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Only a Drummer

When I wrote some weeks ago about drummers—traveling sales representatives—in the prairie communities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I was also reporting on the currency in those days of a folklore genre—the fraternal prayer, you might call it. By which I mean, a declarative sort of prayer, recited publicly, on behalf of some self-conscious group, often one that felt itself misunderstood, and thus called on the Almighty for understanding and relief.

The Drummer’s Prayer,” for instance, for commercial travelers. “The Cattle King’s Prayer,” recently discovered from Cutbank, Montana, 1886. “The Cowboy’s Prayer,” by the Badger—South Dakota’s Badger Clark. Recently I made my own contribution to the genre with one called “The Schoolteacher’s Prayer,” which got a warm reception at back-to-school time.

I am convinced that in the period I am talking about—again, the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, say 1875 to1915 or so—there was a general efflorescence of folklore, in many genre, on the Great Plains of North America. Folklore thrived in a developing prairie society networked with railroads. Getting back to my drummers, for instance—there were ballads about them.

Here is a ballad by one H. L. Rounds, published in Fargo in 1912: “Only a Drummer.” You pick up on the sense of being put upon right there in the title, right?

Only a drummer with his case
Boarding the outgoing train
Always going, always coming
Always seeking other’s gain

Watching his patron’s needs with care
Seeking his employer’s good
He’s connecting the link for fare
Preserving the cheerful mood

Only a drummer on his cot
Fresh off the midnight train
In the morning at 1 o’clock
He’s planning the next day’s campaign

Well, that’s the drummer’s view of it. People in prairie communities often saw the drummers as slick operators, often in pursuit of local women, always seeking advantage over home merchants. A fellow in Warren, Minnesota, in 1918 denounced the drummers as “a plague of locusts feeding on the country all the time,” adding to the costs of distribution.

Narratives, clearly legendary, made the rounds in prairie papers about the adventures and foils of the drummers, sometimes anointed “Knights of the Road” in favorable tellings. There was this one that made the Bismarck Tribune in 1915. It concerned six drummers seated together on a passenger train who noticed a widow woman seated in their car with three children.

The woman was in distress, having boarded the wrong train, been so informed by the conductor, and having exhausted her funds buying her ticket, was soon to be set down in a strange city with no money. The drummers repaired to the smoking car and held a council on the matter. They passed a hat, then called for the conductor and passed him their cash. He went back to the passenger car and told the woman to worry no longer, he had telegraphed ahead to reroute her to her desired destination.

Yes, drummers had a reputation—as tellers of raunchy stories, as distributors of fat cigars, as flashy dressers, as heavy drinkers—but when automotive transport closed in on their world, there were many who missed them. Hotel operators in particular.

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