If I were to say to you, Sing a couple lines of “Home on the Range” and I’ll give you twenty bucks, chances are you could win the twenty. How is it that old folksongs composed by obscure people like Brewster Highley, or by people we cannot even identify, are present and recallable in twenty-first century America?
We owe these artifacts of folk culture to a cohort of adventurous investigators of about a century ago whom I call the songcatchers. These curious collectors, inspired by the scholarship of balladry in Britain, and realizing that we had something similar in our new country, set out to catch the songs of the people from the air. They took them down by dictation, or perhaps hauled around bulky cylinder recording apparatus - such technology coming available as an Edison invention from 1877, making its appearance contemporary with the settlement of the Great Plains.
The greatest of them, I suppose, was the Texan, John A. Lomax, whose book, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, appeared in 1910. Lomax later would publish an interesting memoir, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. New Mexico, however, boasts an earlier songcatcher in N. Howard Thorp, whose book, Songs of the Cowboys, came out in 1908.
The most prominent female songcatcher of the plains was the redoubtable Louise Pound, of the University of Nebraska, who published her first compilation of folksong, Folk-song of Nebraska and the Central West, in 1913.
The ranks of songcatchers get thinner, apparently, as you go farther north, but wait a minute - I’ve got some! North Dakota had two notable songcatchers of whom I am aware, the first of them being George F. Will, of Bismarck.
George was the son of the celebrated horticulturalist and seedsman, Oscar H. Will, of Bismarck. George not only carried on the family seed business but also made his mark as a scholar. George came home from Harvard with eclectic interests and abundant self-confidence. Best remembered as an archeologist and ethnologist, the co-author of Corn Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri, George Will collected minerals and artifacts; studied tree rings to get a glimpse of deep history; was a pillar of the state historical society and an associate of the Peabody Museum; and, it turns out, collected folksongs - he was a songcatcher.
I am indebted to Curt Eriksmoen for his fine newspaper feature about George Will, but I have dug into Will’s folksong collections on my own. He published them in the national journal of record in the field, the Journal of American Folklore. His first report along these lines was “Songs of Western Cowboys,” in 1909. He followed up with further findings in “Four Cowboy Songs,” 1913.
We know little about how Will acquired his folksong texts--the songcatchers of the plains were not sticklers for research methods--but he does name his informants, which makes it possible to do some, you might call it, contact tracing. I’m intrigued, for example, at his credit for the comic lament entitled, “Punching Cows.” (“One day I thought I’d have some fun / And see how punching cows was done.”) His source is one “William Sunderland of Bismarck, N. Dak.”
I have a 1916 obituary for Mr. Sunderland, who was an employee of the songcatcher’s father, Oscar Will - and there seems to be an interesting relationship among them. I need to tell you more about that next time in Plains Folk, here on Prairie Public.