Driven by a Love of Folklore

I was born in 1950 in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. I lived literally between two lakes, a woods, and a swamp. We were on the edge of the city limits, and quite a few of our near neighbors were on small farms.

Photos by Megan Monday

Jim Leary | Mt. Horeb, WI

“In my family, we have some Welsh and some Scottish ancestry, but we’re mostly Irish. I grew up with a strong sense of heritage, and all of my immigrant ancestors were famine refugees. They were illiterate laborers. From that I got a lifelong sympathy for immigrant and refugee people and for working people, and for anybody who’s being oppressed.

Everything turned around in my family—in terms of access to education—when my great-great-aunt, Katy Leary, got a job as a maid for Mark Twain. The Mark Twain. When Twain died, he left some money to Aunt Katy, and then, because of Katy’s generosity and the fact that she had no children, my grandfather was able to use some of this money to get an education. I see this money as what kind of got us out of the ditch. It opened the door to higher education for my family.

My grandfather ended up getting a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University. He was in World War One, met a woman from La Crosse, and ended up coming to Wisconsin and getting into the newspaper business. My grandparents had my dad in 1922.

On my other side, my mother grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and was the first person in her family to go to college. She got a scholarship to Columbia University to study journalism, and that’s where my folks met. They lived there until 1948, when my grandfather had a heart attack and asked if my dad would come back to Rice Lake, his hometown.

In Rice Lake, my dad worked as the editor and publisher of the Rice Lake Chronotype, the local newspaper. It was hard for my mom at first, being in a small town after NYC, but she persisted. Then, they started to have a bunch of kids, and I think she put a lot of her creative spirit into her kids.

My parents had seven of us kids in total. We were Irish Catholic, and I was raised Catholic. My folks always felt that material things weren’t that important. What was important was education and travel and having a broad understanding of human beings. That’s why my mother loved hosting exchange students from other countries, and we were fortunate to have students live with us from Germany, Colombia, and Finland.

Rice Lake was an interesting place to grow up. There were lots of people whose parents or grandparents were immigrants, mostly from European countries.

Poor people, a lot of them, Norwegians, some Swedes, Germans. There were Italians brought over to work in the woods and then they went to work as scabs, unfortunately, on the railroad, and then started to homestead and stayed. There were French Canadians and Irish who came down through Canada, Polish, Czech people.

So, I grew up in a community where there was a lot of awareness of what was then called nationality. And, by the time I came along, people weren’t fighting as much at least about ethnicity as they once were. We’d experience each others’ cultures—in the ’50s over live radio you could hear polka music, the Polish barn dance, and old-time country music, even Swiss yodeling! There was a recognition that everybody came from somewhere, and there was appreciation of different kinds of food and music.”

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“I always thought of Rice Lake as the best place in the world to grow up, even though it was kind of rough-and-tough and I got into a lot of fights. I have a dead tooth from getting hit in the mouth with a chain during a fight when I was about 12 or 13. Dentists have wanted to take it out or whiten it, but I said, ‘No, it’s a trademark.’ Who would I be if I didn’t have my crooked finger or my black tooth?

When I was growing up there were always bullies around, like this older guy, Chester. I played Little League baseball, but in those days it wasn’t like now where the parents come with their lawn chairs and you have uniforms and get your picture taken and there are little baseball cards made of you. We had no uniforms, parents were never around. We just rode our bikes to this dusty field, but we did play a lot of baseball. Sometimes I’d have a little money and go to the root beer stand or Dairy Queen for lunch after the games. That’s where this Chester would hang out with his lackeys, and they would come and surround you and try to get money from you.

I did my best to avoid him, but once we did fight. He was 19 or so and I was 14. He came into an after-school dance with a couple of his friends; they sat down behind me and he started pushing me. I told him off in front of all his friends. When I left later on he was waiting for me in the parking lot.

I was pretty scrappy, and I was able to beat him up. After it was all over, I remember walking away, but while my back was turned he came charging at me like he was going to jump on my back. It was an asphalt parking lot, and he made too much noise. Once I heard him, I jumped aside and stuck my foot out, and he went sprawling. He told me how he was gonna kill me and how I couldn’t run from him or whatever, but I thought I had proved my point.

My older brother Mike and I also always fought each other, but my resourceful parents had these creative punishments where if I fought with Mike I would have to write some sort of essay about all the wonderful things about him. I would resist for quite a while, but finally I would do it.

