Photo courtesy of Linda O'Neil
2014 awardee, Kinde (Huron County), Documentor and collector of traditional music and stories of Michigan's Thumb region.
Karl Byarski (b. 1916) is a lifelong resident of Huron County. His family was very musical with many aunts, uncles, and in-laws filling the Byarski home with music. For several years Karl played piano, mandolin, and fiddle.
To make a living, Karl worked in the agriculture business and for a time ran an egg collection, grading, reselling, and chick hatching business, in addition to working as a meat cutter. His passionate avocation, however, was collecting and documenting the musical traditions and stories of people in his region. Karl first purchased a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the early 1950s and his earliest recordings date from 1952. In a region where there was little interest by others in recording this important local knowledge, his basement studio provided a means to record and preserve their stories, songs, and tunes.
This documentation continued up until the early 2000s, when Karl began to focus on organizing and cataloging his collection; to date, 649 reel-to-reel tapes and 1000 cassette tapes have been indexed, with many more yet to be cataloged.
His collection spans a large variety of traditional music styles and culturally significant material, including religious music and celebrations, fiddlers, singers, Polish and early country musicians, interviews with aging community members, and family events. Given the age of some of those that he recorded, the history contained in his recordings spans over 100 years. The collection provides a musical timeline, highlighting popular musical traditions and documenting those that were in jeopardy.
Now in his 90s, Karl has outlived many of the tradition-bearers that he has documented but his efforts prevented this significant traditional music and knowledge from getting lost. His collection is an invaluable resource.
For his tireless documentation of Huron County music and culture, Karl Byarski is awarded the 2014 Michigan Heritage Award.
--compiled by Micah Ling, MSU Museum Collections Specialist
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