Online Collection Showcases Wisconsin Folksongs From the Thirties and Forties

Friends Newsletter Fall 2005 vol. 3 no. 2

| Director's Column | Documentary Discs | Wisconsin Folksong Digital Collection | NHPRC Regional Survey |
| Oneida Narratives | Ja, de elsker |

Online Collection Showcases Wisconsin Folksongs From the Thirties and Forties

Mrs. Ollie Jacobs 1941, photo taken by Helene Stratman-Thomas and courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Image ID, 25177

A new digital collection of Wisconsin folksongs provides a rare glimpse into the state’s cultural evolution. The Wisconsin Folksong Collection, 1937-1946 features sound recordings, field notes, and photographs from two collectors who recorded more than 900 songs and tunes representing more than thirty ethnic or geographical sources. The collection’s URL is

The recordings were gathered at a time when the state was not yet a century old. “There were many still-active singers and musicians whose traditions were rooted in Woodland Indian ways of life, in European village celebration, in lumber camp entertainments, and in the festivities of preindustrialized and small-town existence. At the same time, private and public schooling in music, printed song books, phonograph records, radios, and ‘opera houses’ hosting traveling professionals were engendering vernacular syntheses of folk and popular musical cultures” (Leary, Wisconsin Folklore, 19).

The digital collection contains documentation made by UW-Madison faculty member Helene Stratman-Thomas as part of the Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project, co-sponsored by the University of Wisconsin and the Library of Congress during the summers of 1940, 1941, and 1946; and by song catcher Sidney Robertson Cowell during the summer of 1937 for the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration. There are also transcribed melodies, lyrics, performance photographs, and critical commentary listing concordant sources for some tunes and excerpts of the collectors’ field notes.

Listeners will hear everything from strikingly beautiful hymns sung the members of the Oneida Methodist and Episcopal Churches to tunes played by a Psalmodikon quartet (Psalmodikons are one-stringed instruments originally intended to be used alone to lead the singing in Norway schools). While vocal music predominates, instruments such as the accordion, guitar, Hardanger fiddle, and tamburica can also be heard.
The Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures (CSUMC) provided production help with the project, a joint effort by the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center (UWDCC) and Mills Music Library at University of Wisconsin–Madison. CSUMC was also involved in producing an educational websites that provides detailed information about the collectors, performers, and recording trips. The site highlighting the 1937 trips can be found at and the site for the 1940s trips is at

Nicole Saylor is Folklorist and Archivist at the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.

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