Brush Rats, Picks, Shovels & Song
With help from a long-dead ethnomusicologist, five modern guys have resurrected the music of Michigan’s lumberjacks
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 8, 2020
When you hear about a group of friends, who work primarily in church music, working on a resurrection, your first thought is … probably wrong. That’s because they are focusing on recreating songs from Michigan’s past, songs which would have been lost forever if not for the efforts of a traveling musician and music researcher who spent three months in Michigan and Wisconsin back in the 1930s.
In the 19th century, while the lumber and mining trades prospered in Michigan, so did the folk tradition. That’s owed mainly to the workers themselves, who, after a hard winter spent felling trees, or a dangerous voyage in a freighter filled with far too much iron ore, turned that pain and adventure into music.
So says the website of Michigan-I-O. Andy Bast, Bruce Benedict, Drew Elliot, Jonathan Gabhart, Noah McLaren, and Kipp Norman saw an opportunity to reimagine some nearly forgotten songs as they might have sounded — if the musicians had the ability to incorporate multiple instruments in a modern recording studio and present them to a contemporary audience.
The project stemmed from a story on National Public Radio that Bast chanced upon. It described the more than 400 songs now available through the Library of Congress from the three months that Alan Lomax spent traversing the back roads of Michigan and Wisconsin.
Lomax made it his life’s work to record and catalog thousands and thousands of songs from rural America and Great Britain. His work highlighted the efforts of early jazz, folk and blues musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Muddy Waters. His three-month trip to Michigan and Wisconsin yielded 250 discs and eight reels of film.
After hearing the NPR report, Bast approached a group of fellow musicians in the Holland area with the suggestion they look into reinterpreting and recording the songs, using traditional instruments but making the tunes more palatable to modern ears. “What if we try to contemporize them? That was the seed,” said Gabhart.
It was certainly outside their wheelhouse. “We made a number of albums together, mostly for church. This was our first venture into folk music,” said McLaren.
The 10 tracks kick off with “Traverse City,” a brief, simple ditty in which the group sings, “Never did see what a place Traverse City is a good thing to be, oh dear, oh dear.” It’s followed by the title track, “Michigan I-O.” Gabhart explained the “I-O” part was simply added on to give the line the necessary number of syllables for its rhythm. “It has cousin songs, all written over the melody of an English folks song. The ‘I-O’ fills it out.”
The recording includes eight other songs, with titles like “Red Iron Ore,” “Johnnie Carleses’ Lumber Camp” and “The Lumberjack's Alphabet.” Gabhart said there is plenty more material if the group decides it wants to make a second recording, or even a third. “We couldn’t get to all of them. We’ll be recording this fall, and aim for a summer 2021 release.
“For our purposes, we left out the German and Polish ones.”
The materials comprise the largest single collection of the folk music and storytelling tradition from Michigan's first century as a state. The Library of Congress recently published a large portion of the collection online at loc.gov.
The two said the material is not just fun to play, though it is that. It also sheds a light on the state’s early days from a different perspective.
“The songs are a gateway into researching the history of the state,” said McLaren. “I was born and raised in what is now farmland, but it was forest. It was cut over after the 1830s. That land on the east side [of the state] now looks like Iowa.”
“One of the initial impulses was an exploration into Michigan history we weren’t familiar with. It’s a window into a world so easily forgotten even though it’s relatively recent,” added Gabhart.
The musicians recorded the music on the Keweenaw Peninsula, with traditional instruments including guitars, banjos, upright bass, mandolin, fiddle, even harmonium (a hand-held pump organ). While making the recording may have been a labor of love, it certainly was not all easy labor. Trying to reconstruct the melody and harmonies, then determining the instrumentation, was a challenge. “Several were snippets of words and melodies,” said Gabhart. “We have no idea of what else. We used traditional instrumentation, including harmonium. We felt it to be a pleasing texture.”
The group has performed the music at venues across the state, but as with other performers have been relegated to the sidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While the songs may not be musically complex, the two said lyrically they often tell wonderful stories. “Is the content simple? No. There are threads within threads,” said Gabhart.
“It’s masterful use of language. The songs sometimes catch me unawares. They take you back,” added McLaren.
The album is available on the group’s website, www.MichiganIO.com, at Amazon, and you can also find it in digital ($10) and vinyl editions ($30+) at michiganio.bandcamp.com/album/michigan-i-o