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Ethnic Music of Northern Wisconsin and Michigan: Digital Collection of the people, for the people

May 22, 2020

The Ethnic Music in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan Collection is one of the collections within Local Centers/Global Sounds: Historic Recordings and Midwestern Musical Vernaculars, our collaboration with the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures that is hosted by the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center. It comprises material gathered by Jim Leary and his colleagues as part of a survey of traditional music spanning the northern tier of counties in Wisconsin and the western upper peninsula of Michigan along Lake Superior’s south shore undertaken between 1979-1981, and during the five years that followed. This work was done with support from Northland College and the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Numerous community members, folklorists, ethnomusicologists, regional research specialists, and Northland College students contributed to the survey, which resulted in 200 potential contacts and recorded interviews with over 100 musicians. Field and commercial recordings, field notes, color slides, and secondary resource materials obtained during the project represent the region’s mix of European ethnic musical traditions including Cornish, Bohemian, Croatian, Finnish, French-Canadian, German, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Scotch-Irish, Slovenian, Slovak, Swedish, Swiss, and Ukrainian immigrant sacred and secular music, singers, instrumentalists, dance hall veterans, and private soloists. Project outreach included public presentations, media appearances, workshops on ethnographic documentation, and collaboration with community groups and organizers of local festivals, in addition to publications that drew from the documentation. The 1986 release of the commercial recording Accordions in the Cutover completed the project.

Jim Leary recently notified us that Clawhammer Mike–the pseudonym of Mike Sawyer, a musician in St. Paul, Minnesota who Leary helped years ago with his Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project and who participated in the 2018 World Records Symposium presented by the Sustaining Scandinavian Folk Arts in the Upper Midwest project–has transcribed “Shoemakers’ Waltz,” a tune performed on accordion by Finnish-American musician Matt Saari and recorded by Leary and Matthew Gallmann in Maple, Wisconsin, February 17, 1981. The entirety of the recordings made of Matt Saari and Edwin Pearson that day are available in this entry from the Ethnic Music of Northern Wisconsin and Michigan Collection, as well as the index to the tape’s contents and the field notes. We recommend reading the field notes to learn the story of how Saari’s wife hadn’t told him about Leary and Gallmann coming to record him, and what ensued after his initial surprise subsided.

Clawhammer Mike has posted his transcription of “Shoemakers’ Waltz” on YouTube, and we’re sharing it here in order to highlight his usage of this collection. In the video, he says: “These recordings are a treasure.” We agree! We have undertaken to make them available freely to all online so they may be studied, enjoyed, and used. They are recordings of the people, for the people.