Following his project’s July release, a University of Wisconsin professor is making even more noise after his work that restored and produced thousands of folklore materials was nominated for a Grammy in Best Album Notes.
Professor of folklore and Scandinavian studies Jim Leary, who was born in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, said people in the Upper Midwest region where the music originated were “hungry ” for access to the material, which consisted of folk songs and collections from the past. But after beginning to make field work of his own and meet other artists in the process, he saw the potential in a project that would share the history of the recordings.
After the long process of taking the original recordings and digitally restoring them for himself as well as the translators he worked with, a tangible result was in the works.
“I’m hoping that this will help a broader understanding of what America is and what the upper Midwest is in its place where cultural diversity or pluralism contributes to a wonderful, larger whole,” Leary said.
The project, which he said contains more than 450 pages including about 100 illustrations, five CDs and a film, focuses on field recordings with people of various ethnic working class and indigenous backgrounds in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Leary said he took around 2,000 works in 25 languages from Sidney Robertson and Alan Lomax among other ethnographers and provided background on various ethnic groups involved with the recording project, as well as all the songs and their performers.
A great deal of the recordings weren’t easily accessible or previously released, but Leary said since the project’s completion and distribution he’s received positive feedback.
Before he was contacted by the Grammy’s, he found a review of his work in the British magazine Uncut where “Folk Songs of Another America” was rated higher than a recent album from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. In addition to Uncut, the Chicago Reader recognized Leary’s project in their “You can do better than an iTunes gift card” feature along with artists like Isley Brothers and Bob Dylan.
“People in the region including descendants of some of the performers were really hungry to have access to this material and see recognition of music they kind of knew was there, but had never really been codified or promoted by someone who knew, to an extent, what they were doing,” Leary said.
While he’s not sure if he’ll be in attendance at the award ceremony, in regards to his recent feat, Leary said throughout the entire process of constructing the project he only dreamed he might receive a nomination from the prestigious award organization.
Reflecting on the beginning stages of the project, Leary said he thought if he could do a good job, he might have a shot at the award. But, he said, thinking or dreaming is one thing; actually being “in the mix” is another. Now that he has a chance to win Best Album Notes, he said he’s “bowled over” by the news and the honor of the recognition.