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In the summer of 1940 I was given the opportunity to be one of the field workers for the Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project sponsored by the University of Wisconsin and the Library of Congress … When we returned at the close of our first summer’s collecting with recordings of songs from the people of Wisconsin in more than twenty different languages, we felt as though we had, for the first time in our lives, really learned to know Wisconsin.
[Helene Stratman-Thomas, journal entry from Folk songs out of Wisconsin (Madison : State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1977)]
Helene Stratman-Thomas was born on May 13, 1896, in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, the daughter of Helena Emma Stratman and Warren H. Thomas, a grocer and businessman. She grew up amid a blend of folk music in her predominantly Cornish town — German folk songs and English game sounds at home and Welsh hymns from a nearby church.
After high school, Helene taught school in Monticello and Brooklyn before earning a business degree from University of Wisconsin–Madison. She worked at an investment firm in Minneapolis for about eight years and then returned to Madison to complete her B.A. and M.A. degrees in music. In 1930, she was hired at UW–Madison to teach music theory, conduct the women’s chorus, and later work as the business manager for the Pro Arte string quartet. She lived with her brother, Warren K. Stratman-Thomas, a renowned malarial research pharmacologist. Together they were avid genealogists and she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
In 1940, her music career found a new trajectory. Professor Leland Coon asked her to head the Wisconsin Folk Music Project, a government-funded effort to record music from the state’s diverse population. That summer, she embarked on the first of three major collecting trips. Until then, her music training was chiefly classical, yet she quickly warmed to the task.
After the government-sponsored collecting trips, Stratman-Thomas recounted her travels in a radio series on Wisconsin Public Radio and gave lectures on folk music throughout the state. She also devoted a summer to surveying the state’s Cornish music. In the fall of 1948, Stratman-Thomas married A. J. (Pat) Blotz, a Dodgeville man she had known her entire life. She continued to teach music theory and began writing a book about Wisconsin folk music.
Stratman-Thomas retired from UW–Madison in 1961. She died Jan. 11, 1973 at the age of 76. Shortly after Helene’s death, her husband asked Harry Peters to complete the Wisconsin folksong book project. The result, Folk Songs out of Wisconsin, was published in 1977. Since then, there have been other attempts to bring her work to light, including Judy Rose’s 1983 radio series, Wisconsin Patchwork, and the companion book by Jim Leary. In 2001, the Library of Congress released Folk Music from Wisconsin, a 22-track CD of Helene’s recordings.
[This list of sources was compiled circa 2004.]
“Collecting Folk Songs.” New York Sun, 28 December 1940.
“‘Detectives’ Trail Notes in State’s History.”Wisconsin State Journal, 8 November 1940.
[Includes photo of informant Alonzo Jacka]
“Dodgeville Native Compiles Library of Old Cornish Carols.” Grant Co. Herald, 8 January(?) 1947.
Doudna, William L. “Wandering U.W. Recorders Saves Dying Folk Music.” Wisconsin State Journal, 13 July 1941 .
[Includes photo of Stratman-Thomas and singer Hamilton Lobdell]
Folk Music from Wisconsin [compact disc]. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Rounder Select, p2001.
“Fading Folk Songs of Wisconsin Trapped on Discs; Crew of U.W. Roams State; Finds Earthy Ballads of Old Lands and Preserves Them on Wax.” Milwaukee Journal, 20 October 1940 .
“Folk songs Captured on Wax by U.W. Pair.” Milwaukee Journal, 20 October 1940 .
Leary, James. The Wisconsin Patchwork: A Companion to the Radio Programs Based on the Field Recordings of Helene Stratman-Thomas. Madison : Department of Continuing Education in the Arts, 1987.
“Lumberjack’s Music Saved for Posterity.” Milwaukee Sentinel, 31 August 1941 .
[Includes photo of the Leizime Brusoe Orchestra with recording technician Robert Draves.]
Matheson, Helen. “From Descendants, U.W. Group Again Records Folksongs Forgotten Voices Sang.” Wisconsin State Journal, 21 October 1946 .
O’Donnell, Brian. “Leizime Brusoe: Wisconsin Northwoods Fiddler.”The Old-Time Herald Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall 2003.
“Old Cornish Yule Carols to be Sung Again After Silence of Many Decades.” Wisconsin State Journal, 15 December 194?.
Peters, Harry, ed. Folk Songs Out of Wisconsin. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1977.
Rose, Judy. Wisconsin Patchwork radio program on Wisconsin Public Radio, 1984.
“She Tours State for Old Folksongs, Finds Many Right in Own Office.”Wisconsin State Journal, 21 July 1946 .
[Includes photo of Stratman-Thomas and informant Winifred Bundy]
“Songs of a Pioneer Wisconsin Collected and Recorded; University of Wisconsin Aiding Library of Congress.” Christian Science Monitor, 1 April 1941 .
“State’s Folk Songs Found, Recorded by U.W. Music Teacher.”University of Wisconsin Press Bulletin, 28 November 1941 .
Stratman-Thomas, Helene. “The Choral Works of Michael Hayden (1737–1806).” Bulletin of the American Musicological Society , No. 6. (Aug., 1942), p. 16. (Abstracts of Papers Read before Mid-Western Chapter.)
Stratman-Thomas, Helene. “Folk Music in Wisconsin.” Badger Folklore1 (April 1948): 8–9.
“That Cornish Song Starts an Argument.” Wisconsin State Journal, 26 [28?] January 1941.
Treat, Asher. “Kentucky Folksong in Northern Wisconsin.” Journal of American Folk-Lore 52 (January–March 1939): 1–51