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Hundreds of Ballads

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.

Indeed, for years the Martin and I went quiet, singing to ourselves and to a canine chorus and only occasionally in public. Then came the COVID thing, and out of that isolation, my bully pulpit here at Prairie Public notwithstanding, I confessed to Dr. Kelley my desire to let loose another yawp of Whitmanesque proportions. She enabled the scheme, in fact moved into a production role, as the Willow Creek Folk School went live weekly at 8pm Fridays on the Facebook page of Plains Folk. Right now we are preparing to livestream Willow Creek Folk School #70.

The thing took an unexpected direction, because since the 1970s I have become more and more a self-conscious, assiduous, perhaps obsessive research historian, on the prowl 24/7 for research opportunities. Launching into the old standards of Great Plains folksong - “The Cowboy’s Lament” and “Little Old Sod Shanty” and all the rest of them - I began to wonder if it were now possible to resume historical research in regional folksong on a whole new plane - higher and deeper.

You see, past students of folksong were hobbled by some quaint assumptions about balladry that originated in Britain and then migrated to America, taking up residence in places with ivy on their walls. The scholars in tweed propounded the idea that ballads were the stuff of rustic, illiterate, tribal peoples, who left few tracks and fewer records. Thus the songs were assumed to be beyond the reach of research.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s a grand generation of songcatchers, folksong collectors, spanned the Great Plains from John Lomax in Texas to Franz Rickaby in North Dakota, going over the ground and collecting folksong out of the air, making modest inquiries of their informants as to the lineage of the ballads, but not seriously tracing their origins. The prairie songcatchers were constrained by the same assumptions as their peers and mentors in New England.

Except, of course, for Louise Pound at the University of Nebraska, a remarkable woman in many ways - a world-class athlete in multiple sports, the first female president of the Modern Language Association, and in matters of scholarly dispute, a fearless antagonist. A Nebraska girl despite her academic attainments, she defended the singers of her home country against their portrayal as tuneful rubes. Folksongs, she insisted, were the works of creative artists, passed around among the people by whatever means they possessed, adapted and refined by other artists among them to give voice to the people’s experience. You can tell I really like Louise Pound, right? Because she was a research scholar who loved folksong and also loved her home country.

What she did not have, but I do have as I relaunch my career as a folklorist, is the capacity to contract-trace the old folksongs through the mists of antiquity and identify their originators and evolutions. This I can do because of the digitization of primary sources, particularly newspapers, and optical character recognition, which makes the sources searchable through internet portals.

So who wrote “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim”? I still can’t tell you, but I can hand you fifty or more versions culled from the song’s life up and down the plains. And I can tell you precisely who wrote the stanzas to that great Populist anthem, “The Hayseed,” and where it was first sung. All this new data is great, but new data requires new theory, and so I am working on that. In the meantime, I have the songs, hundreds of them, to sing.

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