Q&A: Song of the Lakes

The band Song of the Lakes first made a name for itself performing sea shanties and Irish tunes around the Great Lakes region in the 1980’s. Over the years, though, the band’s repertoire has expanded, and the group now incorporates jazz, rock and “Great Lakes world music” into its lively performances.

In February 2007, Song of the Lakes celebrated its 25th anniversary with a special Corson Auditorium concert at Interlochen Center for the Arts. The performance was recorded and is now available as the Song of the Lakes: Live at Interlochen DVD, which premiered March 25, 2008 at Traverse City’s State Theatre. The DVD includes the full anniversary concert, plus a separate documentary featuring interviews with the musicians.

In the following interview, Traverse editor Lynda Twardowski caught up with Song of the Lakes percussionist Rick Jones just before the band’s 25th anniversary show:

How did such a unique band come into being?Way back in the beginning there were about 15 players, just a whole mess of like-minded people who loved singing about life on Lake Michigan. Originally it was just jam sessions, just people having parties, sitting around the campfire. Somebody’d start a riff, and we’d make up songs till the cows came home. Over the years it’s been the four of us [Jones, Mike Sullivan, and Lisa and Ingemar Johansson], playing and praising the good life lived on Lake Michigan’s shores.

Song of the Lakes has been called Celtic, Latin, rock, folk with a maritime flair, and on the band’s last album, Poets Say, we even heard the twang of a steel guitar and a chain-gang style song. How do you define Song of the Lakes?I just think we’re just pretty good folk musicians.

Do folk musicians have groupies?Yes, ours call themselves the Lakeheads.

The band plays lots of instruments—guitar, mandolin, flutes, harmonicas, piccolo, concertina, Swedish nyckelharpa (key fiddle), lots of percussion and…bouzouki?That’s a Greek instrument that the Celts took over. It’s a big-bodied kind of mandolin but bigger and with a deeper sound.

Is it true that you’ve even made your own instruments?When I was first learning the bodhran [a frame drum], you couldn’t find ’em anywhere, so I started making my own out of deer hide. I did it the old-fashioned way, staking the skin in a river with the tail against the current so the water lifts the hair off. Then you got a lot of scraping to do—a lot of scraping—then you let it dry out, stretch the hell out of it and tack it onto a frame. The problem was, we play a lot on the water—on the Tall Ship, Isle Royale—and it’s too humid. The rawhide would get limp, so I always had to keep a bunch of drums backstage and was always running around with a hairdryer. Now, goat skin is tunable, you can tighten it on the frame. When I found those, that saved my life.

Is there a Song of the Lakes anthem, one that brings down the house every time?
Everybody loves the “Benzie Rover” from the Walkin’ the Plank album. The opening cut on that album, too, “Man in the Mirror”—not the Michael Jackson song—has a real rock sound and people all over the country have made up different dance steps to it.
What song would Song of the Lakes play if you were lost at sea on Lake Michigan?That’d have to be Tom Waits’ tune, “Shiver Me Timbers.”