Helene Stratman-Thomas with performer Harry G. Dyer; Madison, about 1941.
Between 1940 and 1946, the Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project, co-sponsored by the University of Wisconsin and the Library of Congress, sent School of Music voice faculty member Helene Stratman-Thomas (1896-1973) on collecting expeditions around Wisconsin to record and document the folk music and folklife that reflected the colorful pattern of immigration and occupational development in the state. The Wisconsin project was one of several state- and federally-sponsored programs that flourished during the period, inspired by those of Alan Lomax and his father, pioneering folklorist John A. Lomax.
Stratman-Thomas spent the summers of 1940, 1941, and 1946 with a SoundScriber instantaneous recorder, eight-inch yellow shellac discs, and a microphone, collecting more than 800 performances representing over thirty Euro-, Native-, and African-American traditions, from forty-one counties in every region of the state. The recordings include songs in English and more than forty foreign and native-American languages, as well as performances on such folk instruments as the Norwegian psalmodicon and Hardanger fiddle, and the Croatian tamburica. The collection is especially rich in the music of Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Cornish, French-Canadian, and German immigrants. It also contains occupational songs by lumberjacks, sailors, miners, railroad men, and cranberry pickers; and Appalachian music performed by Kentuckians who settled in northern Wisconsin. In addition, Stratman-Thomas captured dance music, square dance calls, poems, stories, recitations, reminiscences, and even recipes!
To document the recordings, Stratman-Thomas took field notes and photographs, transcribed melodies, translated lyrics, and corresponded with performers, creating an impressive and important ethnographic field collection. Copies of her recordings and field notes were deposited with the Archive of Folk Culture (now the American Folklife Center) at the Library of Congress, which produced “Folk Music from Wisconsin,” a commercial recording offering a sampling of the music she collected.
Stratman-Thomas continued transcribing recordings and communicating with performers until her death in 1973, after which Harry B. Peters, a UW faculty member, was asked by Stratman-Thomas’s husband to complete her work. In 1977, Peters edited Folk Songs Out of Wisconsin, published by the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and included many of Stratman-Thomas’s English-language songs.
Mills Music Library is the recipient of a 2004 grant from the Brittingham Foundation to process The Helene Stratman-Thomas Collection, one of the highlights of the Music Library’s special collections. In addition to Stratman-Thomas’s original recordings and recording equipment, the collection contains thirty-six boxes of field notes, documentation, photographs, and correspondence, as well as materials related to her activities as faculty member at the University of Wisconsin School of Music and her personal papers.
The project team—co-directors Geri Laudati and Steve Sundell, School of Library and Information Studies students Nicole Saylor and Lisa Saywell, and D.M.A. candidate Matthew Bishop—will develop a web site that includes an inventory of the collection; narrative on the performers, instruments, and cultures; and images of performers, performances, and important documents. The site will complement the Library of Congress American Folklife Center’s online archival collection pages and will be linked to the Music Library’s Wisconsin Folksong Database, which currently includes basic information about each performance. Sound files, texts and translations (where applicable), and melodic notations for each performance will be provided as part of the project. Also to be developed is an interactive map of Wisconsin that will permit users to identify and retrieve materials collected by location. Finally, but of equal importance, materials from the collection will be assessed for preservation/conservation treatment and action taken as necessary. Ideally, the bulk of the work will be finished within the year.
In his 1987 introduction to The Wisconsin Patchwork: A Companion to the Radio Program Based on the Field Recordings of Helene Stratman-Thomas, Professor James P. Leary wrote “although Helene Stratman-Thomas was neither the first nor the most prolific collector of Wisconsin folk musical culture, she is the most significant.” To date, her materials have provided content for at least two commercial recordings, countless radio broadcasts, and a book. The current project will permit contextual access to the wealth of materials she gathered and provide anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, folklorists, geographers, historians, and linguists yet another insight into the region’s peoples.
Geri Laudati is director of the Mills Music Library at UW–Madison.