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Plains Folk

Plains Folk is a commentary devoted to life on the great plains of North Dakota. Written by Tom Isern of West Fargo, North Dakota, and read in newspapers across the region for years, Plains Folk venerates fall suppers and barn dances and reminds us that "more important to our thoughts than lines on a map are the essential characteristics of the region — the things that tell what the plains are, not just where they are."

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  • “We want country correspondents and are offering good inducements,” announced the Wahpeton Times in July of 1913. “Write us about it.”
  • If you’re a regular listener to Plains Folk, then you know that I am on the hunt for the folksongs of the Great Plains, which produced an amazing efflorescence of balladry in the generations of the original Euro-American settlers and their children.
  • It all started with a letter of lament written by a woman who signed herself, “A Marriageable Girl,” published in the Minot newspaper, the Ward County Independent, on 9 January 1908. Well, actually, this grievance had been simmering for a while among the young women of the Magic City.
  • A week or so ago Dr. K and I were part of a group assembled to sit at the feet of three literary masters—Mark Vinz, Debra Marquart, and Louise Erdrich—as they talked among themselves about the sense of place. This was in the Fargo studios of Prairie Public.
  • The past few weeks I’ve been trying to explain how we on the Great Plains are so fortunate to have a prodigious crop of ballads and folksongs dating from the settlement generation and its children.
  • Now and then in the middle of a Plains Folk essay you may hear me erupt into song, sometimes mournful, sometimes exuberant, because singing is a significant part of my life. I am, as I sometimes remark, an unreconstructed folkie from the 1970s, and there was a time when I made rent with a Martin dreadnought. Thank God I don’t have to do that now. Because the music business is full of, well, real musicians.
  • It was in 1941 that America’s great Shakespearean scholar, George Lyman “Kitty” Kittredge, slipped the surly bonds of Cambridge, Massachusetts, never more to enthrall and terrify the boys of Harvard. Kitty would not have been at home on the range, but he was a mentor to the greatest of all collectors of western ballads, John A. Lomax of Texas.
  • Early on in the greatest novel ever written about life on the Great Plains of North America, My Antonia, Ms. Cather’s narrator and her protagonist agree on something: they concur that people who grew up on the prairies shared a “kind of freemasonry.” Such folk possessed common experiences and attitudes that made them something like a secret society.
  • "We’re happy as a clam on our claim from Uncle Sam/Though the rabbit is not always fried the best"So sang the four bachelors of the Willow Bend Quartette, Valley County, Montana, at a schoolhouse gathering on Christmas Eve, 1916. The singers were L. O. Carter, lead; Will Lloyd, bass; Raymond Sullivan, baritone; and James Lloyd, tenor.
  • Soon the last of the massive poplars planted in the 1970s at our property on Willow Creek will all fall. Then the tallest tree on the place will be the native, seeded cottonwood I planted in 1992. Surely it will outlive me. I like that. Because Clay Jenkinson is right: cottonwoods speak to us of our common condition.