Helene Stratman-Thomas (1896–1973) emerges from this cavalcade of [Wisconsin folk music] scholarship as neither the first, nor the most persistent, nor the most prolific, nor the most expert collector of Wisconsin’s musical folklore, but she is, and perhaps always will be, the most significant.
[James Leary, The Wisconsin Patchwork: A Companion to the Radio Programs Based on the Field Recordings of Helene Stratman-Thomas]
With a heavy recorder and a thin budget, UW–Madison music professor Helene Stratman-Thomas and recording technician Bob Draves rolled down Wisconsin roads in search of folk music. The year was 1941, a time when many first-generation immigrants and big lumber camp veterans were still alive and performing.
The two traveled from town to town — “The average speed was 70 miles an hour,” Bob would later recall — covering thousands of miles to put down records in all regions of the state. Within a few years, it would become impossible to capture such voices and experiences. Much of what Helene caught on those precarious shellac discs remains unique.
The trip marked the beginning of Helene’s six-year folk song collecting effort that would result in the preservation of nearly 800 performances representing more than thirty ethnic and regional groups. The copies of the recordings are housed at the Mills Music Library at UW–Madison and the originals are part of the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture, the largest collection of American traditional music in the world.
The Helene Stratman-Thomas Collection of ethnic music recordings is especially rich in the songs of French-Canadian, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Cornish, and German immigrants. It also contains the music of Native American groups (in particular the Ho Chunk); occupational songs by lumberjacks, sailors, miners, railroadmen, and cranberry pickers; and Appalachian music performed by Kentuckians who settled in northern Wisconsin.
At a time when American folk music collecting centered on mainly Anglo- and Afro-American songs, or regionally focused works on Cajuns, Hispanics, and various American Indians, Helene’s work stood apart. She was open to all kinds of musical expression, which enabled her to record everything from Czech and Bohemian brass bands to Norwegian hardanger and Polish goraly fiddlers. Other never-before-captured tunes came from psalmodikons and tamburica quartets, Oneida choirs, Welsh Gymanfa Ganu singers, and Swedish, Norwegian, Hollander, and Luxembourger balladeers.
Temperamental equipment and unpredictable performers made for extremely precarious conditions. “I’m surprised we got anything good at all because this was so primitive,” Draves told Simply Folk’s Judy Rose in a 1983 interview. When exposed to air, the purple coating around the aluminum recording discs would quickly harden so they had to remain tightly covered until performers were ready. Diamond needles that cut the records had to be sharp, yet any accidental touch against the aluminum and the needle was destroyed. Each disc only afforded 4 ½ minutes of recordings, which meant that singers had little room to dally or make mistakes.
But there were forgotten lyrics and other blunders, as well as some awkward moments. A cuckoo clock and church bells were just of few of the stray sounds that made it onto the discs. When it came to lusty ballads, singers might clam up in front of the female song catcher. In turn, Helene would step out of the room and let Bob record those songs that “ain’t exactly fitten for a woman to hear.”
A music theory teacher and women’s choir conductor, Helene fell into the work of folksong collecting. Yet her ability to develop instant rapport with almost anyone made her a natural. “She was a very loveable person,” Draves recalled, “a warm person who could become very interested in you.”
The recordings made by Stratman-Thomas include nearly eight hundred performances, representing more than thirty ethnic or geographical sources. Information about individual performers in this collection is uneven.
Biographical information presented here was gleaned from The Wisconsin Patchwork companion booklet by James P. Leary, as well as from manuscript materials in the Helene Stratman-Thomas Collection. The following list is not a complete one.
Joe Accardi immigrated from Sicily to Beloit in the 1920s. He recorded seven Italian songs, including “Luna mezzo mare,” the Italian wedding song made famous in “The Godfather.” To find out more about this singer, check out his grandson’s web page.
John Bear Skin, a Ho Chunk, played love calls on an Indian flute made from a gun barrel.
