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A Foreign Country

If I were to tell this story in the style of its subject, I would start out something like this: “Twas in the spring of 2020.”

That COVID spring was when Dr. Kelley and I got to discussing how to stay in touch with the public during a time of isolation, and I broached the idea of doing a weekly folk school devoted to historic ballads of the Great Plains. Willow Creek Folk School No. 1 went live the evening of 24 April 2020, and going live on Friday nights since then, we now have livestreamed 157 episodes. What does this amount to?

In the first place, it has been a remarkable learning experience. In the beginning I thought of it as a chance to relive my days as a folkie a half-century ago, sing the old songs for old times’ sake. The thing is, I’m not that guy any more; I’m a research historian, to the bone.

All those songs we used to sing — “The Buffalo Skinners” and “I Ride an Old Paint” and “Little Old Sod Shanty” and “Home on the Range” and the rest of them — I got to wondering where they came from. Just by posing that question, I was breaking the rules I learned when I studied — yes, actually took college coursework — balladry in college. Ballads are supposed to be mysterious, relics retrieved from the misty moor with no questions as to provenance.

I took my cue, however, from the great Nebraska folklorist Louise Pound, who talked back to the literary establishment of a century ago and declared that ballads are not tribal relics, they are the literary efforts of self-conscious folk artists. And I thought, I am a research historian with fancy titles to prove it, I think I can track down the origins of these songs, maybe even determine their authors and discover the original texts.

What I discovered first was that notwithstanding my frequently expressed disdain of digital texts for readers, they are a game-changer for grassroots researchers. Optical character recognition renders vast amounts of text, millions of pages of newspapers for instance, accessible and searchable. And so yes, I can identify the scribbler in Smith County, Kansas, who wrote “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” and then track its travels through Dakota Territory as it evolved into recognizable form.

Besides tracing old standard folksongs to their headwaters, I developed rhetorical techniques whereby I could discover scores of additional ballads of merit that were popular in their time, but having eluded the songcatchers a century ago, were forgotten. Until now, and I’m singing them.

I still haven’t answered my original question, what does all this amount to? Well, I’m not just documenting and singing these historic ballads off into the ether, I’m annotating them, contextualizing them, and bringing them to print in scholarly journals. This is turning into an exercise in canonization, establishing a body of literature.

Yes, but to what end? All right, the enrichment of regional culture and all that, but there’s more. It was the novelist L. P. Hartley, and then the historian David Lowenthal, who informed us, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The Great Plains of a century ago were a different country. A country where a bachelor farmer might compose a ballad and sing it at the country school literary because he wanted to impress the schoolmarm. A country where people recited poetry and wrote it. A country with far greater literary consciousness, and cultural hunger, than we possess today. Its cultural and community life was complex and absorbing.

I say none of these things to shame us denizens of the twenty-first century prairies as to our deficiencies. I say them to enliven us as to our possibilities. We, too, can write our own ballad.

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