Ethnic Music in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan Collection, 1979-1986



Marina Lachecki, then Community Specialist at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, initiated the project and directed its first year, 1979-1980. Folklorist James P. Leary, a consultant during the first year, coordinated the project during its second year, 1980-1981, and the later production of the commercial recording Accordions in the Cutover. Stuart Lang, then Professor of History and Native American Studies at Northland College, administered the first two National Endowment for the Arts grants that supported the first two years, while Leary administered a third National Endowment for the Arts grant that supported creation of Accordions in the Cutover. During the first year, Joel Glickman, a Music professor at Northland, supervised fieldworkers Lachecki, Leary, and Music major Matthew Gallmann. Gallmann in turn coordinated a team of student fieldworkers that included Sara Poynter, Robert Savignac, Matt O'Claire, Siaki Leaso, Joe Dan Rose, Terri Heinrich, and Cathy Mosher. Consultants included Frederic Lieberman, Ellen J. Stekert, Thomas Vennum Jr., Richard March, and Frank J. Gillis as well as Leary. Matthew Gallmann assisted Leary with fieldwork, and Marina Lachecki with archiving-related aspects of the documentation, during the second year. An advisory council consisting of community leaders, musicians, and regional research specialists informed the project and contributed to its success. Joseph M. Rose, then Director of Native American Studies at Northland College, led a separate, concurrent research project regarding local Ojibwa musical traditions as part of the overall documentary effort, that is not described here.

Project History

James P. Leary's 30-page “Ethnic Music in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan: A Final Project Report,” completed September 30, 1981, provides a brief summary of the first year of the project, “Documentation of Traditional Music in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan.” He writes:

In 1979 Northland College of Ashland, Wisconsin received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to document traditional music in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Aided by consulting folklorists and ethnomusicologists, Northland College staff members identified over one hundred “contacts” in the region and interviewed forty of them. Notes and indexes were written for each tape, and a sound archive at Northland was established for these materials. Numerous public presentations on traditional music also were made by the project's participants.

Leary's report gives a fuller review of the second year's project goals, activities, and results. Funded with a second grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, this follow-up project, “Documentation and Presentation of Traditional Music in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan,” increased Northland College's “holdings of background materials relevant to the region's traditional music,” by assembling over 100 relevant publications and commercial recordings on traditional music, from standard introductory works to popular songbooks, classic ethnic American studies, unpublished writings of local scholars, a host of older to contemporary commercial and private musical recordings, and newspaper clippings.

Assisted by Northland Music student Matthew Gallmann, Leary also expanded the list of potential contacts with 90 new singers and musicians identified from 13 different ethnic backgrounds. From the new list of nearly 200 contacts, they produced over 100 hours of recorded music and interviews from 62 musicians and groups. Leary first concentrated on Ashland and outlying rural areas where Bohemians, Poles, Swedes, Norwegians, Slovaks, Finns, Russians, Hungarians, Germans, and Swiss had settled. A second focus was on Finnish-American musicians throughout the broader northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan region, following up on Gallmann's prior work with this most populous and musically vital group. Often visiting each musician more than once, they sought life histories, obtained information about the transmission, performance, aesthetics, context, and function of the music, and prepared detailed notes and indexes from the interviews. A third documentary component took place at the North Country Folk Festival in July 1981. Festival staff made recordings, notes, and indexes of performances by musicians from the Ironwood, Michigan/Hurley, Wisconsin area, while Leary prepared their preliminary biographies.

Another project accomplishment resulted in the cataloguing and indexing of all project materials, together with project materials from a contemporaneous Ethnic Heritage project, as a distinct archival collection called the “Ethnic Heritage Sound Archive and Resource Center,” housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society's Area Research Center at Northland's Dexter Library. A gift from Florence Bohlman, from the estate of her parents, Vere P. and Rosa M. McDowell, supported Marina Lachecki as part-time archivist in 1981-82 to duplicate and index the collection's recordings and further the archive's mission to make the collection available to the area's residents, recorded musicians, and researchers.

Throughout the course of the project's second year, Leary and other staff encouraged public performance and local documentation of traditional music in the area through feature articles in regional publications, radio and TV appearances, slide lectures, and community workshops. Staff assisted several community organizations with festival programs, posters, and performer honoraria. Leary published a series of ethnic music and documentation articles in the regional journal North Country Folk, and a 24-page booklet, A Beginning Fieldworker's Guide to European Ethnic Music in Northern Wisconsin. Leary's final report for the project lists project personnel, people interviewed, research collection publications and commercial recordings assembled, newspaper articles that document the project, and the project's public activities.

Finally, a third National Endowment for the Arts grant supported release of selected project recordings on a double LP, Accordions in the Cutover: Field Recordings of Ethnic Music from Lake Superior's South Shore, published in 1986 by the Wisconsin Folklife Center in partnership with Northland College. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Folklore Program obtained the rights to this recording and remaining stock in 1996.