My brother Mike and I, we grew up on a couple of acres. We cut the grass and raked the leaves and changed the storm windows and all that. My mother needed help at home, so I also changed diapers and learned how to do the laundry and I cleaned toilets and scrubbed floors, and I learned how to cook.

I was sometimes chided by some of my friends for doing ‘woman's’ work, but I said, ‘All work is work.’

I’ve always liked to work. I’ve done warehouse work, loading and off-loading trucks for the Coca Cola bottling company in my hometown. When I was 14, I started working for a dollar and a quarter an hour, which was minimum wage, stuffing sections of newspapers together for my dad’s weekly newspaper in Rice Lake. I worked in a foundry. I made hay piling up square bales in a hay mow.

Later on, when I was in grad school, I did janitorial work. I did a lot of window washing. I was the outside guy on the ladder. I scrubbed floors and cleaned kitchens and bathrooms and did painting, interior and exterior, stuff like that. That was fairly typical of a lot of my friends that I grew up with. People learn to work and get your own money. It was important to me to have my own money so I could buy my own clothes when I was 15 or 16—I didn’t want to rely on my mother’s fashion sense!

That love of work has always stuck with me. These days my heart is in writing and ethnography, but I will always be a laborer.”

[Editor’s Note: Jim’s kids have a pet name for him with his black tooth, crooked finger, and scrappy, hard-working ways. They call him the ‘Scruff Master.’]

“When I was 16 years old I spent a year as an exchange student in Australia, in 1967. We had always taken in exchange students at Rice Lake, so in turn my mother had encouraged me to fill out the application form. I did it with great reluctance because I had my friends, and I was also a wrestler and a football player. If I went, I would miss my senior year, and we’d won the championship the previous year. I was ready to be a big man in the high school.

But my uncle Jim told me that they had rugby out there that was similar, and someone told me that they had good beer and you could go into the taverns without having your ID checked, so I decided to go and miss the second half of my junior year and the first half of my senior year of high school.

That year, 1967, was a time of a lot of turmoil in the United States and also internationally. I had never had the experience of being outside of the United States and viewing the country from afar. Being among people from-the-outside-looking-in expanded my own consciousness. I found Australia to be a kind of multi-ethnic experience, too—there were a lot of new Australians. Some were Croatian, some were Spanish, Greek, some Pacific Islanders. Being there opened up my understanding about the world and gave me a new perspective of back home.

I finished high school and followed my dad’s footsteps: I went to college at Notre Dame. I was a Literature major, and everyone at Notre Dame also had to get a double minor in Philosophy and Theology. I was a curious person. Luckily, I was able to learn about all sorts of world religions, and I had this interest in grassroots, culturally plural kinds of expressions.

My freshman year of college I’d started to grow my hair and beard out. There was a priest in every dormitory at Notre Dame, and one night, while I was sleeping I got a phone call from our dorm priest. He told me to come to his office immediately. He accused me of drugging my roommate and called me a ‘Goddamn hippie’.

Of course I had not drugged my roommate, and I realized that because I was a long haired, scruffy looking guy in 1968, my appearance—and maybe even my curiosity—made people suspicious of me.

That experience with the priest was a turning point for me. I realized that just because someone had authority did not mean they were a good person, or that they were telling the truth. I started to question a lot of institutions that I had grown up with and before had accepted uncritically. I began to re-examine what I valued, and think about the purpose of my life. I started participating in demonstrations and joined the Anti-Vietnam War Movement.

During that time, I met a woman named Suzanne. Suzanne was a grad student at Notre Dame studying English, and I was in my second year of undergrad. At the time I didn’t even really know what graduate school was. We got to know each other, and she said, ‘Given your interests, have you ever thought about studying folklore?’ I had no idea that that was a thing I could do.

Suzanne encouraged me continue my education, saying that there are folklore books and journals. So I went and took a look, and was intrigued by what I saw.

Folklore is the traditional set of expressive practices that groups of people do. It’s ways of speaking and special expressions—stories, rhymes, songs, games, dances, food traditions, handwork traditions…the things that people share—and modify—as they live. Folklore studies all that.

I began to understand little by little that there is a kind of deep historical and cultural meaning to those practices. They express a lot about a place and a people. In any one place you can find combinations of true stories, exaggerated legends, and outright jokes that paint a local picture. It was fascinating. It just seemed like somebody needed to set that stuff down. Within a year, I was off to graduate school to study folklore.”

