Special Report: Alan Lomax’s Legend Pt. 2

In part one of our special report: Alan Lomax’s Legend, we showed you who Alan Lomax was and why his recordings are so important.

In part two, Corey Adkins takes us to Beaver Island to meet some people who are trying to keep those songs and stories alive.

“These old tunes, and especially the lyrics, they are stories, stories about life,” said Ed Palmer, a Beaver Island resident.

If a cemetery could talk, you probably couldn’t get the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery on Beaver Island to shut up.

The stories that could come out of here are endless, but thanks to Alan Lomax’s trip in 1938 we can hear some of voices of the past forever.

“I do, he (Johnny Green) was my grandfather. He lived with us in our home on the point,” said Mary Elizabeth Gallagher Heilig, Johnny Green’s granddaughter. “He never bragged or talked about himself.”

Johnny Green lived in a house by the Beaver Island harbor light.

Pam White O’Brien remembers Green while driving around the point.

“Johnny Green, he always sat on the porch from morning until night, so it was kind of a custom that if you went up to the lighthouse and you turned around you had to wave at Johnny Green and he’d wave back,” explained Pam.

Ed added, “He was quite a character. He would drive the kids to school in and we would run behind them and jump on the back of the car and ski to school. The funny thing about him is he would chew tobacco and he’d have the window up and it’d be cold out and he’d go to spit out the window and the window was closed. They’d laugh all the time about that, and that’s no lie.”

What is funny is when Lomax came to town, it’s said that Johnny tried to avoid him, but then actually ended up recording 44 songs for him.

Apparently, Johnny Green knew and remembered the lyrics and melodies for dozens and songs.

Lomax described Green as the most prodigious ballad singer he ever encountered. His granddaughter has fond memories of those days gone by.

“I remember all the house parties growing up as a child, when our aunts and uncles would come home for the summer they’d meet, and my grandma had a piano in her house and that’s where people would gather and spend the evening telling stories and just enjoying each other. There was always someone who played the piano or a violin or some musical instruments,” explained Mary.

One of those musicians was Patrick Bonner.

“I have wonderful memories of Patrick,” said Mary. “When I was really little, you’d drive by his farmhouse and he’d say, ‘Hi, how are you? How are your mom and dad?’ and he’d disappear and come back with a fiddle because he knew you wanted him to play that fiddle. He was excellent, he was very, very good.”

Alan Lomax called Patrick Bonner the best fiddle player he’s ever seen.

As a child, Ed Palmer remembers playing with Bonner.

“It was inspiring. I was playing with an old-timer and I was just a kid, and he’d just smile and said let’s go. You’d hear the piano going and we’d be on our way,” said Ed.

Lomax spent six days on Beaver Island in 1938, longer than any place he visited on his Michigan trip.

If we are to learn anything from his recordings, it’s how deeply important these songs and stories are to Beaver Island and beyond.

It’s a legacy folks like Ed Palmer, Danny Gillespie and other musicians are trying to keep alive

“It’s part of our history, it’s who we are and, you know, just to see that continued on and Edward is just a rock star in our family, we have family members that just want to heard Edward play,” explained Mary.

Pam added, “Our roots mean a lot to us and our heritage, and we kind of revere all those old folks, especially musically. It’s like our Edward Palmer and Danny Gillespie now, they are our champion musicians.”

Ed said, “All the old time tunes, you don’t find them around anymore, the old-timers used to write songs about things on the island that really happened. No one writes anymore, the characters aren’t around anymore, the farming days in them days, they worked hard and partied together and helped each other out and they’d write stories and songs about one another. That heritage is gone, so anything I hang onto and try to keep them around.”

And for that, we thank you Ed!

“I think I’ll stick around a bit more. I’ve worn out about nine pianos, but I’ve got about 3 -4 to go!” said Ed.

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