Pearl Jacobs Borusky lived beyond the power grid in rural Antigo. To mine Borusky’s endless repertoire of English ballads, Helene Stratman-Thomas had to arrange for the singer to be driven to a friend’s home so there would be electricity to power the recorder. The friend was Asher Treat, who had his mother pick up Borusky. Treat had notated several songs from the Jacobs family prior to Stratman-Thomas’s collecting trips in 1940 and 1941. Treat’s transcriptions were published in the Antigo Daily Journal in March and April of 1936 and later compiled into an article, “Kentucky Folksong in Northern Wisconsin.” Borusky, who was in her early forties at the time, recorded 23 songs for Stratman-Thomas. Borusky was born Clarise Pearl Jacobs in Kentucky, the eighth of ten children born to James and Ollie Jacobs. She came to the Wisconsin in 1906 as part of the Kaintuck migration to northern lumber camps. For a time in the late 1920s, she lived in North Dakota, the home of her husband, Rodney Borusky.
Noble B. Brown was 14 when he first began work in a logging camp near Stanley, Wisconsin, peeling hemlock bark for tanning hides. He went on to labor at camps in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, California, Washington, and Oregon. “I seldom allowed my name to get dry on the pay-roll, before I dangled down the tote-road to another outfit. Looking for improvement. But there are few jobs in the woods that I have not tackled, and handled. The wonderlust was always in my bones until I dropt [sic] anchor here at Millville Grant Co. Wis. Got tired, at last. But they say there is no rest for the — restless. Hope I’m not so wicked.” This letter is one of many he would write to Helene Stratman-Thomas after she recorded twenty-three songs from him on 17 November 1946. He was the last singer she recorded for the Wisconsin Folk Music Project. Some of his sea shanties have been issued on two LPs: American Sea Songs and Shanties I & II.
Winifred Bundy, secretary at the UW–Madison School of Music, was from a ballad-singing family and knew a great many of the old English tunes that Stratman-Thomas had been looking for all summer. Bundy ended up recording eighteen songs for Helene Stratman-Thomas several occasions until her retirement in 1948. Bundy, born around 1884, learned many English songs from her mother, Olive Morgan Bundy. Olive’s father, James D. Morgan, enlisted in the Union Army and moved the family from Canada to the United States when Olive was fourteen. Her mother brought the children first to Milwaukee and then to Marquette County , settling in Montello where there were many Canadians. “Mother had a beautiful exciting voice and was in great demand for entertainments although she never had any training. She knew all the Civil War songs and sang them at the old GAR [Grand Army of the Republic ] encampments,” Winifred wrote in a note to Stratman-Thomas. Winifred attributed her mother’s musical knowledge to her grandfather, born in the barracks in Manchester, England, in the same year as Queen Victoria . “In the first months of his life received a little pension from King George because of the fact,” Winifred wrote. His father was a messenger-bearer to the Duke of Wellington and served in the English Army for most of his active life. He was “a good soldier judging from the colorful tales of his prowess with his horse, King George, but he was a very bad father, and my grandfather came up in a hard way, with no attention or help.” His mother was Welsh – and he was christened in Glamorganshire, Wales. She died of cholera during the family’s migration to Canada .
Ella Mittelstaedt Fischer (1871–1963) was a noted herbalist, curing humans and animals with remedies that, according to family tradition, her mother had acquired from Menominee Indians in the late 1860s and ’70s. She recorded seven songs for Helene Stratman-Thomas during a 27 August 1946, recording session in Mayville, Wisconsin. While most of her songs were German tunes, the most notable recording is perhaps her rendition of the historic song, “The Burning of Newhall House,” otherwise known as “The Milwaukee Fire.” The fire, on 10 January 1883, claimed the lives of more than seventy-one people at the Newhall House hotel, a six-story wood building. Fischer had witnessed the fire when she was twelve. “She had come to town to buy her confirmation dress,” Stratman-Thomas wrote. “She remembered the occasion so vividly that she wept as she sang.” Fischer was born in Horicon, and her father came to the United States around 1840. During the 1946 session, she told stories of the gemutlichkeit, the gatherings of the German families as expressed in her song, “Wir sitzen so frohlich beisamen” (We Sit so Merrily Together).
