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Bargains and Ballads

If you’re a regular listener to Plains Folk, it’s likely we share certain values. One of these is that life is not a purely transactional matter. There are important things that are not reducible to calculation and exchange. On the other hand, you have to make a living. One of the delightful findings of my investigation of folksong on the Great Plains is that it is possible to combine commerce and art. I’m talking about the phenomenon, fairly common in the heyday of prairie balladry, of singing storekeepers. These guys gave their customers both bargains and ballads.

I remember decades ago I discovered a grocer in Eureka, Kansas, named Joe Gray, proprietor of the Arkansas Market from 1930 to about 1953. He prided himself on his fresh fruits and vegetables, sang about their virtues, and sometimes slipped printed broadsides of his original compositions into customers’ bags. One of his broadsides was a commentary on the Great Depression.

It’s stocks and it’s bonds and it’s large corporations
That’s caused great distress to God’s own creation.
It’s pooling of wealth and it’s pooling of wheat,
That’s why we’re all hungry with plenty to eat.

Most of the bargain-basement balladeers I have uncovered recently steered clear of politics and concentrated on a blend of the quality of their goods and the humor of everyday life. In Williston during the 1890s and early 1900s there was a grocer named F. J. Davies, a delightful and disreputable character.

In 1898 Davies was charged with robbery for a complicated scheme wherein he ran afoul of his partner over a fraudulent game of chance. Davies beat the robbery charge and somehow walked, too, on the illegal gambling operation. In subsequent years, the grocer faced various charges of violating the prohibition laws. Most of the time, however, he concentrated on wooing customers to his grocery by placing enthusiastic ads in the Williston Graphic, and — singing original ballads.

Come along, come along, don’t you hear me cry:
Come along, come along, if apples you would buy,
Come running good and fast, but do not break your neck —
And I will sell you apples at the lowest price per peck.

Over in Great Falls around the same time we find the singing haberdasher, Mike Mullin, proprietor of Mikehasit — all one word, Mikehasit — “The Store for All the Men,” as he advertised it. Mike’s slogan, of course, was “MIKEHASIT,” and he got his customers to write ballads about him.

If you, dear reader, wish to know
The proper place for men to go
To get good goods at prices low — MIKEHASIT.
Suspenders, socks or underwear,
Collars that won’t rip or tear —
The best of everything is there — MIKEHASIT.

Mike himself turned his poetic talents to community subjects, such as the exploits of the town baseball club. I think his best composition, though, is “Waiting for a Chinook.” He took his title from the famous painting by Charlie Russell, Waiting for a Chinook; advised his customers to quit grousing about winter weather; and in the meantime, while waiting for a chinook to warm things up,

If you want a bargain in fine clothing
That will make you smile while waiting for a chinook — MIKEHASIT.

Next week let’s check in at the Palace Buffet in Judith Gap and see what the bartender there is singing.

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