Collaborative Songwriting about Local Places

Grade Level
6-8; 9-12; C-U


Audio file
Traverse City

Recorded: Traverse City, Michigan, September 3, 1938
Performer: Lester Wells

Activity 1: Learning to Listen/Listening to Learn

  1. Listen to the song “Traverse City.” Songs such as this were learned by ear—or by face-to-face listening̶─so encourage student listening first before (or if) providing the lyrics.
  2. How many of these questions can students answer just by listening? [Listen again, or hand out the lyrics, if needed.]

    Q--What is the song about? 
    A—description of places and people in Traverse City
    Q--What time period do you think it describes? 
    A—Wells tells Lomax in 1938 that it must have been written 50 years ago (1880s, references horseshoes, boarding houses, etc.)
    Q--Do you think Traverse City is a real place? Why or why not?
    A—It is a real place in northwest part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula—find it on a map!
    Q--What other questions do you have? (Who are the people, etc.)

    “Traverse City” Lyrics (Lester Wells, 1938)

    When I first come to Traverse town,
    There was two houses scattered all round.
    There was one place that I could stay
    Overnight if I would pay.

    Oh dear, oh dear, I never did see
    What a place Traverse City is a-getting to be,
    Oh dear.

    Oh there was a blacksmith right in town,
    Oh there you could get your horseshoeing done.
    You’d bang on the tires when they’re reading up the news 
    Or out in the street they’s picking horseshoes. 


    Oh there’s Mr. Gunton, I s’pose you all know,
    You want good boarding, that’s the place to go.
    Little bit of cake and a little bit of gin
    And a little back door for to step right in.


    Oh there’s Mr. Hannah, too, I like to forgot,
    He’s the best old man in the whole lot.
    He’d go to a meeting, he’d preach and pray,
    And when he come home the cards he’d play.


    Lomax: Who made this one up?
    Wells: Well, they was, oh, they was four, five of us. Get together, y’know. And we kept a-getting one, get one thing, and [everybody] made this up about Traverse City.
    Lomax: How long ago was that?
    Wells: Oh, Jesus, that was fifty years ago, anyway.

  3. About “Traverse City”—Background information on the song and its context
    This information will help students understand more about the song:
    • Lomax collected several locally composed songs, or songs about a local event, place, or character. This is one such song.
    • “Traverse City” describes places and people that a resident like Lester Wells would have known or experienced when living there (in this case in the 1880s when this song was composed).
    • The song’s title and first verse suggest a commentary on how much Traverse City has changed in the two decades since its founding in the mid-1800s.
    • Lomax recorded “Traverse City” in a bar called Lautner’s Place in Traverse City, Michigan. It is still a bar in downtown Traverse City, now called Union Street Station. (Locate Traverse City on a map.) In the 1930s, when Lomax made this recording,
    • Lautner’s Place was a popular hang-out for Great Lakes sailors and lumberjacks. Workers in both of these occupations were well known for making up songs to help pass the time, either on deck of the sailing ships during the long trip up and down the Lakes; in a local bar like Lautner’s Place; or in the lumberjacks’ bunkhouse (or “shanty” as it often was called).
    • The singer is 82-year-old farmer, trucker, and logger Lester Wells. Wells had lived in the Traverse City area since 1870, moving there when he was about 13 years old.
    • The song names specific places and people, suggesting that Wells is singing about individuals he knew: James K. Gunton who ran a hotel Traverse City; Perry Hannah, known as the father of Traverse City—businessman, and lumber baron. The song pokes fun at Hannah for having one set of moral standards at church, and another at home (card playing̶─viewed as sinful behavior by certain churches).
    • Blacksmith shops were once essential parts of many towns. In a farming and logging area, like the Traverse City region, blacksmiths made and repaired important tools, as well as shoeing horses. Customers would hang out in the shop while the work was being done.

