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Historic Wisconsin recordings to be preserved through NEH grant

March 23, 2016

NEH awards $230,000 to UW-Madison’s Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Culture and Mills Music Library

(Madison) – The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures and the UW-Madison Mills Music Library have been awarded $230,000 by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the digital preservation of a unique collection of historic sound recordings. In collaboration with the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture, and other grant partners, the award will ensure that listeners today and in the future will be able to hear these rare fragments of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest’s musical past.

Jim Leary of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures noted, “The seldom heard, yet culturally rich songs of the Upper Midwest’s indigenous and immigrant rural and working class peoples make surprising, significant contributions to the American experience.” Leary received a Grammy nomination for Folksongs of Another America, which draws on field recordings found in the Mills Music Library.

Rindlisbacher 78 disc
Recorded in the 1920s, this 78 rpm disc was marketed to Swiss communities in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. Thanks to the NEH grant, this and other similar endangered recordings will be digitally preserved and accessible.

Over 25 cultural traditions of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest are captured on field recordings, home recordings and the earliest commercial recordings. Dating from 1900 to the 1980s, these 78 rpm discs, DATs, cassettes, and reels are fragile, deteriorating, or require obsolete and specialized equipment for playback.

“We’re thrilled the NEH recognized the importance of this fabulous and historic collection,” said Jeanette Casey, Head of Mills Music Library. “These recordings are like books nobody can read, and now we can open them up to the world.”

Grant partners include the Max Kade Institute for German American Studies, Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture, UW Digital Collections Center, and Wisconsin Teachers of Local Culture. The expertise of these partners will provide crucial language, cultural, and technical knowledge needed to create detailed web-accessible digital collections. Extensive research notes, photos, and printed ephemera will help illuminate this auditory history of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.

“NEH provides support for projects across America that preserve our heritage, promote scholarly discoveries, and make the best of America’s humanities ideas available to all Americans,” said NEH Chairman William D. Adams. “We are proud to announce this latest group of grantees who, through their projects and research, will bring valuable lessons of history and culture to Americans.”

Rindlisbacher in truck
Otto Rindlisbacher, at the wheel, with Iva Rindlisbacher and other members of the Lumberjacks, 1930s. Rindlisbacher and his fellow musicians are among those forgotten voices of Wisconsin’s cultural heritage to be digitally preserved and accessible.

The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 created the National Endowment for the Humanities as an independent federal agency, the first grand public investment in American culture. The law identified the need for a national cultural agency that would preserve America’s rich history and cultural heritage, and encourage and support scholarship and innovation in history, archaeology, philosophy, literature, and other humanities disciplines.

Contact: Jim Leary / jpleary@wisc.edu / 608-262-8180


Natasha Veeser / Natasha.veeser@wisc.edu / 608-262-2632