“Talking with Suzanne had opened up my awareness to folklore as a course of study, and to graduate school, which changed my whole path. And we got married, but it didn’t last long. We were both really focused on different things—I needed to move for my PhD, and she wanted to stay to build her career, and frankly, she wanted to take up with other people at the same time. I mean, it was the early ’70s, but I couldn’t do it. Being involved with one person was enough. You know, I was raised Catholic, church wedding, all this stuff. So my marriage ended. I think I was kind of clinically depressed for a while. I just sort of felt like maybe I’d gone down the wrong path somehow, and my dreams weren’t working out.

When I went away for my PhD in Indiana, I was really fortunate to meet Janet in the folklore program there. Janet had been getting her degree for two years by the time I began, so pretty soon she was ready to go off and do her dissertation fieldwork in Oregon, and…she wanted me to come with her.

As part of my folklore studies, I have always had an interest in cultural stories and jokes. I got really into jokes, which often use stock characters so that people get to know them and their personalities. The characters are usually foolish or with some cunning or boastfulness or whatever. Anyway, there’s a famous series of Irish jokes featuring two characters, Pat and Mike, and there’s one joke in particular that I really felt applied to my situation with Janet.

It goes: Pat and Mike are walking along the seashore, and they see that someone is drowning in the ocean. Pat jumps in and swims out to the guy, but then swims back again to shore. He swims out a second time to the guy and this time brings the guy in. Mike says, ‘Why’d you do that?’ and Pat says, ‘By God, before I could save him I had to save myself!’

I had to say no to going to Oregon with Janet. I still had to finish my own dissertation, and I felt like if I didn’t finish I wasn’t gonna be worth anything to myself, and if I’m not worth anything to myself, I’m not gonna be worth anything to somebody else. I had to save myself, I had to be alone for a while, and I had to get myself out of the depressed state that I was in. I was longing to do some fieldwork back in my home territory.

Going to graduate school had made me realize two things. One, the stuff that folklorists study—stories, rhymes, songs, games, dances, food traditions, handwork traditions—that stuff was all around the area where I grew up. And two, hardly anybody had done any work in the Upper Midwest, and especially in Wisconsin.

My dad gave me fifty bucks, and I spent half on beer, but with the other half I bought a tape recorder, some tapes, and a little microphone.

When I first set out to explore the stories and cultures of the Upper Midwest, I immediately thought of George. George was an amazing storyteller, born in 1885, who I first met when I was five years old.

My relationship with George started with my mother’s father, who grew up on a ranch in Nebraska and felt that no boy should grow up without a horse. So my grandfather got my brother and me a horse, and my folks made arrangements with George, a neighbor, to board the horse at his barn.

We’d go down to George’s to tend to the horse, and my folks would go down and talk to George about Ireland. George’s parents were immigrants, and he had spent years working in the woods as a timber scaler. He knew a lot of humorous anecdotes, and sometimes tragic ones, from growing up in the community where he did. But most of them were funny in some ways. He knew a lot of jokes and stories. I started recording George in 1975.

There’s a series of Scandinavian jokes that are pretty common called Ole and Lena jokes, about Ole and his wife, Lena. The first one I ever learned was from George. It goes:

Lena was constantly writing little jingles for a contest to see if she could win something. Finally, she won, and Ole asked what she wrote. ‘Vat did you write, Lena?’ She says, ‘I wrote Carnation milk is best of all, no tits to pull, no shit to haul.’ That’s the joke. George also told some bawdy stories, and I gotta say I learned a lot from my time talking with him and recording him.”

“Doing folklore research in my own area of the Upper Midwest was so rewarding. It gave me a sense of purpose and pulled me out of the funk I was in. Time helped with that too, and a couple years had passed.

To my delight, soon I started running into Janet from my folklore program again. We both were active in the American Folklore Society, and I saw her at some meetings. I had finished my dissertation, and she finished her fieldwork in Oregon, and I pursued her, let’s say. It worked! She checked the stars and found a propitious day and time, and we got married in the summer of 1978.

We decided to try and find work somewhere that meant something to us. So when I got a year-long grant to record life histories and music from people of different ethnic communities in Wisconsin, we jumped at the opportunity.

Recording stories requires that you hunt around a lot for the right storytellers. I heard about this older Finnish American guy, Bill, who was a piano accordion player. I went and knocked on the door and his wife said, ‘He's down in the cellar.’

