Did you know that the government once paid people to record our nation’s musical heritage? In the years before World War II, fieldworkers, evocatively known as “songcatchers,” traveled around the country  recording, collecting, and transcribing folk music from everyone from lumberjacks to American Indians and recent immigrants. Many of the recordings ended up in the Library of Congress in its folk music collection, along with photographs and other ephemera from our nation’s singers and musicians.

A great picture of some Wisconsin women playing the Swiss bells.  WHI-25191

The urge to collect this music came from many sources. One was technology. As electricity spread and more people bought radios, many folklorists and other songcatchers worried that people would sing along with the radio rather than their traditional music, spelling the end to the rich and vital music of our nation’s ethnic heritage.

Another was employment. During the Depression, several New Deal programs, including the Federal Music Project, the California Folk Music Project, the Wisconsin Folk Music Project, and the Resettlement Administration, gave unemployed men and women jobs collecting music. One goal of the Federal Music Project was to record and define the American musical scene in all its variety.

Interestingly, many of the people given the task of collecting folk music were women. Frances Densmore, for instance, devoted her life to the study of American Indian music, visiting Indian communities across the Upper Midwest to study and transcribe their music. Another woman, Helen Heffron Roberts traveled to Jamaica, Hawaii, California, and the American Southwest collecting music and other ethnographic materials.

At the time, music, like many other professional fields, was largely closed to women. Many did not believe women possessed the bodily strength or presence of mind to play music in professional orchestras, conduct, or compose complete pieces. Yet these women became the first to go out in the field and live among their informants, studying and recording music. They truly were pioneers in American ethnomusicology and in pushing women forward into new careers.

This music truly is great stuff. It’s nice to think that we once thought it was so important to invest in our culture.

Here’s a verse from a song collected in Wisconsin called “Fond du Lac Jail:”
“In the morning you receive a dry loaf of bread
That’s hard as stone and heavy as lead
It’s thrown from the ceiling down into your cell,
Like coming from Heaven popped down into Hell.”

My story on Wisconsin songcatcher Helene Stratman-Thomas will appear in the winter issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History.

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