Russ Franzen Great Lakes History in Song

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If you like to think of Pat Dailey as the Jimmy Buffett of the Great Lakes, perhaps you should consider Toledo's Russ Franzen as a Gordon Lightfoot equivalent.

A folk singer/songwriter schooled at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, Franzen has dabbled in radio, television, and the print media, and has worked as a Michigan probation officer, court administrator, and magistrate. His vocals and the timing of some lyrics can be a little raw at times, but he has an obvious comfort level and joy strumming his acoustic guitar and singing mostly original songs about Michigan and the Great Lakes.

Franzen brings warmth and affection in his ballads about lake boats, lighthouses, and shipwrecks — some of which have been in the news over the past year. And he hasn't forgotten about another one of his great loves, baseball. After having songs about the Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs, and Toledo Mud Hens on previous albums, Franzen performs a nice, cleverly written ditty about the 1948 Cleveland Indians on this disc.

You'll head north and hear about small port towns such as Alpena as your mind wanders off, but don't worry — Toledo is well-represented in song, too (the album starts off with one called "The Col. James M. Schoomaker," which tells the story of the Willis B. Boyer museum ship).

Russ Franzen, veteran journalist and accomplished writer, has moved onto songwriting and performing as a way to share the history of the Great Lakes region.

“There’s so much history out there. Some of the stories are so good they just beg to be told,” Franzen said.

The release of his third album, “Songs of the Great Lakes,” marks the fifth year of his foray into the music realm.

“It’s more fun,” Franzen said of why he’s switched from writing books to songs. “I’m having too much fun writing songs and performing.”

Franzen said his folk songs percolate in his mind before, eventually bringing stories of the Great Lakes waterways to life.

One of the inspirations for a song on Franzen’s new album is docked in the Maumee River. Now known as the S.S. Willis B. Boyer, the ship was formerly the Col. James M. Schoonmaker. The Schoonmaker, dubbed the “Queen of the Lakes,” set sail on its maiden voyage in 1911 when it carried 12,650 net tons of coal from Toledo to Sheboygan, Wis.

“When I first decided I was going to write a song about it, I was trying to think, ‘What rhymes with Schoonmaker?’” Franzen said.

When Franzen realized the ship was now called the Boyer, he said his job got a lot easier.

“Some songs just write themselves,” Franzen said.

While Franzen was able to write a song about the discovery of the shipwrecked L.R. Doty within a week, he worked on “The Indian’s Great Season” for two years.

The sunset at the South Haven Pier Lighthouse inspired Franzen to write a song about young lovers who made their home on the lake-shore, and is one of the few stories that Franzen embellished.

“It was one of the few stories I made up. Every time I go, there’s couples there, holding hands— they stand out to me. I didn’t want to write about history, I wanted to write about the romance I saw there.”

He calls it “filling out the facts.”

“You find that in folk songs all over the place,” Franzen said.

One of Franzen’s friends asked him to write a story about the S.S. South American, a passenger steamboat from the early 1900s. Although Franzen didn’t know specific details about the history of the ship, he wrote about activities he knew happened on cruise ships of that era, like couples strolling hand-in-hand down the deck. When he performed the song and sang that lyric, his friend broke down and cried.

“Apparently, her parents were one of the couples strolling hand-in-hand on the deck,” Franzen said.

The Toledo Harbor Lighthouse was recently picked as a featured lighthouse for the 2011 Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival. Franzen had previously written a song about it, and said he looks forward to performing it at next year’s festival.

“If I do a song, I want to sing it at the place I’m writing about,” Franzen said. “What I do is a little niche in the music world. Lighthouse people are a lot of fun. There’s so much material: Every lake boat, every lighthouse has a story, and music is a fun way to tell it.”

Franzen attributes his foray into the world of music to his wife, Ruth.

“We went up to Northern Michigan with the expressed interest of talking to lighthouse owners,” Franzen said.

After a three-hour conversation with a widowed woman who believed her husband haunted her home at the Presque Isle Lighthouse, the woman said to Franzen, “In all those years we stayed there, it was our honeymoon cottage.”

The moment particularly struck Ruth. She wrote the memory into a song, “The ghosts of old Presque Isle,” and gave it as a Christmas present to Franzen.

“I wanted to sing it at the lighthouse,” Franzen said.

Franzen performed his first 45 minute set at the Presque Isle Lighthouse during a festival and was very well-received, he said.

“Once I got the bug, it just never went away,” Franzen said.

Franzen’s career began when he dropped out of college to manage a cable TV affiliate. He shortly went back to his radio roots and landed a full-time job at a station in Michigan. After stringing features and columns together for the Detroit News and the Plymouth Journal, Franzen took a job at the Lapeer, Mich. District Court as the magistrate.

In 1987, there was a controversy over the construction date of the Lapeer Courthouse. The editor of the local newspaper wrote a blurb that said, “Why does no one know why the courthouse was built?” Franzen said he thought this was ridiculous too.

“It was then that I started looking deeper in to the story of the courthouse and I found the story of the courthouse was really the story of the county,” Franzen said.

His intense research led to his 1990 book, “Squabble City: The Story of the Court House War and the People Who Fought It.”

Tired of questions from police officers and citizens about what to expect in the courtroom, Franzen decided to write a book to help people through the process. After authoring “Your Day in Court: Navigating Your Way Through the Courts” in 2000, Franzen soon turned back to journalism and writing. The Wayne, Mich. media group was home to many of Franzen’s columns, for which he was honored by the Michigan chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“I didn’t get tired of the writing, I got tired of the accounting,” Franzen said, explaining why he dropped out of the newspaper business.