The Old Sod Shack
It was builded on the prairie, Was not sheltered by a tree, Where the wild flowers bloomed around it And the wild winds whistled free. Its walls were made of sod, Of which there was no lack, And poplar poles for rafters In the old sod shack.
I don’t know whether it is on account of the nostalgia that oozes from that stanza, or because of my delight in the discovery of a new-to-me prairie folksong, but it almost moves me to tears to bring into twenty-first-century currency a prairie ballad lost for nearly a hundred years: “The Old Sod Shack.”
Early this year I was tracking down the travels and collections of Franz Rickaby, North Dakota’s charismatic songcatcher. Rickaby spent only a few years on the faculty of the state university in Grand Forks, but he had quite an impact--inspiring students, vitalizing a theater company, and writing the school fight song. And, for which he is most remembered, collecting ballads. That Rickaby and his wife and his fiddle left North Dakota on advice of physicians and died in California was a sad loss to the Flickertail State.
In 1922 Rickaby was presented with a splendid ballad text--well, I'll let him how he got it the verses: “Given me by Mr. P. Stoughton, Grand Forks, N.D. 5/22/22. I copied them from a program of the festivities at a meeting of the Old Settlers Association held at Park River, N.D., June 12-13, 1900. The song was sung on that occasion as ‘a song and a quartette.’”
Rickaby typed up the text of the song and put it into a three-ring binder--which now reposes in the music library of the University of Wisconsin, the source of my singing text.
But just where did the song come from? Rummaging around further, I find reports of that old settlers’ meeting in Park River in 1900 that finger one Michael E. Quigley as the author of the ballad and the organizer of the quartet that sang it.
Mr. Quigley, New York-born of Irish ancestry, was the first schoolteacher in Park River, in the early 1880s. He married a woman from the Canadian population in Park River, which was a prominent element in the community. Later he held various local offices, operated a fancy goods store, and played in the town band, organized in 1886. He was a community builder.
And he was an old settler. Old settler associations were everywhere on the prairies, claiming primary for their members, bolstering local identity, convening picnics and conventions, sharing reminisces--and songs. Their reminiscences, and the song, “The Old Sod Shack,” have their limitations. They can be exclusionist, valorizing the dominant social stock of the community while neglecting others--such as American Indians, Métis, or immigrant groups deemed not sufficiently old-settler-American.
“The Old Sod Shack,” though, whatever its limitations, has lyric power and emotional appeal. From a newspaper report in the Hope Pioneer in 1927, too, I know the song circulated after 1900 in folklorish fashion, undergoing folk variation. It is a genuine folksong of our country, which declares in its refrain,
Though nearly vanished now, It brings our memories back; For we once had homely comforts In the old sod shack.