From Shantyboys to Powwows: Folk and Ethnic Material in Music Archives

On the Banks of the Wisconsin where the limpid waters flow,
We’ll tell our wild adventures and once more a-lumbering go.

Photo of Helene Stratman-Thomas, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society
Wisconsin Historical Society
In the 1940s, Helene Stratman-Thomas recorded more than 700 songs by Wisconsin musicians.

In 1919, Harvard-trained Franz Rickaby tramped through the forests of the Upper Midwest, pen and paper in hand, documenting the songs that celebrated those “wild adventures” of the lumberjack, or shantyboy. Rickaby’s efforts were presented in a groundbreaking volume published in 1926 titled, Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy, texts and tunes gathered on his trip through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. His journey also spawned an engaging and descriptive journal which is as priceless as the songs he gathered.

But Rickaby was not the first researcher to seek out the riches of Wisconsin’s folk music, and lumberjack songs are just one of many interesting musical topics and genres which have blossomed here. The story of Wisconsin’s “songcatchers” includes Frances Densmore who visited Minnesota and Wisconsin Chippewa communities in the first decade of the twentieth century to study their music and transcribe it into traditional musical notation. Densmore devoted her life to the exploration of Native American music across the United States and authored significant publications of her research among the Chippewa, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, and Winnebago tribes of Wisconsin.

Following the pioneering efforts of Densmore and Rickaby, other folklorists crisscrossed the state. In the 1930s, Asher Treat discovered and wrote about Kentucky folksongs transplanted to Wisconsin. In 1937, Sidney Robertson made field recordings of Wisconsin folk musicians only slightly before the indefatigable Alan Lomax. Helene Stratman-Thomas undertook a major folksong collecting project in the 1940s, recording over 700 songs and tunes by Wisconsin singers and instrumentalists.
Successive decades witnessed continued interest by both scholars and enthusiasts in documenting and interpreting Wisconsin’s folk music traditions, an interest which has continued unabated to the present day.

The Wisconsin Music Archives, a repository which holds the resources of these and many other studies and publications related to Wisconsin’s folk and ethnic music, is a special collection in the Mills Music Library of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since its inception in the late 1970s, the Archives has gathered music and other resources which illustrate and define Wisconsin’s musical activity from pre-statehood to the present. To that end, the Archives actively collects materials in all of the state’s musical traditions, including folk, ethnic, popular, jazz, and classical.

Although the Wisconsin Music Archives’ collections are broad-based, its holdings are especially rich in the state’s folk and ethnic music. Tape recordings of regional folk festivals, polka records of the Cuca Record Company, broadcasts from public radio’s Down Home Dairyland, books, periodicals, photographs, and resources relating to the Germans, the Norwegians, and the Swiss all constitute part of the Archives and represent its ongoing effort to document and preserve Wisconsin’s musical traditions, from the wigwams and lumbercamps of the past to the present day.

With the music of our axes we make the woods resound, And often time we laugh so hard we tumble to the ground. And at night around our good campfire we’ll sing while the wild winds blow, And we’ll tell our wild adventures and once more a-lumbering go.
Lewis Winfield Moody, 1940

Steve Sundell is Curator of the Wisconsin Music Archives housed at Mills Music Library, UW–Madison.

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Last updated: February 25, 2004