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Happy as a Clam

Before I myself had seen the piece in print, I heard from readers who had their copies and, judging by their comments, actually had read my essay, “‘Happy as a Clam”: The Origins and Evolution of ‘Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim,’ the Anthem of the Plains.” I know, long title, right? Something for which academics are notorious. And yet — readers.

If you’re a regular listener of Plains Folk, then the line of work I just referenced is familiar to you. It has to do with the well-worn ballad, “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.”

I am looking rather seedy now while holding down my claim
And my victuals are not always served the best
And the mice play shyly round me as I lay me down to sleep
In my little old sod shanty on the claim

The song is iconic. Up and down the plains, Oklahoma to Dakota Territory, settlers sang it at their literaries, wrote their own stanzas to localize it, adapted and adopted it as their own. Many claimed to have written it, and in a sense, in folkloristic fashion, they did.

“Happy as a Clam” is recently published in South Dakota History, journal of the South Dakota Historical Society. In the published article I detail the discovery of the origins and evolution of “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.” This is a truly regional story, crossing multiple jurisdictions without permission.

A tramp printer and batching homesteader named Frank E. Jerome, in Smith County, Kansas, wrote the original version of the song, “Little Old Sod Dug-out on the Claim,” in 1880. I tracked down him and his song and documented how popular it was in the early 1880s — until it wasn’t any more.

Then it came back, more popular than ever, in 1883. What happened was the song had legs, it had traveled to Dakota Territory, where, somewhere along the James River, it began a new life. Some unknown balladeer reworked it and, fortunately for the longevity of the song, made it more applicable to the general homesteading experience. There developed a particular tie for the song to Valley City, North Dakota, and a lost statue by Paul Fjelde, but I’m still sorting that story out.

The story told in South Dakota History is a new one, and I deploy portentous phrases like “Anthem of the Plains” with intent. Great Plains balladry as a field of scholarly inquiry lapsed late in the twentieth century, but I intend to reignite it, fueling the ignition with new data from digitized sources. Plus, singing the old songs and many more now discovered.

I am embarking on what my literary friends would call “canonization,” establishing an accepted body of classic literature — except that most of them, alas, no longer think there is such a thing as classic literature. Which leaves the field open to broken-down old folkie historians.

Being old school to the power of three, I consider that such a thing as I contemplate is not real until it is in print, with footnotes, and so now that begins — with a series of articles in the pipelines of state historical journals. These are journals with scholarly standards, but a popular readership. They need good material, so they are accessible to prolific authors, but many academics have a hard time writing for the mixed audience. That, too, is lost art which wants renewal.

Let me say this about the editor with whom I worked at South Dakota History: his editing of my manuscript made it palpably better, for which I am grateful. I think when a seventy-something author welcomes constructive criticism from a thirty-something editor, there may be hope for the craft of literary nonfiction.

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