Activity 2: Oral Transmission and Variation

  1. Most songs that Lomax collected were learned by face-to-face listening and imitation rather than from reading a printed text. This process is called oral transmission. Variation is a characteristic of orally transmitted songs.
  2. Experiment with oral transmission: the Game of Telephone

    Play the game of telephone, with the teacher or the first student whispering a line of a song. To make this work best, choose a long line, or one with unfamiliar names or words, and/or say the line quickly. The participating group should have at least 10 people. Each student whispers what he/she hears to the next person, until everyone has heard the line. Did the last person hear the same line as the first? What happened? Changes, or variations in text are common in orally transmitted songs. The different versions are called variants. Summarize that variation is due to

    • Mishearing
    • Forgetting
    • Lack of understanding of word or word relationships
    • Deliberately change lyrics to make a song more “local” and more meaningful to the audience that hears it.
  3. To illustrate variation in oral transmission with “Traverse City,” listen again to the second verse about the blacksmith. The third line is hard to understand. There is no official written version of this song, as Lomax made the only known recording.

    Q—What are the words to the third line? [Students write down and compare versions]

    “Oh there was a blacksmith right in town,
    Oh there you could get your horseshoeing done.
    You’d bang (?) on the tires when they’re reading up the news 
    Or out in the street they’s picking horseshoes.”

    Here are couple other versions for comparison:

    “You’d prang on the tires when they’re reading up the news” (from James P. Leary’s Folksongs of Another America, p. 129)
    “You could climb on the cars when they’re reading up the news”(from the Quest project, 2014, an afterschool arts enrichment project for seven schools in northwest Michigan near Traverse City. This version makes sense with the students’ experience today, but there were no cars in 1880!)

    **The intent of the verse seems to be that if the blacksmith is reading the news, or occupied with something other than his work, he won’t do a very good job on the horseshoes.

Activity 3: Collaborative Songwriting

Q-At the end of the song, Lomax asks Lester Wells some questions about the song. What can you learn about how it was written? [collaboratively, with a group of buddies]

A-Sometimes a song was written so long ago, and passed on from person to person over such a long period of time—̶some folksongs can be hundreds of years old!—̶that we no longer know who first wrote it, or if it was written the way Lester Wells describes: by a group of buddies working together, each adding a word, phrase, or line. [Folklorist Jim Leary notes that this kind of collaborative song with its focus on local characters, was common in Michigan lumber camps.]

  1. Students will write their own version of “Traverse City,” in the same collaborative style of composition used for the original.
  2. Use “Traverse City” as the structure for the new song, substituting your own community, neighborhood, school, etc. as the focus. The chorus can easily be adapted to your place, with new verses added.
  3. Collaborative Songwriting Template (courtesy of Seth Bernard, Artistic Director of The Quest, Traverse City, Michigan)

Phase 1 Brainstorming and free association, ideally with a circle of 5 to 20 people. Participants each contribute a word or sentence that is then written down by the facilitator. After one round, everyone closes their eyes, and the facilitator recites the ideas of the group. Everyone listens to the sounds of the words and creates mental pictures of the words and phrases. Another round of brainstorming is shaped by the first round of words. Some words and phrases connect. Some may be another phrase that rhymes. [**For Traverse Town, the facilitator may want to prompt certain ideas about the students’ selected place: tastes, activities, events, notable people, favorite or important places.] Certain melodies may emerge [**With “Traverse City” or another pre-existing song as inspiration, you already have a melody to work with.] A large group may only have to go around twice.

Phase 2 Facilitator asks about connections of words and phrases: Is a story or form emerging? Is a chorus emerging? Sometimes students will already have melodic ideas. Find rhythms of words and musical motifs that go with that.[**For Traverse City, consider using the existing rhyme scheme: AABB]. Employ democracy and give everyone’s idea a chance, it works every time.