It was an old root cellar that you had to get in through those double doors in the earth. Bill was down there with the canned goods and the cabbages and so forth, playing music. He was there because he was partly going deaf and he had arthritis so he had to play loud, and he was trying to record all of the old Finnish tunes that he knew, before they disappeared. He had a crappy old tape recorder and some cheap tapes, and it was dusty down there. When I went down into the basement and told him who I was and what I wanted to do, he said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’

I was able to record his music, his life history, and put it in an archive. We had an event where we displayed the recordings to the public, and Bill and his wife came and were able to see everything I had documented. It felt good to me, and I think it felt good to Bill that we were able to not only record and preserve it, but share it.

That’s how a lot of my field work went, and in the early years I would go project to project. Sometimes I would teach, or I’d get a job doing field recordings for a CD project. I got to work on something for the Festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian. Another time Janet and I both got to be part of a year-long folk arts survey of Wisconsin that led to a museum exhibit. It was varied and fun, and I did contract work for many, many years.

Little by little I started to get part-time teaching at UW-Madison. Eventually I ended up in the Scandinavian Studies Department as a full professor, which was pretty cool. Once I was there, I was able to find allies, and do bigger projects. One I’m really proud of is co-founding the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. We’re a coalition of folklorists and linguists who are interested in research, collections development, and public programs regarding the languages and folklore of diverse people in our region.

We founded it because we really wanted to bridge the gap between the ‘ivory tower’ of academia and the rest of the world. With the Center, we give students the opportunity to go beyond academic papers and do public work that involves the people you are documenting and gives back to the community. We partner with organizations—labor unions, tribes, immigrant and ethnic groups, whoever we’re working with—to collaborate and offer back to the community in the form of some kind of public production.  

Fortunately, here in Wisconsin, we have other places that support folklore studies, like the Wisconsin Arts Board, Folklore Village, The Chippewa Valley Museum, and the Wisconsin Humanities Council, which is very supportive of work that folklorists do.

I just think that if we want to understand places and people, it’s so important to hear the peoples’ voices, stories, customs, foodways, songs…any and all of the expressive dimension of their lives. We can’t rely on the ‘historical record’ to capture them, because a lot of times people don’t create organized lasting records of their customs. Really, it’s the task of the folklorists to create a documentary record by engaging with the people who are steeped in the traditions of their places.

So that’s what I’m after as a folklorist. I think it comes out of being grounded in Northern Wisconsin and my own little community where I grew up. My parents and friends and neighbors all helped me see what was remarkable about that place, Rice Lake, and I’ve carried that with me. It’s been my guide.”

“In terms of my folklore work, I think writing the academic stuff is meaningful, but I remember my dad always saying, ‘Who’s gonna read it?’ Or actually he’d say, ‘WGAS. Who Gives A Shit?’ If you write something that’s full of arcane jargon, it’s kind of self-serving and narrow, I think. So I’ve always been drawn to public works. Creating a festival, or producing a recording, doing a radio piece, or working on a film, or doing a museum exhibit. Stuff like that is more accessible to more people than an academic paper, and knowing I could do this was just kind of thrilling.

And, there are plenty of advocates and interpreters out there for ‘high culture’—literature and the opera and modern dance—but I think the grassroots practices of regular human beings is of importance, and perhaps of greater importance. Paying attention to people and their expressive ways is the only way to know ourselves and our cultures. I think it begs inquiry.

I’ve been fortunate to do lots of things in my career, from creating radio shows with Wisconsin Public Radio (‘Down Home Dairyland’ regarding ‘Traditional and Ethnic Music of the Upper Midwest’) to making movies (‘The Art of Ironworking’). For years, I got to teach a course called Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University of Wisconsin where I looked at American Indians, Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and European Americans, drawing a lot on fieldwork that I’d done. A lot of what I was trying to do is cut down these barriers between people by having them recognize all the things that they have in common.

A recent really fun thing is that a compilation of my work, ‘Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946,’ was nominated for a Grammy. It was so cool to see these field recordings from here get recognized. I went to the ceremony in Los Angeles and wore my ‘World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band’ hat.

All in all I don’t think of myself as a collector, but rather as a documenter and a kind of co-creator because collecting implies taking things, and I try to also reciprocate and collaborate. I began to understand early on that the lives and experiences I was documenting were very profound. They were ordinary in some ways, but in many ways, everyone is kind of extraordinary. Many of these people were eloquent, sometimes with their words but other times with their food or their dancing or the way they would play a tune. There can be such beauty in such simple ways.

I don’t think any one place is better than any other place, but I think every place has its worth and every place is connected in one way or another to every other place. The Upper Midwest is my place. It’s where I take my stand.”

-Jim Leary | Mount Horeb, WI

Jim’s story was made possible with generous support from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. 

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