Lost Years | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Lost Years

Dec 30, 2020


Since I’ve given in to my folkie roots and returned to active public performance, focusing on the folksong of the Great Plains, of course, I’ve been considering the question what constitutes the quintessential folksong of the Great Plains.

Until recently I would have said, that question is a no-brainer. “Home on the Range” is a genuine folksong from the settlement frontier of the plains: text by an alcoholic country doctor; set to a tune by a local string band, and played as a waltz for country dances; lost, or gone underground, for a full generation until its rediscovery by the songcatcher John Lomax; and, in a case of classic folksong evolution, improved by the oral tradition, which combed out some of the poetic burs of the original stanzas and presented us with the finest piece of lyric folk poetry ever to grace the culture of the North American plains.


Now, since going into pandemic-inspired isolation, I have discovered the wondrous potential of optical character recognition and digital databases, whereby folksongs previously ascribed to a blurry anonymity can be tracked to their sources, assigning authorship, tracing evolution, and identifying variations. This has allowed me to establish definite origins for a half-dozen well-known folksongs of previously dubious ancestry.


So I have more than fifty versions of “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim,” ranging from Oklahoma to Alberta, and still counting. 


Oh the hinges are of leather, the windows have no glass

The roof it lets the howling blizzard in

And I hear the hungry coyote as he sneaks up through the grass

Round my little old sod shanty on the claim


This accumulation of stanzas has led me to declare “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” the true anthem of the plains. But wait a minute--would the settlers themselves agree? I have a strong hunch--and the songcatcher Louise Pound supports my hunch--that their favorite song was, rather, a favorite and sentimental relic of the Civil War--the lonely lyric of lost love entitled, “Lorena.”


We loved each other then, Lorena

More than we ever dared to tell


When I introduced “Lorena” to the viewers of my weekly folksong livestream, the reaction was warmly affectionate. Why did they warm so to the song? Because “Lorena” is a song not only of love lost, but also of time lost. The song says,


. . . 'tis past, the years are gone

I'll not call up their shadowy forms

I'll say to them, "Lost years, sleep on! 


“Sleep on.” As the listeners responded to the song, I felt an unspoken swell of emotions in my own heart, for Dr. Kelley and I had learned earlier in the day of a tragic loss suffered by our friend, Doug Hamilton, whose daughter Ashley had perished in an auto crash. Doug has always been kind to me. He is the consummate media professional--always prepped, maddeningly articulate, and yet generously tolerant of amateurs like me who barge into the studio and grab a microphone. But what mattered at the moment was that I knew the depth and ferocity of the grief he was suffering. It was probably because of these circumstances that I added an impromptu coda to the old song, with a closing chorus.


For all the sorrows and the loss

Of time that we cannot undo

For all our friends and all our neighbors

We light a candle now for you

-Tom Isern