Alan Lomax in Francophone Michigan, 1938

— By Todd Harvey

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In 1938, the Library of Congress dispatched the pioneering folklorist and song collector Alan Lomax to conduct a folklife survey of the Great Lakes region. He traveled in a 1935 Plymouth sedan, toting a Presto instantaneous disc recorder and a movie camera. And when he returned nearly three months later, having driven thousands of miles on barely paved roads, it was with a cache of 250 discs and 8 reels of film, documents of the incredible range of ethnic diversity, expressive traditions, and occupational folklife in Michigan.

Lomax pulled into Detroit on August 1, and by mid-September had wound his way up the state, recording lumberjacks in Mt. Pleasant, the lake fishermen on Beaver Island, and the Polish communities near Rogers City. He crossed the Mackinac Straits and began to document the communities of the Upper Peninsula—especially Finnish and French—traveling as far north as Calumet.

By early October, Alan began to ramble around the U.P., on one day driving over to Baraga, on another making a loop up to Calumet and back down to Ontonagon, drifting over several days into Gogebic County, along the Wisconsin border. The driving must have been arduous; save a few stretches of asphalt, his 1938 Texaco map described all the roads in this region as “semi-surfaced.” The warm weather had held, but Alan knew that he was in the far north in late autumn and that conditions could quickly deteriorate. The Library was clamoring for a firm return date to Washington. Lomax wrote to the Library outlining his plans and cautiously asked for another ten days. Regarding his immediate intentions:

Monday and Tuesday [October 10-11] in Champion and Baraga, where I found French singers last week – the patriarch of the family died the night I rolled in and of course I couldn’t do anything – I am beginning to think I am Death’s special herald.

On October 9 Alan drove east from Ironwood to Champion, transitioning from his documentation of Finnish communities to the French. He had been tracking the same occupations—mining, logging, and maritime work—since leaving Detroit, but the songs were different. The drive of almost 200 miles took all day. He made a dozen recordings in Champion with lumberman Fred Carrier, who demonstrated a deep repertoire of French-Canadian songs, as well as British Isles Ballads learned from his Irish mother.

From the 11th to the 15th Alan lodged at the Holmes Hotel in Baraga and devoted his evenings to a group of extraordinary French singers. They met in private residences or in the hotel. The session on the 12th took place at Joe Morin’s house a few miles outside of town. An older couple, Exilia and Mose Bellaire, were there, as were Edward G. King, John Cadeau, Joe Morin, and Dolph Carrier. Exilia Bellaire sang a number of songs including “I went to Marquette”, the lyrics bouncing between French and English. One beautiful afternoon Alan filmed the Bellaires outside their home.

Alan spent the shrinking daylight hours exploring Marquette, Baraga, Houghton, and Keweenaw Counties. He shot film footage of these areas, but made no sound recordings. In the trip’s final reel of film, the camera slowly panned across a mining town, perhaps Houghton, with a large mine shaft house prominent. Surrounded by hills dotted with houses, a rail yard serviced the mine. This 30-second clip provided a last, lingering look at the cultural and physical landscape of the U.P. In the U.P., Lomax had exposed two reels of film and cut more than forty discs, capturing six hours of early recordings of UP French-speaking communities.

For more information on this project, see “Michigan-I-O”: Alan Lomax and the 1938 Library of Congress Folk-Song Expedition.

Todd Harvey is curator of the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

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