Hamilton Lobdell, 87, blind and frail at the time of the recording session, put down twenty tunes. He was discovered after Mrs. Lee Lobdell of Mukwonago wrote to Stratman-Thomas about the singer, who was her husband’s grandfather. “He sang for us all afternoon. When we suggested that he rest now and then, he would lie back on the couch but he kept on singing,” Stratman-Thomas wrote. He sang songs he learned as a boy at church and at school socials, which included a great many ballads, from “Daisy Dean” to “The Girl with the Waterfall.” “His prize offering,” Stratman-Thomas wrote, “was ‘Reuben Wright and Phoebe Brown.’”
Albert Mueller of New Glarus was a talented Swiss zither player whose parents immigrated from Switzerland to New Glarus in 1912, the year before he was born. In 1942, he moved to Milwaukee where he made a living as a zither player.
Emery Olson, born around 1891, was an accordionist with Leizime Brusoe’s Orchestra.
Frances Perry was a public librarian and local historian in Black River Falls who sang songs she learned from local cranberry pickers, a transplanted Georgia mountain family, and her Bohemian neighbors. She was a song collector in her own right.
Dr. William Reese was a Welsh tenor from Dodgeville in his 80s at the time of the recordings.
Aunt Lily Richmond, 84, sang six African American spirituals and traditional Early American songs such as “Rock of Ages” during a recording session 23 August 1946. She was the lone African American recorded as part of the Wisconsin Folk Music Project. Born a slave in Missouri in 1862, she was brought to Beetown, near Lancaster, in about 1865.
Mary Richter sang for Stratman-Thomas on Washington Island. Her father was one of many Icelandic settlers in the area.
Iva Rindlisbacher, formerly Iva Kundert of Madison, played the “viking cello” and taught students on a wide range of instruments. She joined her husband, Otto, in accordion bands.
Lois Rindlisbacher managed the Buckhorn tavern after her father’s retirement.
Otto Rindlisbacher played a variety of instruments and eventually began making them. He worked in the woods and in all five of Rice Lake’s sawmills before opening the Buckhorn Tavern in 1920 with his two brothers, John and Louis. His collection of musical instruments is now housed at the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa.
Jules Rower recorded one Belgian tune for Stratman-Thomas. He had been out threshing all day at neighbor’s and he drove into the barnyard ahead of Stratman-Thomas. They asked he wanted to record. He said “‘Oh, as soon as I put the horses in the barn and get washed up a bit.’ So we brought in the recording equipment and experienced a phenomenal piece of memory work. With no preparation whatsoever, Mr. Rower sang for us a song which covered one full side of the record and half of the other side without even hesitating for a word,” Stratman-Thomas wrote. (Adventures in Collecting, p. 5.)
Mrs. A. C. G. Gyshers Scholten was recorded in Oostburg, Wisconsin. She sang Dutch songs she learned when a child in Winterswyk, Holland.
Robert Walker was part of an extended family of singers whose repertoire included about 140 songs and whose performances are documented in Sidney Robertson Cowell’s LP, Wolf River Songs, issued by
Chief Yellow Thunder, a Ho Chunk, sang the Morning Songs with the accompaniment of a gourd rattle. The songs were “spiritual instructions with which the Winnebago parents wakened their children. He translated, ‘Do not weep anymore, my child, for I love you; the daylight of life is on its way,’” Stratman-Thomas wrote.
Accordions – There are several types of accordions; common features include a mechanical keyboard or set of buttons under each hand, manipulated by the fingers to select pitches. The keyboards are connected by folded bellows which induce air to flow through the reedplates; these move horizontally and are controlled by arm-pressures that in turn regulate the loudness of the sound emitted. An air-button or -bar on the left-hand end, operated by the thumb or palm, is used to fill and empty the bellows without sounding a note. Straps hold the instrument in the hands or on the shoulders. Joe Yansky plays what could be a bandoneon or a concertina; a bandoneon is a double-action square type of accordion that was invented in Germany in the 19th century and is common in South American tango bands. Otto Rindlisbacher plays a button accordion that is sometimes called a bayan, or hand orgeli in Swiss, which has three rows of buttons for the right hand and a left manual like that of a keyboard accordion.
