Wisconsin Folksong Collection Added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry

April 19, 2024

The Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures (CSUMC), University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mills Music Library and the Wisconsin Historical Society are thrilled to announce that the Library of Congress, following advice from the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB), has inducted the Wisconsin Folksong Collection, 1937-1946 into the National Recording Registry. Other notable 2024 entries include recordings from ABBA, Blondie, The Cars, The Chicks, Juan Gabriel, Green Day, The Notorious B.I.G. and Lily Tomlin.

Housed at Mills Music Library, the Wisconsin Folksong Collection combines separate but closely related field recordings made by Helene Stratman-Thomas and Sidney Robertson Cowell. Stratman-Thomas, a School of Music faculty member, recorded performers in the summers of 1940, 1941, and 1946, with support from UW-Madison and the Library of Congress. Sidney Robertson Cowell did her work in summer 1937 for the Special Skills Division of the federal government’s Resettlement Administration.

“We are ecstatic the recordings in our Wisconsin Folksong Collection have been selected for induction, as this acknowledges the importance we have always placed on them. This now brings them to the attention of a wider audience and preserves them for all time,” says Tom Caw, Music Public Services Librarian at Mills Library. “We are proud stewards of these recordings, which offer listeners the chance to hear music made by people from all over Wisconsin who came here from around the world, as well as from people whose ancestors have lived here since time immemorial—including Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, and Oneida. We are grateful to James P. Leary, UW-Madison Professor Emeritus of Folklore and Scandinavian Studies, for championing these treasures and advocating for them to be inducted.” 

Stratman-Thomas and Cowell’s pioneering efforts with portable disc-cutting equipment captured over 900 performances in homes and public places throughout the state. All the recordings are freely accessible online through the UW Library’s Digital Collections site, where users are welcomed to stream tunes and songs, and view the images captured by these two remarkable researchers.

The Wisconsin Historical Society houses photographs from the collection as well as several instruments featured in the recordings. “I am deeply gratified to witness this significant Wisconsin folk music collection receiving national recognition, and it is an honor to have played a role in its development,” says Lisa Saywell, director of public services for the Wisconsin Historical Society’s library and archives. Saywell helped process the Helene Stratman-Thomas papers at Mills Library as a student and later worked on digitizing the project as a part of the UW-Madison Libraries. “Between the historic photographs and related musical instruments in the Society’s collection, it is exciting to be a part of Wisconsin’s lasting impact on American folk music traditions.”

CSUMC co-founder James P. Leary, drew on this collection for his groundbreaking Grammy-nominated book and multi-CD set, Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings in the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946. Reflecting on the collection’s importance within the National Recording Registry, Leary explains that the recordings “exemplify the grassroots soundtrack of our many-splendored state from the 19th through the mid-20th centuries. Performed in 25 languages by Indigenous and immigrant rural and working-class communities, the Collection is not only an overdue Upper Midwestern addition to the National Recording Registry’s overwhelmingly Eastern, Southern, and Western roster but also evidence of Wisconsin’s vibrant longstanding cultural pluralism.”

While the recordings will remain at the Mills Music Library, the National Recording Registry aims to increase awareness of the range and diversity of America’s legacy of recorded sound. Enriching the Registry significantly, the collection’s induction ensures well deserved recognition of Wisconsin’s distinct folk musical heritage.

The unique contribution of the Wisconsin Folksong Collection warrants special attention. According to Leary, “it is the most diverse, equitable, and inclusive folksong field collection ever made for the Library of Congress, reminding us that we cannot fully grasp the richness of American roots music without recognizing the many peoples, tongues, and sounds that–whether past or present, from mainstream or margins, deservedly acknowledged or unjustly ignored–have always made America great.”

About UW-Madison

Since its founding in 1848, this campus has been a catalyst for the extraordinary. As a public land-grant university and major research institution, our students, staff, and faculty engage in a world-class education while solving real-world problems. With public service — or as we call it, the Wisconsin Idea — as our guiding principle, Badgers are creating a better future for everyone.

About the Wisconsin Historical Society

The Wisconsin Historical Society, founded in 1846, ranks as one of the largest, most active and most diversified state historical societies in the nation. As both a state agency and a private membership organization, its mission is to help people connect to the past by collecting, preserving and sharing stories. The Wisconsin Historical Society serves millions of people every year through a wide range of sites, programs and services. For more information, visit www.wisconsinhistory.org.

About the Collection

Wisconsin Folksong Collection, 1937-1946.  Field recordings made by Sidney Robertson (1937) and Helene Stratman-Thomas (1940-1941, 1946) for the Archive of American Folksong, Library of Congress.

The vast varied Wisconsin Folksong Collection, the first deep field survey fully engaging the rich musical pluralism of an American region, was largely hidden for seventy years. When a representative sampling of the Collection was finally released as the Grammy-nominated Folksongs of Another America (2015), critics universally recognized its worth: “the United States just got bigger . . . this set, so astounding in its exhumation of sounds many of us were only distantly aware of, is like nothing else on this earth” (The Old Time Herald); “as odd and singular as the stuff being made in Appalachia or the Mississippi delta” (Los Angeles Times); “a mind-boggling swath of material” (New York Times); “a staggering set of diasporic folklore . . . moving, disarmed performances like Martha Steinbach’s ‘An einem Fluss daraus an Schuss,’ rub against gorgeous Dutch melodies, dirty lumberjack songs, and wild Welsh melancholy” (Uncut, UK); “Undiscovered gems from America’s rich musical heritage . . . whose diversity has remained largely unknown to the rest of the nation—and the world” (Songlines, UK); “un document extraordinaire” (Metamkine, France). Between 1937-1946 two women—Sidney Robertson of the Resettlement Administration, Helene Stratman-Thomas of the University of Wisconsin—traveled on behalf of the Library of Congress with portable disc-cutting equipment throughout Wisconsin, recording roughly 900 folk songs and tunes representing traditions of occupations (farmers, loggers, railroad workers, Great Lakes sailors) and 25 cultural and linguistic communities: African American, Anglo-American, Belgian, Cornish, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French Canadian, German, Ho-Chunk, Icelandic, Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Luxembourger, Norwegian, Oneida, Polish, Swedish, Swiss, and Welsh. “Stunning . . . a corrective to the dominance of field sources that has often threatened to equate US folk music with that of Appalachia, the Delta, or elsewhere in the American South . . . recovery work of the highest order, introducing us to an almost lost stratum of American folk expression” (Journal of American Studies).