Balladeers of the NPL | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Balladeers of the NPL

May 22, 2021

 


We’ll stand by you, Lynn Frazier

We’ll stake our all on you

Son of our glorious Sunshine State

We know you’re loyal and true

Our North Dakota Washington

Yours are the hand and pen

That struck the gyves from off our writs

And made us free again

 

Historians of the Nonpartisan League, our great farm movement of the early twentieth century, have known all along that the leaguers were a singing lot. Like the Grange and the Farmers Alliance before them, the NPL raised a crop of balladeers who assailed Big Biz and the old party bosses while extolling the virtues of farming and farmers.

 

Norwegian farmers were at the heart of the Nonpartisan League--I think because they were prepared for it by old-country experience. Although many here denounced the NPL program as socialist, to people like Hans Olufson Svee, from whose ballad I just quoted, NPL doctrine sounded a lot like that of Hans Nielsen Hauge, the Norwegian evangelical minister who preached salvation through self-help and community cooperation.

 

It may be a stretch to call Lynn Frazier “our North Dakota Washington,” but my reading of Terry Shoptaugh’s book on leaders of the Nonpartisan League convinces me that Frazier was the best of them and deserving of a heroic ballad. The song emanated from Maxbass, North Dakota, where H. O. Svee labored on the farm established by his immigrant father.

 

Young Svee was born in Midtre Gauldal Kommune, but as a naturalized American citizen, he took part enthusiastically in the politics of his adopted land. He served in the Coast Guard during the Great War. And he reckoned Governor Lynn Frazier the hero of his times.

 

We’re proud of you, Lynn Frazier

You’re not afraid to fight

For you buckled on your armor

In the cause of God and right

 

Other historians of folksong and the NPL have not focused on the movement’s balladeers, but the time is right, for the wonders of digitization and optical character recognition make it possible to track down the previously obscure poets of the NPL. Like another young Norwegian farmer, Louis P. Larson, from Litchville, or rather, just over the line in Lamoure County, where Larson also worked on his immigrant father’s farm.

 

I read in the Leader that somebody said

They were gonna put Townley in jail

 

When Larson learned that his hero, NPL organizer Arthur C. Townley, had been arrested for sedition, he burst into song. Larson frequently resorted to verse, one reason he was a well-known man-about-Litchville. The press noted his comings and goings, as when he traveled to Fargo to take the course in steam traction engineering from Professor Rose. The arrest of Townley moved Larson to mock-distress in the ballad of “Townley’s Crime.”

 

Oh, Gee! I was scared, and the tears that I shed

How I shivered and muttered and swore

 

Larson predicted a good end for the matter--that the jury might convict, but the judge would send Townley home--”You’re sentenced, he said, to ride home in a Ford”--because the NPL was known for its pioneering political strategy of organizing the countryside by automobile. History records that Townley, however, was not so fortunate.

 

-Tom Isern