Old-time musician and longtime Old-Time Herald contributor Lyle Lofgren died in August 2014. Mary DuShane shares her memories of Lyle.
Lyle Lofgren’s many friends and cohorts in old-time music will tell you of his intelligence and curiosity, wide-ranging research interests, and prolific output as a writer. Yet Lyle, the son of Swedish-American dairy farmers near Harris, Minnesota, liked to say things like (about learning to play the guitar), “A youth spent hand-milking Holsteins gives me the strength to squeeze the chords.” He said his love of music began before he was born, because his mother hummed all the time. He hummed throughout his whole life, including his last day.
While studying physics and engineering at the University of Minnesota, Lyle teamed up with fellow student Bud Claeson to seek out old records with wonderful old songs. At a gathering of the Folk Song Society of Minnesota, he sang a Bascom Lamar Lunsford song, attracting the attention of his future wife, Liz. They sought out the only other person who regularly borrowed Library of Congress musical material from the public library, Willard Johnson. Soon, along with Jon Pankake, then editor of the Little Sandy Review, and his wife Marcia, who lived in the neighborhood as well, they were all learning old songs together. They dubbed their group Uncle Willy and the Brandy Snifters, immortalized in the mid-‘60s Electra recording The String Band Project, as well as on several recordings they later produced on their own label, Lak-O-Tone records.
The Brandy Snifters’ long friendship with Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers began at one of the famous parties following a Folk Song Society concert. Liz says both groups would “listen and listen and play the 78 records and tapes over and over” to pick out the words and would learn the songs, “not simply imitating the recordings but interpreting the spirit of the music.” They advised the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on producing concerts featuring Southern source musicians such as Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Libba Cotten, Reverend Gary Davis, Jesse Fuller, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Roscoe Holcomb, and Dock Boggs. Liz has great stories and photographs from the post-concert parties, which you can see at
lizlyle.lofgrens.org. (The website, highly recommended, also includes many entertaining articles by Lyle.)
Lyle worked his whole career as an engineer for Rosemount Engineering, developing such techniques as measuring the temperatures below the surface of the moon, and writing articles on physics for technical publications, yet always playing, singing, and writing about music. He and Liz raised four boys: first Mark and Ken from Liz’s first marriage (Mark says Lyle was a great father, “wonderful with kids, a playful guy”), then their son Lee, and then their adopted son Jonathan. Their adoption of Jonathan was the first interracial adoption in Minnesota. Lyle’s many interests included reading and writing poetry, translating Swedish poetry to English, learning the Ojibwe language, and, as Marcia Pankake revealed, taking the Brandy Snifters to seek bluebirds in the Minnesota River Valley, plus cross-country skiing together and attending Minnesota Orchestra concerts. He loved many kinds of music, including the Grateful Dead (we had a group sing of the Garcia-Hunter song “Ripple” at his memorial). For years he wrote a column for the monthly publication of the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association (MBOTMA) on “Remembering the Old Songs,” advised and recorded segments on old-time music for Phil Nusbaum’s long-running radio show in Minneapolis called Bluegrass Saturday Morning, and of course wrote articles and reviews for the Old-Time Herald.
His last illness came on fast, and Liz says he couldn’t have had a better death, with family and friends all around him, singing and telling stories.