Scholar Shows The Beauty Of American Pluralism
Birds trill. Wolves howl. People sing.
They do it, as Jim Leary puts it with simultaneous humor and profundity, to say: “I’m here. Somebody is here!”
This existential cry has been ringing out all over the world for thousands of years. It thrums over the mountain of Tibet, where monks throat-sing; it pulsates in the late-night clubs of Germany; rejoices in tiny chapels across North America.
In the Swiss Alps, the cry took shape in the form of yodeling, and the voices of solitary farmers resounding off of the vast peaks and valleys of the epic, prehistoric mountain landscape. When those people immigrated to Wisconsin, to a little town called New Glarus and the surrounding area, they brought with them their farming lifestyle, their cheesemaking wisdom, and those vacillating, unique musical yelps that defined them and told the world they were there. While much of that world has vanished today, the songs of those immigrants, which came in a uniquely American hodgepodge of languages, remain with us, in large part because of a record label that preserved their music for future generations.
While Helvetia Records told the stories of those mountain people who settled in the American Midwest, Leary, UW-Madison Emeritus Professor of Folklore and Scandinavian studies, and others are now earning praise for telling the story of Helvetia Records. Leary was even nominated for his second Grammy award in the “Best Album Notes” category this year. (In 2015 Leary was nominated for his work on “Folksongs of another America: Field Recordings of the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946.”)
“Alpine Dreaming: The Helvetia Records Story, 1920-1924” was released in 2018 and it includes a collaboration between the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern cultures and Mills Music Library. Also involved were two graduate students from the university’s German Nordic Slavic Department, Joel Kaipainen and Matthew Greene, who helped translate the Swiss and Austrian dialects into English.
Leary called both of his Grammy nominations “tributes to our little known indigenous and immigrant musical ancestors - in this case Swiss yodelers and accordionists.”
While Leary is an accomplished academic, these projects are distinctly personal for him. Leary grew up in Rice Lake, where as a child he crossed paths with a man named Otto Rindlisbacher. Rindlisbacher was an interesting character by even the most lofty standard. He was a prodigy on the fiddle and accordion who made cheese, worked as a logger, and toiled in a sawmill. He also ran Rice Lake’s prohibition-era Buckhorn Café, a place that Leary remembers being positively drenched in culture and narrative threads.
“In some ways this began long ago, when I was growing up in Rice Lake,” Leary recalls.
“[Rindlisbacher] ran this tavern, the Buckhorn, and he was a taxidermist who stuffed real animals but also ones he made; like the dingbat, which was an owl with antlers that would fly over the town and terrify people, and a fur herring, and a shovel-tailed snow snake,” he continues. “And he had all these musical instruments. All sorts of other things, too, like Al Capone’s bulletproof windshield.”
Rindlisbacher was a deer hunter and a member of the one-shot club as well. And most importantly to “Alpine Dreaming,” he was an important force in the emergence of Helvetia Records.
He had a stroke and died before Leary grew up and became a scholar, but the recent re-release of a batch of old recordings, and the need to tell the story of the people who recorded them, meant Leary was the person to call in.
“They said, let’s do a re-issue,” Leary says. “The fact that they were interested kind of put me into high gear.”
“Yeah, I go down the rabbit hole,” he adds with a chuckle.
Leary’s task was to find images and background information and write the first part of the booklet, “which is about the context and what the songs are about.” It wasn’t all easy. The recordings came in a dazzling, often confounding, amalgamation of dialects and languages. There was broken English, standard German, Swiss/German, and even Austrian. All on recordings that crackled and popped with a century of age.
But as the records’ audio was restored, so was the story of Helvetia Records and the people whose songs were captured in its recordings.
Leary had all this as background when he began a two-year hunt, in earnest, for material to publish in conjunction with a re-release of Helvetia Records’ music and story last year. Leary was like Sherlock Holmes, but instead of dusting for fingerprints or looking at the angle of wear on someone’s cane, he was busy hunting for “interesting clusters of cheese factories,” scouring old newspaper clippings, reading reviews and accounts from as far away as New Jersey, and hunting for other clues that would lead him to Swiss music of the time.
The liner notes to “Alpine Dreaming” tell a story both romantic and factual. A historical account that treads close to poetry in several places.
“Displaced peoples dream, and their dreams are made of regret and resolve, of homeland hearths abandoned and lamps lit about golden doors, of what was left and what looms,” it begins.
“In the limited space you have, you hope to show that humanity,” explains Leary. “It’s tricky, but also not hard to do once you pull together all the snippets and get into it.”
In telling the story, Leary takes readers from the bucolic alps to the recording studio.
“These are Swiss/German people, and so yodeling is pretty strong,” he explains. “In the spring, when the snow would melt they would bring the cows up to good pasture, then back down again in the fall. And when they were up there, the reverberation of those distances was used for music. There were songs about mountains and mountain streams and milkmaids and things.” Even the cows were part of those alpine choirs, wearing big, melodic bells around their necks and bellowing into the abyss.
Forays into existentialism aside, Leary’s research also has a blue-collar element, drawing from the farmers and cheesemakers at the center of the story.
“It’s like writing about cooking or driving a bulldozer, or whatever; it’s a physical activity with motion, and you try to capture that,” he says.
Leary postulates that perhaps his lack of musical experience is one of his greatest strengths in this case: “I don’t play music, and I don’t read music, so I guess I’m able to come at it as an interested person.” It allows him to learn alongside the reader, as he comes to better understand the sounds and songs.
And it allows him to let the musicians tell their own story.
“Musicians who perhaps have never written a sentence in their life can be very eloquent when they talk about their music,” Leary says. “It’s amazing some of the things you find when you go through the interviews and reviews in those old newspapers.” In his research, Leary found honest, original appraisals of the sounds these players made with their instruments. A “punctual” trumpet that was “loud but not too blatty,” being a prime example.
Leary, who now has two Grammy nominee medals on his shelf, says the accolades should be a source of pride, not just for him but for everyone who calls the upper Midwest home. It is a celebration of all those who sing out and say “I’m here!” in any number of languages.
“It gives me great pride, personally. But it also shows an appreciation for the upper Midwest and the immigrants who were singing there, and not primarily in English,” he says. “It shows an appreciation for that American Pluralism.”
“Alpine Dreaming” is available for purchase on Amazon.com as well as Archeophone Records.