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The Observations of Mr. Wheatley

You may know by now that I am getting obsessive about my quest to discover and regenerate the ballads and balladry of the Great Plains. Many a dark morning I carry my coffee with me through digital portals into that world where the Canadian settlers of Emmons County are writing and singing their own homesteading ballad, or where picnicking Grangers are breaking into choruses of “The Farmer Is the Man.”

I am no longer apologetic for bursting out with enthusiasm, as happened yesterday, on discovery of a ballad about a lightning-rod salesman. If that is too arcane for you, well, you haven’t been where I have, where such things are the grain of folklife.

Now I confront a filler paragraph composed by the editor of the Custer County Republican—Broken Bow, Nebraska—for his issue of 10 August 1882. He writes,

“Mr. Wheatley observes that 'all ballads are songs, but not all songs are ballads,' and this remark well expresses the truth. A song is the condensation of thought upon one particular person or object, or the representation of simple moods or emotions; a ballad is of a more complex nature, concerning itself with the actions of men, and detailing in a narrative form events having relation to individuals or to society. Songs should be typical in form, sharp and decisive in utterance; ballads are really stories in verse of a historical, narrative, humorous, or pathetic character."

The first thing about this passage that caffeinates me is that it replicates a discussion question—the distinction between lyric and ballad genres—that we thrashed out with Professor Bill Berenson at Bethany College one winter term precisely fifty years ago.

The second insight offered by my new old friend from Custer County is a delayed reaction that comes three cups into my coffee quota. My researches have already established that, yes, indeed, the prairies produced a spectacular efflorescence of balladry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Plains folk then appreciated the efforts of their balladeers—they read them, and they sang their stuff. Further, by diving into that world, I think I have identified the major factors that enabled the efflorescence.

This is just good history—text and context—but whoa, the guy from Broken Bow is sucking me into a whole new dimension, inviting speculation as to consciousness, intellect, mentalité. The Mr. Wheatley to which he refers is Henry B. Wheatley, who is remembered still today as the Father of Indexing (sorry, now we’re really getting arcane!) but celebrated in his own time for his command of the corpus of English letters. My editor from Custer County has been reading Mr. Wheatley’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.

Consider the sentence I just wrote: a country editor in the Nebraska sandhills in 1882 has been reading Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, by Henry B. Wheatley, of London. Moreover, the editor relays his sense of the work to a readership he expects to be interested in it and capable of absorbing its arguments.

Because editor and readers, I now realize, were fully aware that there was something remarkable going on by way of poetic expression. Balladry was rampant and valued.

And our editor is saying, we should not only appreciate our poets but also recognize and argue the literary distinctions in their work and be aware of what we are singing.

It is easy for us to fall into the progressive fallacy—to assume that society and thinking have advanced over the years, and we are better and smarter than our forebears. I tell you, we are not.

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