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.
“I saw that the job of a folklorist was to make a bridge between people who had no voice and the big world of communication," Lomax said in a 1990 National Public Radio interview with “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross. "That's what I did for the first half of my life, was simply run with a recording machine and publish the results because this was the way people could learn that other folks were out there, just as interesting as they were."
The total Lomax archive includes 5,000 hours of recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and piles of manuscripts. His Michigan collection includes 25 disc recordings of 125 performers plus eight reels of film and photographs. Among them are recordings of the Irish-born sailors and farmers of Beaver Island, Serbian countryside songs sung in Detroit, Finnish labor anthems from Calumet, Canadian ballads in Baraga, Detroit blues and lumber camp ballads from Traverse City.
Murdock drew heavily from archives of authentic sailing ballads, sea chanteys and work songs collected in Michigan by Lomax and Ivan Walton, a University of Michigan professor.
The multi-media concert also includes recorded music, a 23-minute of film and archival sounds from Lomax's 1938 trip.
American Folklife Center curator Todd Harvey is another special opening night guest. He has written an ebook called “Michigan-i-o Alan Lomax and the 1938 Library of Congress Folk-Song Expedition.” It includes illustrations, audio tracks and film clips and is scheduled to be released Nov.1.
Ten interpretive panels in the exhibit showcase the details of Lomax’s travels, photographs, song sheets and song lyrics of miners, lumberjacks, Great Lakes "schoonermen" (sailors) and ethnic populations, said Laurie Sommers, the ethnomusicologist overseeing the project for MSU.
“The ebook focuses on Lomax,” Sommers said. “What I tried to do with the panels is the flip side. The panels look at what the Lomax material tells us about Michigan in the 1930s.”
Yet another element of the 75th anniversary celebration is the Library of Congress’ series of 21 podcasts called “Alan Lomax and the Soundscapes of the Upper Midwest,” which went online last month.
The exhibit also includes recordings of Traverse City lumberjack Lester Wells singing “When I came to Traverse Town” and “Michigan-i-o,” Sommers said.
Lomax recorded Wells at “Lautner’s Place,” today’s Union Street Station, after getting a tip that it was a hangout for sailors and lumberjacks.
“The thing to note is that Lomax was recording men who were for the most part in their 50s, 60s and older, who were recalling songs they learned and sang in their youth and prime of life from a period that had been over for several decades," Sommers said.
Tickets for all opening night seats are $10 and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 995-553 or 1-800-836-0717. Teachers may contact Jason Dake at 995-1029 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for information or to reserve tickets for students.
The museum’s hours are Monday-Saturday,10 am-5 pm and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. It is open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission is $6 for adults, $4. Northwestern Michigan College students with an ID and members get in free.
Want to know more? For more information on Alan Lomax and the 75th anniversary of his 1938 trip to Michigan, go to: http://museum.msu.edu/index.php?q=node/1056 http://www.loc.gov/folklife/lomax/michiganproject.html http://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2013/08/inquiring-minds-alan-lomax-goes-north/ http://www.culturalequity.org/alanlomax/ce_alanlomax_bio.php The ebook to released Nov. 1 by Dust to Digital: http://www.dust-digital.com/ The Alan Lomax and the Soundscapes of the Upper Midwest podcasts: http://www.loc.gov/podcasts/lomax/ The Dennos Museum Center" Michigan Folksong Legacy exhibit and multi-media concert are funded in part by a Michigan Humanities Council grant, Michigan State University Great Lakes Traditions Endowment, the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center, the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at the University of Wisconsin; Association for Cultural Equity, originally founded by Lomax; and the Finlandia Foundation.