Songs of the past: ’38 trip preserved

HANCOCK – Folklorist Alan Lomax known for preserving the work of Muddy Waters and Leadbelly from obscurity in the South, made a 1938 trip to the Midwest, with an assignment from the Library of Congress to record and preserve the folk songs of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

According to Finlandia University folklorist Hilary Virtanen, he passed quickly through Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and quickly settled in the U.P.,eventually making only a one-day trip to Wisconsin and skipping Minnesota entirely.

“It was his time in the Upper Peninsula, and particularly among the Finns in the Copper Country, that really proved the richest for Lomax,” Virtanen said.

Thursday Virtanen spoke to a crowd at Finlandia’s Finnish American Heritage Center about the history of Lomax’s recordings, shared some of the original songs and their translations and talked about the more recent work she and other folklorists have done to fill in some of the personal histories dealt with briefly in Lomax’s work.

Virtanen shared the podium with local poet Barbara Simila of Calumet, granddaughter of Gusti Simila, a musician Lomax met in Fulton, just outside of Mohawk in Keweenaw County. Gusti Simila recorded numerous songs in Finnish on Lomax’s recording disk machine.

“Lomax ended up recording more songs from Finns than anyone else in the Upper Peninsula,” Virtanen noted. “That became the core of his work.”

The lecture was scheduled to accompany a Michigan State University exhibit on Lomax’s work that will be on display through today at the Finnish American Heritage Center and May 19 to 26 at Finlandia’s Aileen Maki Library.

Virtanen said she became involved with the Lomax recordings when she was hired as a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student to help professor Jim Leary track down the biographies of Lomax’s performers in 2007. Before returning to her native Copper Country for Heikinpiv later that year, she advertised the names of musicians she was researching and was contacted by Julia Simila, Gusti’s daughter-in-law and Barbara’s mother.

She’d met Barbara Simila before – friends had Barbara as a high school English teacher – but hadn’t really expected to find a relationship between her and Gusti. A few weeks later, however, she found herself at Julia’s kitchen table at a family gathering, sharing recordings of songs they hadn’t heard in decades, or had never heard before.

“I learned firsthand two of the perks of being a folklorist,” Virtanen said. “First, mountains of cake… And second, I saw what it was like to put the voice of an ancestor long-gone into the hands of his family and watch what unfolded.”

Not all families had been as comfortable to work with, she notes. Lomax had also described one family he recorded as “despondent, stupid, and Neanderthal in appearance” in his notes, making contacting descendants a bit uncomfortable.

Still, a cousin of that family she reached was willing to give the other side of the story, and “added to the history,” Virtanen noted.

Lomax had also been a challenge for his superiors at the Library of Congress. He repeatedly requested additional funds for “entertaining” and eventually had to be brought back to Washington with threats of termination.

Barbara Simila, who read two poems inspired by her grandfather from her book “Watermark” at the event, said having copies of the recordings – and knowing they’re preserved in the Library of Congress – is important to the family.

“It means that my grandma’s and grandpa’s legacy will go on and on,” she said. “(Virtanen’s) work is a gift to my family.”

“This area is ripe as an orchard for research, which she’ll be doing,” Simila added.