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Tom Isern

Host of Plains Folk
  • I’m in love with the idea of singing businessmen—guys like the Williston grocer, F. J. Davis, who, when he managed to stay on the right side of the law, sang the virtues of his fresh fruit and seafood across the counter; or the Great Falls haberdasher Mike Mullin, owner of the Mikehasit men’s clothing store, who wrote a great ballad advising his customers, while “Waiting for a Chinook,” to stock up on warm winter wear from his store.
  • If you’re a regular listener to Plains Folk, it’s likely we share certain values. One of these is that life is not a purely transactional matter. There are important things that are not reducible to calculation and exchange. On the other hand, you have to make a living. One of the delightful findings of my investigation of folksong on the Great Plains is that it is possible to combine commerce and art. I’m talking about the phenomenon, fairly common in the heyday of prairie balladry, of singing storekeepers. These guys gave their customers both bargains and ballads.
  • Awakening in winter dark, I felt a peculiar consciousness of a living, stirring thing in the house — something other than the usual snores of a Labrador retriever. I padded downstairs to the prairie kitchen, lifted the towel covering our big Medalta mixing bowl, and checked the progress of my vorteig — my pre-dough, the batter stage of a baking project I had left on the counter for first rise overnight. It was alive, and alluring — I bent over the bowl to take in the scent.
  • There were a lot of great ballads that originated in points south on the Great Plains and somehow made their way to North Dakota. Bismarck’s renaissance man, George Will, collected folksongs from his father’s seed company employees more than a century ago, and one of the first songs he reported was “The Texas Rangers.” The expansion of the range cattle industry was the context for the migration of many such ballads north.
  • Sooner or later, I suppose, someone is going to get wise to the hidden storyline of “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and demand the ballad be outlawed from the public schools. Generations of children have sung the story of the hardy traveling woman, Betsy, crossing the plains to California. The continental journey is the first obvious theme of the ballad.
  • In 1882 the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its magnificent, now-iconic bridge across the Missouri River at Bismarck. Dedication ceremonies hailed this as a triumph of progress. Cattle hereafter would be shipped readily into the northern Dakota badlands, while settlers would take up land near the railway and commence field agriculture.
  • It’s a debatable proposition which is the great Western novel: The Virginian, by Owen Wister, or Shane, by Jack Schaefer. Both works deal with conflicts on the open range, specifically in Wyoming, and the heroes who resolved them.
  • Driving out to St. Mary’s of Dazey for the fall supper, I kept thinking about a great old friend from north Barnes County: George Amann, a lifelong farmer and devout Catholic with a strong sense of his place on earth and under heaven. George told me stories about the Corpus Christi procession at St. Mary’s and about life on Bald Hill Creek.
  • The physical appearance of the photograph is itself a metaphor. The Farm Security Administration photographer John Vachon took it, having stopped along the road in Morton County, North Dakota, in February 1942.
  • In April 1874 the Bismarck Tribune saw fit to remind residents of the territory of the provisions of a certain law that had been passed by the territorial legislature in Yankton in 1871: the “Dakota Herd Law.” In order to avoid misunderstandings and disputes, people needed to know that the law had repealed the practice of open range in Dakota Territory.