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Plains Folk

Marching to Bismarck

 

Hurrah! Hurrah! The farmers shall be free Hurrah! Hurrah! Their freedom now they see Because the time has come when farmers all agree And now they’ll go marching to Bismarck

 

Two things stand out in the chorus from 1916 I just sang. First, the tune is familiar. It’s “Marching through Georgia,” a triumphal battle anthem from late in the Civil War. Political balladeers liked to use melodies from the Civil War, because they were familiar, conducive to group singing.

 

Second, the song is clearly aspirational in an optimistic way, because really, when did “farmers all agree” on anything”? With the election of a Nonpartisan League majority to the legislature and Lynn Frazier as governor, though, farmers figured they had come into their own.

 

I’m back on the subject of the balladeers of the NPL, our great farm movement of the early twentieth century. One of them was LaRue Lanterman Shaw, author of “Marching to Bismarck.” Born in our year of statehood, 1889, to a prosperous country family in Morton County, Shaw attended the University of North Dakota, where he was a big man on campus, active in social and cultural matters. It’s interesting historians have failed to note how important the state university was as a networking place for aspiring Nonpartisan Leaguers. 

 

Shaw went home to take up family farm interests and was a real community guy--a director of a cooperative store and of a rural credit union. In the meantime, though, he wrote this pugnacious ballad, “Marching to Bismarck.”

 

Hurrah! Hurrah! All farmers now awake Hurrah! Hurrah! We’ll listen to no fake This is our ultimatum, we’re here to ’radicate The bosses that used to go to Bismarck

 

Meanwhile, another one of our Norwegian balladeers, Ole Ettestad of Balfour--born in Telemark--gave voice to the hatred of Nonpartisan Leaguers for the old party bosses with “The Old Politicians.” The Nonpartisan Leader reports, “State Senator Ole Ettestad livened up the League legislative caucus with a few verses in which he paid his respects to the politicians.” He also seems resentful of the agricultural experts at the ag college trying to tell the farmer how to farm.

 

They have told how the land the moisture would keep If he plowed this same land about eight inches deep And when he should harvest, and when he should sow If much larger crops he wanted to grow

 

Whereas Ettestad and his colleagues declared that the pressing problems of the day were not agronomic, they were systemic.

 

Oh farmer, so long as you mortgage your days And let someone else control what you raise Just THAT long you’ll be in the middleman’s care And the hayseeds never be combed from your hair

 

More about Senator Ettestad, who was known for his droll wit, on another day, but meanwhile, I’m looking for the backstory of another NPL balladeer, Adam D. Kahler of Velva. The press dubbed this bachelor farmer “the poet laureate” of the 1916 NPL convention who filled every gap in proceedings with a lively and irreverent ballad. After that he drops from my historian’s sight, until in 1922, having failed to show up for services at his Methodist church, he is found at home dead, the wording of the report implying death at his own hand. Evidently he was not a happy balladeer after all.

-Tom Isern

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