Franz Rickaby with Gretchen Dykstra and James P. Leary
Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era
University of Wisconsin Press 2017
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in FolkloreNew Books in HistoryNew Books in MusicNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Popular CultureNew Books Network January 10, 2018 Rachel Hopkin
Gretchen Dykstra‘s career to date has been both impressive and wide-ranging. She was the founding President of the Times Square Alliance, the former Commissioner of the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, and the founding President of the 9/11 Memorial Foundation. She is also a writer, and in this New Books in Folklore episode, she is interviewed about her biography of her grandfather, Franz Rickaby, which features in Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017)
Franz Rickaby was a young folk music collector and fiddler and between 1919 and 1923, he travelled extensively around the Upper Midwest, seeking out the songs and stories of logging industry workers. Even as he embarked on his venture, the region’s lumber business was in stark decline. Most of the original pine forests that had covered the area had been clear cut by that time, but although the environment had been depleted, a rich cache of folkloric material remained. Rickaby set about preserving this material—songs, ballads, and stories—in manuscript form and then presented in his seminal work Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy. This tome provided, as folklorist James P. Leary writes in his introduction to Pinery Boys, “the foundation for our understanding of North Americas Anglophone lumberjack folksongs, song-makers, and singers” (3).
Alas, Rickaby himself died aged 35 shortly before Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy appeared in print leaving the prominent Harvard-based folklorist George Kittredge to oversee its publication which took place in 1926. Rickaby’s wife Lillian, who had urged Kittredge to take up the task, wrote elsewhere that although she was sorry that her husband had not lived to see the finished product, “what are books to those who walk among the stars?” (70).
Gretchen Dykstra’s biography of her grandfather forms a significant part of Pinery Boys and offers valuable insight into the life and motivations of a man about whom little was previously known. Pinery Boys also includes the republication of Rickaby’s Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy, along with other material he collected but which fell outside of the purview of his major work. In addition, and as mentioned earlier, the book’s introduction, which provides valuable context, is written by the University of Wisconsin’s James P. Leary. Leary, himself a distinguished scholar of the folk music of the Upper Midwest, also provides illuminating annotations to Rickaby’s work.
Incidentally, during the course of her New Books in Folklore interview, Dykstra mentions a recent recording of songs collected by her grandfather as performed by Brian Miller. More information about this recording, which is entitled Minnesota Lumberjack Songs: Irish and Scottish Music from the North Woods, can be found here.
Rachel Hopkin is a UK born, US based folklorist and radio producer and is currently a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University.