When “song collector” Alan Lomax was sent by the Library of Congress in 1938 to document the rich history of folk music from Michigan and the Great Lakes, one of the early 1900s songs he unearthed was titled, “Traverse City.”
“I never did see what a place, Traverse City is a good thing to be, oh dear,” the ditty goes, describing a turn-of-the-century village much different than the Traverse City of today.
“There was a blacksmith right in town, there you could get your horse shoed up,” it continues, also hailing a “good boardin’ ” house where you can get “a little bit of cake and a little of gin, and a little back door for to step right in.”
Eighty years later, a group of West Michigan musicians has revived and reimagined that tune and nine other “forgotten folk songs” as part of its “Michigan-I-O” album.
“We couldn’t believe there was all this material out there that many people haven’t heard of,” Holland singer, banjoist and guitarist Andy Bast said of historic folk tunes telling stories of mining, logging, shipping and more.
“We found a bunch of songs we loved, and we went up north to the Upper Peninsula and re-recorded them, reimagined them. We basically only do songs that were written before 1940, but they’re still new.”
Bast and his Michigan-I-O bandmates discovered that bygone music thanks to a public radio project that recently digitized the field recordings Lomax made starting in 1938, traveling through Michigan and Wisconsin to interview singers and document musical tales.
“It’s fascinating to hear these songs that are written about the places that we know, but were just so very different back then,” said guitarist and singer Noah McLaren. “I love imagining just the wild world that they inhabited, these writers.”
The band featuring Bast, McLaren, mandolinist Jonathan Gabhart, bassist Jacob Helder, fiddler Aaron Kates and harmonium player Bruce Benedict has brought that “wild world” to life on stage in shows across Michigan, after releasing the album this summer. They plan to return to another cabin in northern Michigan next spring to record a second volume of these obscure folk gems.
“No one that we’ve played for has heard any of these songs,” Bast said of tunes with titles such as “The Lumberjack’s Alphabet,” “Red Iron Ore,” “Inland Lakes” and “Johnnie Carleses’ Lumber Camp.”
“We think of it as a chain and we’re just one link in this chain. Maybe Alan Lomax was another link in this chain … where he found these songs that could have died out, and went into pubs and went on people’s front porches and had a huge recording rig with him in the ’30s.
“He was just an adventurer and found these people and had them sing into their microphone back then. Due to the Library of Congress, we heard them anew and now we get to share them live.”
Gabhart said members of Michigan-I-O are friends and acquaintances from Hope College and Western Theological Seminary in Holland who’ve performed in various capacities and “played a lot of church music together” over the years.
They also all “have a love for folk music,” Bast added.
“It’s kind of nostalgic, but it’s also new,” he suggested. “We’re definitely adding our own spin to it. We like to think of it as a living tradition that we’re just part of.”