“Lumberjack songs? Seriously?”

“Just listen. You’ll see.”

“Fine.”

We were road-tripping out to the lake, and my spouse wanted me to listen to an album of nineteenth-century Michigan folk songs about the lumber and shipping industries. I figured this is the sort of thing one must endure for love, so I settled back in the passenger seat to get this over with.

One song in, I was impressed. Two songs in, I was hooked. By the end of the album I was singing along with the rollicking, drinking-song fun of “The Lumberjack’s Alphabet”:

A is for axe which we swing to and fro.
B is for boys that handles them so.
C is for canthooks the logs we make spin.
D is for danger that we’re always in.

The album is called Michigan-I-O, after the name of one of the tunes. It features ten regional folk songs selected from a Library of Congress audio archive and newly arranged and performed by West Michigan musicians. I’m proud to say that they’re almost all guys we know: church musicians who started playing together five years ago at Hope College, Western Theological Seminary, and local churches.

Last year, this group of friends learned about an audio archive built by a guy named Alan Lomax. Lomax was a fascinating, brilliant ethnomusicologist passionate about collecting American folk music. He was working for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, and in 1938, he took a road trip to Michigan and Wisconsin, visiting pubs and front porches, seeking out the old guys who remembered work songs popular among the men who shipped ore and logged forests in the late nineteenth century. Lomax lugged his recording rig all over the region, persuading the old guys to warble into his microphone and eventually collecting hundreds of songs. The Library of Congress has now digitized the whole collection and–wonderfully–it’s available to the public.

That’s what gave a group of young Michigan musicians who play guitar, mandolin, banjo, and other folksy instruments the idea to hole up in a cabin in the Upper Peninsula last fall and listen to this old stuff. They chose their favorites and arranged the songs in a style that feels at once both nostalgic and charmingly hipster-modern. Their new versions manage to preserve enough rough edges for authenticity while reimagining the songs in a folk idiom appealing to modern listeners.

“The Lumberjack’s Alphabet” represents the fun side of the album, the hard-working-guys-letting-loose genre. But other songs are surprisingly poignant, full of longing and sorrow. In “Michigan-I-O,” for example, Noah McLaren’s caramel-smooth voice brings to life the never-again regrets of a young fella seduced by the promise of good pay into spending his winter in a miserable Michigan logging camp. He survives, though much disillusioned about “that God-forsaken country called Michigan-I-O.” The ballad “Red Iron Ore” half laments, half celebrates the journey of the EC Roberts from Chicago to Cleveland, picking up ore in Escanaba and braving the myriad hazards of Great Lakes shipping.

The band’s arrangements revel in the twang and fiddle of folk music, but also allow us to perceive the ironies echoing behind in the lyrics. We hear about camaraderie, but also about exploitation, physical dangers, and wily con men. We hear about the satisfactions of skilled labor, but also feel the weight of loneliness and frustrated dreams.  

Maybe this is why my favorite songs on the album are the most melancholy. “Michigan Fire” is the poetic account of a fire that burns a forest, awakening heroism and community among the neighbors. Accompanied by complex guitar picking and haunting harmonies, Jonathan Gabhart’s vocals convey the grief and fear of the event, then settle on a farmer’s tenuous hope: “not a stump will be in sight the reaper to prevent.”

“Lowlands,” the last—and in my opinion the best—song on the album, recounts a strange tale of ship sabotage. Here, Gabhart dreamily syncopates the lyrics atop a wash of minor harmonies, sending you out “upon the lonesome sea” and somehow breaking your heart.

I was lucky enough to see the group perform live in public for the first time last weekend. They performed (appropriately) at Grand Rapids’ restored Wealthy Street Theater, which was built in 1911 when these songs were still current. A good crowd turned up, and we learned about the history of “the project” and about some of the thoughtful details that went into it. The organ-like sounds you hear on the album, for example, are produced by a harmonium—an instrument designed to be portable enough that ship’s crews could bring it along on voyages.

The evening’s host invited us to celebrate this music as our own, as part of our Michigan heritage. Which was all in good fun for a bunch of (mostly) pastors and academics, of course, but I kept thinking instead about how this music is embedded in problematic aspects of Michigan’s past. Two hundred years ago, Michigan was barely settled by white people and was mostly covered with unbroken forest. In 1836, to make way for imminent waves of white settlers, the Treaty of Washington effectively ousted the Ottawa peoples from two-thirds of their land north of the Grand River, not long after the Potawatomi had ceded their land in 1821.

Settlers started coming, and so did eager industrialists. Copper, iron, lumber—soon Michigan’s natural riches were being loaded onto railroads and ships for profit. Starting in 1840, almost all of Michigan’s old growth forests were cut down—a period now called “the cutover.” Trees between 250 and 300 years old and up to 150 feet tall were felled by the thousands. According to Michigan historian Camden Burd, “From 1869-1909, 16.8 billion board feet of lumber were removed from Michigan and shipped to larger cities.”

My appreciation of the Michigan-I-O songs was much enhanced, retroactively, by a visit last summer to Hartwick Pines State Park, one of the few places in Michigan where one can still see old-growth forest. This 49-acre plot was accidentally missed in the cutover, and by the time the loggers realized their “mistake” they had moved on further north, and it would have been too expensive to go back. Hence a small remnant of pre-logging days persists. The park features an outdoor lumbering museum, a well-curated replica of a lumber camp. There I was able to view a room full of massive, fearsome logging gear that reminded one strongly of a torture chamber. I suppose from the trees’ point of view, it was. The bunk house helpfully explained how men from a variety of backgrounds came to these camps for the winter, enduring cold, danger, and loneliness for meager pay. Recalling what I saw there, I can understand how one of the songs on the album hopes to God there is “no greater hell” than Michigan.

After the performance last weekend, I talked for a few minutes with Gabhart. He told me that the archive recordings are usually just a vocal, so the group had plenty of leeway in devising arrangements that coax out the songs’ emotional potentials. Gabhart said, too, that they recorded the album at a cabin on Lake Superior in full view of four miles of lifeless moonscape created by mining companies who devastated the landscape years ago. It has yet to recover.  

So despite the charming folk songs left behind by people long gone, we shouldn’t be tempted to romanticize this period in Michigan’s history. Indeed, the songs do not ask that of us. They recall the bravery, suffering, and dreams of ordinary people, but they also gesture ominously toward the gleeful destruction and exploitation characterizing our recent history.

I’m grateful that the Michigan-I-O group has preserved and renewed these remarkable folk memories, distilling all that historical complexity into the seemingly effortless appeal of these songs. Happily, the group is planning a volume 2, to be recorded next summer.

Michigan I-O is Andy Bast, Jonathan Gabhart, Bruce Benedict, Noah McLaren, Kipp Normand, Drew Elliot, Jake Helder, and Aaron Kates.

You can listen to all these songs on BandCamp, where you can also purchase the album for download. It’s also available in limited edition vinyl.

The Library of Congress recordings are available here. Just search for the song title you’d like to hear. There’s also an LOC podcast episode featuring this collection.

Additional historical material from Wallace K. Ewing, Destination: The Haven, 2019.

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