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Inspired by folklorist Alan Lomax, West Michigan musicians reimagine songs of state’s past


Eighty-one summers ago, folklorist Alan Lomax visited Michigan as part of a 10-year project collecting American folk music for The Library of Congress. The recordings feature the songs of lumberjacks, iron miners, and Great Lakes sailors, among others.

After three months, Lomax left the state in his 1935 Plymouth, which was filled to the brim with a collection of 250 instantaneous discs and eight reels of film documenting life in Michigan. 

Six years ago, Stateside aired a segment about Lomax's 1938 trip around the Mitten state. Musician Andy Bast heard the Stateside piece about Lomax, and thought the songs might speak to people today. So he recruited some friends — including Noah McLaren and Aaron Kates — to reimagine these historic Michigan folk songs for a modern audience. 

“Something about these tracks brings us, brings me, and I think brought Andy into another world, an older place, and it just made us want to share them,” McLaren said. 

Bast listened to the extensive collection of Lomax recordings in the Library of Congress archive. He chose his favorite tunes and transcribed the lyrics, which wasn't always easy.  

“He transcribed the lyrics as best as he could, which is sometimes pretty difficult with the coughs and the stops and the starts that are in these original tracks,” McLaren said. 

Original recording of Michigan I-O by Alan Lomax

Credit Mike Perini
Lyrics of Michigan I-O

Each person on the project shared the task of writing up basic arrangements of the songs. They added chords, figured out the key, and changed it to fit their own voices.

"Some of these folks that are on the Lomax recordings sing so low that it's kind of a growl that makes it onto the recording," McLaren explained, "And so to make it a little more musical, we would need to raise it three or four steps or more." 

They named the resulting album Michigan-I-O after one of the archived songs that immediately struck a chord with the group. The song details suffering through the long miserable winters in the lumber camps of Northern Michigan. 

McLaren says his favorite song on the album is "Red Iron Ore." It tells the epic journey of a freighter ship from Chicago that loaded too much iron ore onboard before departing Escanaba, Michigan for Cleveland. 

"It's a story of triumph in the end, how through storms, and just too much weight, they made it home ahead of the rest of the fleet," said McLaren. 

The team that worked on Michigan IO is hoping the revitalization of these songs helps people think about how the state's past — including the lumber and iron industries — still impacts the state today. 

"You know pretty much the entire state of Michigan was cut over, and was pretty much an environmental wasteland after this industry [logging] came and left. And I think that's something we forget," said Kates. "So I think these are really grounding for our place, and for the people who live here and call it home."

You can find the full Michigan-I-O album here. The group will be performing live at the Wealthy Street Theatre in Grand Rapids on on November 1st.

This post was written by production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

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