Bells – Otto Rindlisbacher made a set of Swiss bells hanging on a scaffold, which were played by his wife, daughter, and Helene. Standing nearly six feet tall, this scaffold has thirty-seven bells hanging from it. See photo at right.
Clarinet – Wind instrument sounded by a single beating reed.at right.
Drums – Native American water drums were among the drums found in this collection.
Flutes – “The instrument (used by Ho Chunk and Ottawa performers) was held as the modern clarinet. Chief Blow Snake’s flute was wood; John Bear Skin’s was made from a gun barrel.” – Helene Stratman-Thomas
Hardanger fiddle – Norwegian instrument with carved lion’s head scrolls, India ink designs, pearl inlay, and a second set of resonant strings. “Hardanger fiddles were common enough in Wisconsin’s 19th-century Norwegian communities, but seldom survived beyond the first generation. They were too difficult to play, too suited to fading ‘halling’ and ‘springer’ dances, too strange to younger ears,” James P. Leary
The instrument has four strings; Stratman-Thomas records the tunings for two songs: for “Springar,” the tuning was B-flat – E-flat – B-flat – F-sharp; for “The devil on the wine keg” it was C-sharp – A – E – A.
Lumberjack fiddle – Fiddle made from a cigar box.
Psalmodikon – “A Psalmodikon is a one-stringed instrument used originally in Norway for sounding out the single line of the melody of the hymns.” Oxford calls it a one-string bowed zither often used for correct singing of the psalms common in Sweden c. 1820–1870s. It has a narrow soundbox with a row of frets down the middle, and may be in every shape from a plain rectangle to an imitation of the violin.
Bertha Larson, of the Psalmodikon Quartet, described the instrument in detail in a letter Stratman-Thomas:
The psalmodikon is a one-stringed insturment [sic] about 35 inches long, 4 inches wide and 2 inches high. It is usually placed on a table and is played with a violin bow. On the top of the instrument numbers are arranged according to the C major scale. When keys other than C are used, a piece of board, similar to a foot rule, each with numbers of the major scale designated on each board, are placed on top of the C numbers. The fingers of the left hand are used to play each number and the music is written in numbers – thus – in playing a piece in ‘D’ they use the foot-rule board marked ‘D’ and if the note ‘A’ is to be played, place the fingers on 5 etc.
The Psalmodikon was originally used alone to lead the singing in schools in Norway . However, our group uses four instruments, a different cello string on each, so that we can play four part music.
Rattle – Rhythm instrument made from a gourd. Seeds or small pebbles are used to create the sound.
Reed organ – A keyboard instrument that produces sound through free reeds. Bessie Gordon’s reed organ was cut down to fit under the bar in her eight-foot square tavern.
Tamburica – Plucked lute of Yugoslavia with four to six strings. Various kinds, sizes, and tunings of these instruments exist.
Tyrolean zither – A zither typically found since the nineteenth century in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the United States . Instrument has no fingerboard, and melody strings are tuned chromatically or partially chromatically within two octaves and plucked with the right hand. Twenty-four or more harmony strings are tuned to five or six different chords and plucked with the left hand.
Viking cello – Helene Stratman-Thomas described it as a “one-stringed instrument which was an adaptation of the lumberjack pitchfork cello. The pitchfork cello is made from a large box fastened on a pitchfork. Mrs. Rindlisbacher calls it a Viking cello because Knute Reindahl of Madison made one called it that. Its origin is the lumber camp. Cracker box on a pitchfork or broom stick. … Mrs. R’s is made from wood from a chest dated 1722.” This is a bowed instrument (Rindlisbacher used a violin bow) and has a range of three octaves, with different tunings used for different pieces. A movable fret was originally piece sawed off of pitch fork handle with a groove in it.
Whistle – Instrument made of eagle bone whistle. See photo at right.
Definitions compiled from the notes of Helene Stratman-Thomas; Wisconsin Patchwork: A Companion to the Radio Programs Based on the Field Recordings of Helene Stratman-Thomas by James P. Leary; the Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments; Grove Music Online; The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments from All Eras and Regions of the World by Abrashev, Boshidar, and Vladimir Gadjev; and The World Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments by Max Wade-Matthews.