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A Christmas Parable from the High Line

Twas Christmas Eve upon the prairie
And we hovered round the fire,
We could hear the coyote, wary,
Seemed as if he’d never tire.

So begins a remarkable ballad for the season coming out of the High Line Country of northeast Montana. Its author is a forgotten poet named Henry E. Prall--a farmer, laborer, logger, preacher, and sometime radio personality. He was a jack of all trades and great writer of ballads--dozens of them, which I have only begun to unearth from newspaper files.

If you are a Plains Folk listener, then you know over the past few years I have been searching successfully not only to trace the origins of the known ballads of the Great Plains but also to rediscover forgotten ballads and balladeers. My greatest source is the recently digitized newspapers of our prairie towns.

Sometimes the search is a fishing expedition, the hook baited with a search phrase extracted from the corpus of centuries of English-language balladry. A week ago I ran a search for the phrase, “Twas in the spring,” a common one from English ballads, through a million pages of prairie newspapers and found, among other treasures, “The Old Logging Camp,” written by Mr. Prall in 1928. This is a great ballad of a logging crew in winter, deserving of discussion someday soon.

As Christmas neared in 1929, Prall was in Wolf Point, apparently with time on his hands, because he penned a new composition of thirteen stanzas, eight lines in each. Its title is “A Christmas Pageant with a Practical Result.” It begins the way I began this essay, and goes on to recount a scene in a ranch bunkhouse on Christmas Eve.

A gang of ranch hands, a Chinese cook, and their hard-but-righteous foreman are whiling away the evening telling stories about Christmases back east, some of them expressing cynical doubt about the standard narrative of the Gospels. There comes a knock at the door, which opens to admit a man and women pleading for shelter from a raging snowstorm, having been refused lodging in town.

I’m pretty sure you can tell where this is heading, as it turns out the woman is with child, and about to deliver. Kindness possesses the gruff foreman, who sets the cook boiling water and dispatches hands to fetch a doctor and a neighbor lady. The cowboys all tear up when they hear the cries of the newborn. Come breakfast time they are in high spirits.

One of them commences to make sport of the foreman for his softheartedness, which causes the old man’s temper to flare just a little and prompts recollection of the last time he traveled back home for Christmas. He describes the elaborate Christmas pageant put on there, the crowd that attended it, and the reflections it prompted in him.

But the fact that made me wonder,
As I saw that pageant play,
Was the foolish landlord’s blunder, When he turned the pair away.

At which point the neighbor lady brings in the baby in to show the hands, and this is how the ballad concludes.

Slim had fetched a neighbor lady,
Now she brought the youngster in,
Every man must see that baby,
Every one was proud as sin.
We remembered that old stable,
Where the holy couple went:
Slim remarked, “It was no fable.”
Every cowboy bowed assent.

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