Wisconsin Folksong Collection, 1937-1946

Citation URL:


URLs to browse or search the collections

The Wisconsin Folksong Collection, 1937-1946, represents materials from two collections housed in three discrete but closely related repositories. The Collection reflects and documents the state’s colorful pattern of immigration and occupational development during those years.

The Collection contains Wisconsin field recordings, notes, and photographs made by UW-Madison faculty member Helene Stratman-Thomas as part of the Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project, co-sponsored by the University of Wisconsin and the Library of Congress during the summers of 1940, 1941, and 1946; and recordings collected by song catcher Sidney Robertson Cowell during the summer of 1937 for the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration.

The searchable database includes relevant information about each piece and sound files of the original performances. Several also include transcribed melodies, lyrics, photographs of many performances, and critical commentary listing concordant sources for the tunes and excerpts of field notes by the collector(s). Over 900 performances representing more than thirty ethnic or geographical sources are included. While vocal music predominates, instruments such as the accordion, guitar, Hardanger fiddle, psalmodikon, and tamburica were also recorded.

More than 70 black-and-white photographs taken during the Stratman-Thomas field trips are also part of the database. The originals are housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The original recordings from the Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project are housed at the Archive of Folk Song, now the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, and information about the Helene Stratman-Thomas recordings was initially drawn from a card file originating there. The Helene Stratman-Thomas Collection in the Wisconsin Music Archives of the Mills Music Library provided much supplemental material within some 36 boxes of Stratman-Thomas’s field notes, transcriptions, correspondence, etc. A finding aid for the archival collection is in process and will be available shortly.

The original recordings collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell also reside at the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress. Excerpts from her field notes were taken from her manuscript collection at the Archive of Folk Culture. Research on the collection was funded by the 2003 Gerald E. and Corinne L. Parsons Fund Award. Cataloging of the Cowell recordings was provided by the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.

All recordings included in the collection have been transferred to compact disc and are also available for patron use in the Mills Music Library. Request recordings by their call numbers as listed in the database.

Editorial Practices for Critical Commentary

The goal of providing critical commentary for each song is to compile information about the song and performer(s) in order to situate it for the researcher. We include transcriptions and lyrics in order to facilitate comparison with the same work in other folksong repositories. For some songs, tunes and words were transcribed directly from recordings. For others, melodies and lyrics were scanned or copied from original documents in the Helene Stratman-Thomas Collection in the Mills Music Library. In the latter case, discrepancies from the performer’s words and melodies are left intact but noted in order to represent Stratman-Thomas’s written records accurately.

Several types of data are included in the critical commentary entries. “HST notes” are remarks on the performers or music gathered from documents in the Music Library’s Helene Stratman-Thomas Collection. Her notes fall into several areas within the collection: a series of folders alphabetized by song titles, others grouped by genre or ethnic group, and a series called “Field notes,” which also contains some lyrics and background. Another group of folders in the collection is Harry Peters’s continuation of Stratman-Thomas’s project, including his own notes and transcriptions of her recordings. His work resulted in the publication of the book Folk Songs out of Wisconsin: An Illustrated Compendium of Words and Music by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1977, which also provided background and commentary for this database.

Editor’s notes and alternate titles were taken from published sources listed at the bottom of each Critical Commentary entry. Unless otherwise noted, those sources contain words or tunes related to the song under commentary. If the source contains the song under a variant title, the alternate title is listed.

Initial resources consulted to identify concordant sources were Florence E. Brunnings’s Folk Song Index: A Comprehensive Guide to the Florence E. Brunnings Collection (New York, 1981) and Minnie Earl Sears’s Song Index: An Index to More Than 12,000 Songs in 177 Song Collections Comprising 262 Volumes and Supplement, 1934 (Shoe String Press, 1966). Helene Stratman-Thomas’s notes also provided references to potential sources of lumberjack songs, sea chanteys, and other American folk song collections.

Many of the songs and music in the collection have been published, recorded, or transcribed elsewhere. Some, such as the lumberjack songs “Little Brown Bulls” and “Jam on Gerry’s Rock” were recorded multiple times even within this collection. These two and other lumberjack songs also appear in other published songbooks, often under the same titles. Other songs, such as the British ballad “Dan Doo” appear in other collections with many variations and alternate titles.

Some songs and music have not been as widely circulated as those above. For example, when Stratman-Thomas recorded a musician playing a tune he or she had written, it was less likely to be found in other collections. Emery De Noyer’s “Tomahawk Hem” may have been well known in lumberjack camps in which he performed, but has not circulated beyond that circle. Bert Taplin wrote songs such as “Old Hazeltine” and “Manson’s Crew” about particular groups of lumberjacks that would not have held broader appeal. Leizime Brusoe played a fiddle tune that Stratman-Thomas simply titled, “Some of my own composin’, a hornpipe.” Stratman-Thomas did not record Barney Reynolds singing his own “Cranberry Song,” but the song was composed in Wisconsin and is not published in other song collections. Though Irish songs (such as “I’ll Sell My Hat,” also known as “Shule Aroon”) are very common in folk song collections, German dialect songs such as “Did You Call Me ‘Vader’?” and “Oh Yah, Ain’t That Been Fine” are not.

Nearly all other published versions of these songs differ in at least some small way from the version in the Helene Stratman-Thomas Collection. Most often the variants are minor, such as the title “Ella Rae” in this collection appearing as “Ellie Rhee” in another, or “Round County Troubles” in this collection corresponding to “Rowan County Troubles” in others. In other instances the changes have a more obvious rationale, such as when names of places are changed. Stratman-Thomas notes the variants in place names in songs such as “Shantyman’s Life” and “Jam on Gerry’s Rock.” Another example is the “Dying Wisconsin Soldier,” in which a soldier speaks of “old Wisconsin, … my dear old Badger state.” A version of this song called “The Dying Ranger” tells of a cowboy from “Texas, that good old lone star state.” (Katie Graber)