He Died in the Harness
There's a Christmas ballad I like to sing this time of year that comes from the High Line country of Montana in 1929 — “A Christmas Pageant with a Practical Result,” it’s called, and it was written by a character named Henry Everett (he went by H. E.) Prall. I call him a “character” because I have discovered that prairie balladeers — the writers of storytelling poems and songs during the settlement era and for a generation after — were, well, characters. They were folk artists with a performative impulse.
Which you would expect of people who got up and recited or sang at a country school literary or proudly handed their compositions to the local newspaper editor, but in fact, their posture flew in the face of what scholars from Harvard and other such eastern centers of learning said was the nature of balladry.
They said ballads originated in the misty, unknowable past with rustic, tribal peoples who generated ballads in rustic, tribal ways. Ballads then entered oral tradition and credited no known author. They lived in a lost world. One ballad scholar declared, “There will be no more ballads.”
This established interpretation of balladry was, in fact, coming unraveled on the Great Plains of North America, which witnessed a gorgeous efflorescence of balladry from the 1870s to the 1920s. Give Harvard’s literary lion, George Lyman Kittredge, credit in that when John Lomax, the cowboy songcatcher, and other prairie collectors commenced gathering songs from the air, Kittredge recognized them as the literary product they were.
Which brings me back to my character, H. E. Prall, in Montana. Central Montana in the early 1920s, when he arrived there from Iowa, like far western North Dakota, was still a homesteader’s frontier. Prall commenced farming, and appears to have been good at it, but it did not absorb his abundant energies. Prall took up preaching.
Scholars today don’t like to talk about the frontier as a historical subject, but it was a real thing. People could arrive without dossiers or credentials and reinvent themselves on the basis of merit or bluff. No divinity training, no ordination, Prall just climbed into a Methodist pulpit in Clyde Park and commenced preaching. By and by people started calling him “Reverend.”
He continued farming as he moved from one pulpit to another, but perhaps found neither calling completely satisfying or lucrative, so he commenced writing for popular magazines. He also declared himself “the Prairie Poet” and wrote scores of ballads. Most of them are too overtly religious to be much good.
Prall’s Christmas parable is religious, but also is really good. It is a ballad of thirteen stanzas totaling 104 lines, set in a ranch bunkhouse. Its message is, never turn away a stranger in need.
In other worthy poetic efforts Prall defends the virtues of the Montana plains (“The Lure of the Prairie”), takes up for the much-disparaged honyockers who homesteaded it (“A Relief Problem”), and expresses his love of, and sympathies for, working horses (“That’s My Weakness, Now”). Responding to 1920s rhetoric that called upon farmers to consider themselves businessmen, Prall declares the account books be damned, he will not scrimp on his horses in winter.
O, I may not be true to the businessman’s creed
But I can’t use a pencil to measure their feed.
He may be full of himself, but I’m starting to like Rev. Prall. He died in 1958 in Utah, where he worked in a tack and harness shop. You might say he died in the harness.