Phase 3 Work out verses, choruses, bridge, or riff. 
**With “Traverse Town” existing music and melodic ideas can serve as a springboard for content. Or, simply use the entire tune. Alternatively, try using the updated 2014 version written by middle and high school students who live near Traverse City, Michigan and re-wrote the song to reflect places, people, and events in Traverse City today. These students created this song as part of the Quest-A Celebration of Community 2014 [], an innovative, place-based after school arts program in seven underserved schools in northwest Lower Michigan. The grand finale concert, held in May 9 2014, featured students’ artwork and collaboratively written songs, inspired by Lomax’s 1938 Michigan recordings. The Quest is a program of SEEDS, a Traverse City, Michigan non-profit. For more information about the Quest, go here.

Phase 4 Perform and record the song using a smart phone or a recording engineer. Do at least two takes of a song, creating a professional environment. Re-work the song as needed. Emphasize that everyone has a role.

Phase 5 Give a public community performance.

Audio file
Traverse Town [2014]

Courtesy of SEEDS and the Michigan State University Museum

TK Video
Video courtesy of SEEDS and the Michigan State University Museum 
Recorded: Traverse City, Michigan, 2014
Performers: Collaboratively written by the following northwest Michigan schools: Frankfort Schools, Kalkaska Middle and High Schools, facilitated by musicians from Michigan’s Earthwork Music Collective as part of the Quest 2014, an afterschool arts program of SEEDS in nearby Traverse City, Michigan.

CHORUS: Oh, dear, oh dear, I never did see
What a place Traverse City is getting to be (2x)
Oh dear.

Now I live in Traverse Town
There’s thousands of houses all crammed around
There’s hundreds of places where you can stay
All up and down Grand Traverse Bay


There’s plenty of beaches all around
Where you can take in the sights and sounds
Kite boards, wakeboards, volleyball
Out on the water you can do it all.

BRIDGE: Oh the **Boardman’s headwaters
Begin out **Kasky way
It flows on a westward path
To the Grand Traverse Bay
[**Kasky=the town of Kalkaska, home to some of the student songwriters; the Boardman River flows into Grand Traverse Bay at Traverse City.]


Oh there’s **Mr. Moore, though some don’t agree,
He’ll tell ya what movies you might wanna see,
His big film fest has got a lot of pull,
But he can’t complete with the **Cherry Festival.
[**Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore lives in Traverse City. The National Cherry Festival occurs over July 4, celebrating the cherry crop and orchards of the region.]


If you go to the Opera House
Walking around the original town,
If you wanna go where you can have some fun,
Clinch Park is the best place to run.

BRIDGE: As the sailors are ready to go,
The light will guide their way,
They merge out from the bay,
They will stop and say…


Students from the Quest project in northwest Michigan created a life-sized Alan Lomax puppet
Students from the Quest project in northwest Michigan created a life-sized Alan Lomax puppet as well as wrote collaborative songs based on songs from Lomax’s 1938 folk music collecting trip. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, courtesy of Michigan State University Museum, 2014.


  1. Lomax source material can serve as inspiration for other collaborative songs, prompting more listening and creativity. In 2014, an innovative arts enrichment program for underserved middle and high schools—The Quest—used the Lomax material as a springboard for student explorations of place, personal empowerment, and creativity. For a more in-depth look at the Quest Project with samples of student work and other ideas based on the 1938 Lomax material, see Laurie Kay Sommers and Samuel Seth Bernard, “Questing with Alan Lomax: Michigan’s Historic Field Recordings Inspire a New Generation.” Journal of Folklore and Education (2015 Vol 2): 51-62.
  2. Research your community in the 1880s, or at some other time in the past. What were the important places, occupations, events? Who were some of the people living there? Use this information to write a historical collaborative song.

Credits: Transcription of “Traverse City” and musician biography for Lester Wells courtesy of James P. Leary, Folksongs of Another America, Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946 (University of Wisconsin Press and Dust to Digital, 2015). Special thanks to Seth Bernard, Artistic Director of the Quest and source of the collaborative songwriting template, and to SEEDS of Traverse City, sponsor for the Quest Project. SEEDS is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization established to foster local solutions to global issues.

Lesson Plan by Laurie Sommers and Patricia Shehan Campbell
With generous support from the NEA