From an early age, music and Madeline Island figured prominently in the life of Thomas Vennum Jr.
As a student at Blake School, he played the organ every morning. The Edina boy living on Country Club Road blossomed into a talented jazz pianist.
And in the summers, he lived on Madeline Island where his parents ran a resort known as Chateau Madeline.
There, on the island, he discovered a third passion: Ojibwe music and culture.
“The island inspired him,” said Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, an American Indian environmental advocacy group. She lives part time on Madeline Island. “It has great spiritual significance to the Ojibwe and is a place of a lot of sorrow because we’re not there anymore. He understood that.”
Vennum, who worked for more than two decades as senior ethnomusicologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife documenting Ojibwe culture and music in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, died Sept. 24.
He was 82 and died of congestive heart failure at a hospital in Ashland, Wis., said his cousin, David Newhall of Mahtomedi.
Vennum, born in Edina, was the eldest of two children. His father, Thomas Vennum Sr., was a prominent lawyer. His mother, Margaret, who went by the nickname “Mike,” ran the resort on Madeline Island.
Vennum Jr. graduated from Yale University and Harvard University.
He fell in love with ethnomusicology and yearned to learn more about Ojibwe music, recalled longtime friend Mimi Heersema Smith, who grew up with Vennum Jr. on Madeline Island.
“He had so much intellectual energy and so many interests,” she said. “He lived so fully, and he loved people.”
The man who was like a brother to her also had a delightfully wicked sense of humor. She recalled a time when they were together for Thanksgiving and she was sleeping in the attic bedroom of an old house. He made wailing sounds, pretending to be a ghost. It terrified her, she said, laughing.
But when it came to his work, he was very serious.
He sought the help of Ojibwe elders to learn about their traditional music and accurately document it.
“He really studied it and wrote it down,” Newhall said. “In the process he became very close friends with hundreds of Native Americans in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. That led to some of the writings he did.”
He penned scholarly books on Ojibwe music, wild rice, lacrosse’s indigenous roots and on the life of Ojibwe singer Bill Baker.
“His books were all flagship historical and cultural research,” LaDuke said. “He was highly regarded by our community, and he liked that we liked him so much.”
In the late 1990s, Vennum suffered a stroke, and as a result he no longer could play the piano. But his mind was still sharp, and he kept writing.
At his house on the island, he embarked on a new project: the building of an Ojibwe birch-bark canoe from scratch. That project was the subject of a documentary called “Earl’s Canoe.”
His book on the Ojibwe dance drum inspired Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead. Hart then went on to make CDs featuring Indian music, working with Vennum, a proud Dead Head.
In his final days, Vennum listened to recordings of Bach, the Grateful Dead and the sounds of Lake Superior, said Kim Graden, his licensed caregiver.
Services have been held.