TRAVERSE CITY — Bob Bonner was five years old in 1938 when legendary folk song collector Alan Lomax recorded his father Pat Bonner and other Beaver Island musicians and ballad singers in a fisherman's net shed.
“My dad was a hardscrabble farmer, but the violin was his life,” said Bonner, 80, a retired industrial engineer and downstate manufacturer who now lives in Leelanau County.
He recalls people moving nets aside and crowding into the shed that August night to watch Lomax, a Library of Congress folklorist, work with his bulky battery-operated Presto recorder. It could record 10-inch acetate discs on the spot.
Pat Bonner, a fiddler and son of Irish-born immigrants, was among several island ballad singers and musicians recorded by Lomax, and Michigan folklorist Ivan Walton who introduced him to the islanders.
“Dad never took a music lesson,” Bonner said. “He just took his uncle’s violin off the wall when he was a boy and played it until he mastered it.”
Bonner remembers Lomax, then 23, as a “sort of skinny, good-looking fellow with a narrow, pointed face.”
Now, 75 years later, Traverse City, seven other Michigan communities and everyone with computer access will be able to hear those voices, fiddle tunes and songs, thanks to a Michigan State University statewide anniversary tour that kicks off Friday in Traverse City. The exhibit accompanies an ongoing Library of Congress effort to put the whole Lomax collection online for free.
The traveling exhibit, “Michigan Folksong Legacy: Grand Discoveries from the Great Depression,” opens Friday at the Dennos Museum Center and will run through Jan. 5.
Opening night also includes a multi-media concert, “Forgotten Songs from Michigan-i-o.” It features Great Lakes traditional folksinger and historian Lee Murdock of Kaneville, Ill., who also will perform Friday morning for area schools.
The exhibit and concert are, in many ways, Lomax’s dream come true. He wanted his work to be available to all. Lomax spent seven decades collecting folksongs, lyrics, and interviews, photographs and film footage from all over the world. He died in 2002 at age 87.