UW professor nominated for Grammy Award

UW professor nominated for Grammy Award
Jim Leary

A professor from the University of Wisconsin was among the nominees for the 58th Grammy Awards.

Jim Leary is a professor of folklore and Scandinavian studies at UW-Madison and a Mount Horeb resident.

He found out in December that he was going up against Joni Mitchell for a Grammy in the category of Best Album Notes. Leary is one of five nominees in the category, which has been awarded since 1964.

Leary’s 10-year project, “Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946,” was released by the University of Wisconsin Press in July. It includes five CDs of folk recordings made decades ago along, with song lyrics and translations.

Leary said “folklore is the art of the common people. If you want to know who people are or what a region is, you need to look at the stories, the songs and the customs of those people.”

The recordings were made in the late 1930s and mid-1940s by field workers from the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song in Washington, D.C. They visited the upper Midwest and made field recordings with portable disc-cutting equipment and microphones.

They recorded 2,000 songs in 25 languages in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Most of the performances had been hidden away in archives until Leary uncovered them.

“People interested in American folk song haven’t thought about people in the upper Midwest. They just thought about the people in the West or South singing in English,” Leary said. “The sheer number of languages made it a tremendous challenge for anyone to know what these songs were even about.”

Leary found out he was nominated for a Grammy when friends and colleagues started commenting on his Facebook page.

“I was thrilled, of course. It was kind of amazing. I’d hoped it might happen, but you never know until it does, so it was thrilling,” Leary said.

Leary is retiring this year after 32 years of teaching at UW-Madison.

‘Winning a Grammy would be personally thrilling, of course, but I also feel like it would be recognition of this amazing music that rural and working-class people have been making in this region for many years,” Leary said. “Also, it’s recognition that immigrants and indigenous peoples and their diverse languages and voices are part of who we are as Americans and upper Midwesterners.”

Joni Mitchell’s “Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting to be Danced,” beat out Leary for the Grammy.