Biography of Helene Stratman-Thomas

History of the Wisconsin Folk Music Project





Recordings from the Helene Stratman-Thomas Collection

Helene Stratman-Thomas Biography

Helene Stratman-Thomas sitting
WHi Image ID 25294
Helene Stratman-Thomas, possibly at the home of Donalda La Grandeur, a singer of French-Canadian songs who recorded for Stratman-Thomas.

“In the summer of 1940 I was given the opportunity to be one of the field workers for the Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project sponsored by the University of Wisconsin and the Library of Congress ... When we returned at the close of our first summer’s collecting with recordings of songs from the people of Wisconsin in more than twenty different languages, we felt as though we had, for the first time in our lives, really learned to know Wisconsin.”
Helene Stratman-Thomas journal entry from Folk songs out of Wisconsin (Madison : State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1977)

Helene Stratman-Thomas was born on May 13, 1896 in Dodgeville, Wis., the daughter of Helena Emma Stratman and Warren H. Thomas, a local grocer and businessman. She grew up amid a blend of folk music in her predominantly Cornish town — German folk songs and English game sounds at home, and Welsh hymns from a nearby church.

After high school, Helene taught school in Monticello and Brooklyn before earning a business degree from University of Wisconsin–Madison. She worked at an investment firm in Minneapolis for about eight years, and then returned to Madison to complete her B.A. and M.A. degrees in music. In 1930, she was hired at UW to teach music theory, conduct the women’s chorus, and later work as the business manager for the Pro Arte string quartet. She lived with her brother, Warren K. Stratman-Thomas, a renowned malarial research pharmacologist. Together they were avid genealogists, and she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

In 1940, her music career found a new trajectory. Professor Leland Coon asked her to head the Wisconsin Folk Music Project, a government-funded effort to record music from the state’s diverse population. That summer she embarked on the first of three major collecting trips. Until then her training was chiefly classical, yet quickly she warmed to the task.

After the government-sponsored collecting trips, Stratman-Thomas recounted her travels in a radio series on Wisconsin Public Radio and gave lectures on folk music throughout the state. She also devoted a summer to surveying the state’s Cornish music. In the fall of 1948, Stratman-Thomas married A.J. (Pat) Blotz, a Dodgeville man she had known her entire life. She continued to teach music theory and began writing a book about Wisconsin folk music.

Stratman-Thomas retired from UW–Madison in 1961. She died Jan. 11, 1973 at the age of 76. Shortly after Helene’s death, her husband asked Harry Peters to complete the Wisconsin folksong book project. Folk Songs out of Wisconsin was published in 1977. Since then there have been other attempts to bring her work to light, including Judy Rose’s 1983 radio series, Wisconsin Patchwork, and the companion book by Leary. In 2001, the Library of Congress released Folk Music from Wisconsin, a 22-track CD of Helene’s recordings.