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Vesterheim and the Norwegian-American Folk Music Project

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by Anna Rue

ince 2007 I have been working as a Project Assistant for the Norwegian-American Folk Music Project under the direction of Dr. James P. Leary, Professor of folklore and Scandinavian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and with the help of folklorist Dr. Janet Gilmore and Karen Baumann, archivist at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. With their guidance I have helped to compile searchable archival guides to music collections relating to the project, as well as identify and catalog materials that are included in the project’s online archive. The most enjoyable part of this project for me has probably been working with recordings in the Vesterheim Museum collection. In the summer of 2008 I had the opportunity to travel back home to Decorah to pore over the Vesterheim archives, looking for recordings, photographs, sheet music, and anything that I felt reflected the intentions of the project. With the help of the museum’s dedicated staff, I found a veritable treasure trove of musical recordings and materials that had been boxed up and set aside, as if waiting for some graduate student such as myself to come along and find them. I was only too happy to oblige. After sifting through hundreds of commercially recorded 78 r.p.m. records and dozens of reel-to-reel recordings, LPs, and audio cassettes, I packed a couple dozen boxes of recordings in my parents’ car and drove back to the University of Wisconsin’s Mills Music Library. Over the last year, with the help of the wonderful staff at the Mills Music Library, I have been using the library’s stateof-the-art sound studio to selectively listen to and digitize the most vulnerable recordings so that researchers and admirers of this music can have access to it. A number of the more vulnerable recordings that I have paid particular attention to were made in Decorah by former Vesterheim Museum director, Dr. Marion J. Nelson. As many Vesterheim magazine readers already know, Decorah’s Nordic Fest celebration originated in 1966 and Vesterheim has been a key supporter of the event from the beginning. For many years Dr. Nelson worked to organize an annual Folk Music Festival starting in 1967 that coincided with Nordic Fest and which turned out to be the first ethnic folk music festival ever to be held in the Upper Midwest. For about three hours each afternoon during the festival people would retreat from the blazing late July sun, relaxing into the seats of the downtown Viking Theatre to hear dozens of musicians perform from all over the country and the world. There they heard traditional Norwegian folk music, Scandinavian-American dance music, American folk and popular music (often played with a Norwegian-American “swing”), religious hymns, and even some Irish jigs and reels that were occasionally thrown into the mix. It was an exciting and remarkable event for this small town nestled in the rolling hills of northeast Iowa. Vol. 7, No. 2 2009

An accordionist enjoys performing at the Annual Folk Music Festival sponsored by Vesterheim during Nordic Fest.

Material from music collections in the Vesterheim Archives.

From the left: Robert Andersen, Duluth, Minnesota, Truman Sorenson, Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Bill Sherburne, Spring Grove, Minnesota, at the annual Folk Music Festival. 37


It was here, among the festival’s folk art exhibitions, rosemaling demonstrations, traditional Norwegian food booths, and seemingly endless displays of NorwegianAmerican crafts that the Old World of Norwegian and Scandinavian folk music came face-to-face with the New World of Norwegian and Scandinavian-American folk music. Dr. Nelson presided over these events for years and, on a few occasions, arranged for meticulous recordings to be made of the musical performances. In 1968 Vesterheim made its first recordings of the Folk Music Festival and Dr. Nelson chose several performances to appear on an LP as a fundraiser for the museum, entitled Folk Music of the Norwegians in America. These performances are now being re-released after 40 years as part of a CD accompanying this edition of Vesterheim magazine, along with Dr. Nelson’s original liner notes. After the success of this first production, it seems that Dr. Nelson planned to produce another, double LP album based on a series of recordings that were made at the 1978 Folk Music Festival. Unfortunately and for unknown reasons, the double album was never released, but in the months that I spent digitizing old reel-to-reel tapes in the sound studio at Mills Music Library, I found the tracks that I believe Dr. Nelson intended to release as the second Vesterheim music production. There is no master list identifying the melodies on these pre-production reels, but a log of all the performances during the entire 1978 festival performances does exist. I have been able to identify a few of the recordings by sifting through the log, but many of them remain unidentified. The importance of the Vesterheim music collection is hard to overstate. The hundreds of commercially recorded 78 r.p.m. records are extremely valuable to academics and music lovers alike, and many of those represented in the Vesterheim collection are rare indeed. However, the unique recordings made at the Folk Music Festival gatherings in Decorah offer us a chance to look back at a moment in Norwegian-American history when an unbroken tradition of ethnic and regional folk music was in steep decline, but not yet extinct. The resulting folk music revival, epitomized by Dr. Nelson’s organization of the Folk Music Festival and these recordings, paved the way for new artists to take notice of a wonderful, rich, and endangered musical tradition, so that they might breathe new life into it. In addition, the Norwegian-American Folk Music Project is helping to make these materials more accessible to music lovers all over the world by preserving the most vulnerable and unique recordings of Norwegian-American folk music that we have come across. As a researcher in this field I recognize the scholarly importance of these unique collections, but as a Norwegian American I have also come to feel a real personal connection with this music. The recordings from the 1978 Folk Music Festival, for example, were all made within three days of my birth in Decorah. It’s uncanny the way I can now link these cultural expressions with my own life. I remember stories my mother has told me about how oppressively hot the summer was when I was born. I can imagine the throngs of visitors and festivalgoers meandering down the streets and filing into the coolness of the Viking Theatre to hear some old-time dance music as my parents sat at home with their new baby. As a result of 38

Top and bottom: Materials from music collections in the Vesterheim Archives. Center: Gordon Storhoff, Lanesboro, Minnesota, on the psalmodikon at the annual Folk Music Festival.

my personal connections I feel a little sense of protectiveness towards these recordings. I think the importance of this project lies not only in ensuring that these collections do not deteriorate and disappear, but also in making this material more accessible to people who are interested in this music and who share their own personal relationship to it. The Norwegian-American Folk Music Project is a collaborative venture to promote access to and knowledge of little-known recordings and materials relating to NorwegianAmerican folk music. Through funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, contributions from Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures in Madison, Wisconsin, with cooperation from the Mills Music Library, also of Madison, this project is intended to inventory, catalog, and make available recordings and collections of Norwegian-American folk music as part of a wide-ranging virtual archive. Most of the materials prioritized by this project have been carefully gathered by various enthusiasts, musicians, and institutions, and represent particularly vulnerable recordings and resources that are routinely overlooked by larger organizations. By identifying these unique collections, including commercial and field recordings, photographs, sheet music, instruments, and interviews, the project will help make them accessible to a broader audience by launching an online archive. Vesterheim

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Vesterheim and the Norwegian American Folk Music Project  

Since 2007 Anna Rue's work in Madison, Wisconsin, has included the Norwegian-American Folk Music Project, a collaborative venture to promote...

Vesterheim and the Norwegian American Folk Music Project  

Since 2007 Anna Rue's work in Madison, Wisconsin, has included the Norwegian-American Folk Music Project, a collaborative venture to promote...