narrative giving the history and ethnography of these traditions. As a former Wisconsin State Folklorist and polka musician, March produced a series of (Ds of "dance music from the Midwest" for the Smithsonian Institution's Folkways Records (Deep Polka, SFW 40088 ; Deeper Polka, SFW 40140 ). The present study allows him to go further in depth specifically with Wisconsin traditions.
The first three chapters cover the background and history of polka. March describes the multi-ethic nature of polka, its recognized quality as "happy" music, and the passionate devotion to the dance by "polka people." Today, polka is practiced mostly through clubs and festivals by an aging population. March recounts numerous stories of polka's origins, its rise during an era of romantic nationalism to become the most popular dance in Europe, and its dissemination to America by immigrants, who developed their own varieties of polka defined by ethnic heritage. In America, the polka became associated with the accordion, yet it remained a part of other ethnic musics practiced by Scandinavian, Finnish American, and Mexican American cultures, as well as Serbian and Croatian tamburitzans. At the same time it also became part of a mixed regional identity. As March states in his commentary, "The mixed-ethnic participation shows that polka is both ethnic and regional. While each polka style may have an ethic name, polka is enjoyed by musicians and dancers who think of it as part of their Midwestern regional tradition" (p. 53).
The next five chapters cover various styles of polka (Bohemian, Dutch, Polish, Slovenian, and Mexican) in detail. In each of these chapters, March and Blau explore specific places and events to illustrate how these styles exist in contemporary fife. Marsh explains their contexts and histories and includes descriptions of nationally renowned musicians such as "Whoopee" John Wilfahrt (1892 or 1893-1962), Walter E. (Li'l Wally) Jagiello, Eddie Blazonczyk, and Frankie Yankovic, together with many local musicians who helped disseminate these styles. Each chapter is lavishly illustrated with contemporary and historical photographs. Between each chapter is a short "Polka Interlude" that highlights related topics such as differences between the concertina and the accordion, the connection between beer and polka, and the experience of the polka Mass. In the final chapter, Marsh touches on new directions in polka, considering such topics as evolution in polka styles, changes in contexts, and perpetuation of the tradition through family bands.
Polka Heartland serves a dual purpose. It is both a "coffee table book" that would be enjoyed by a general audience interested in the photographs and vignettes of the musicians and dancers, and a solid academic study of polka, particularly as seen in Wisconsin but also strongly applicable to polka throughout the United States. Both Polka Heartland and Folk Songs of Another America not only fill gaps in scholarly materials that document the traditional and popular music of the Upper Midwest, but more generally represent valuable additions to the literature on American music.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
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|Title Annotation:||Polka Heartland: Why the Midwest Loves to Polka|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2017|
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