Songcatchers | Prairie Public Broadcasting


Jan 9, 2021


Songcatcher is the title of a year 2000 film recently viewed at our house on Willow Creek. It stars Janet McTeer as Professor Lily Penleric, a musicologist enamoured of the ballad tradition. She stumbles into a mountain community of singers in North Carolina, becomes entangled with their lives as well as their music, and is transformed. The film received mixed reviews, but it intrigues me because of its historic content. The title character is based on one Olive Dame Campbell, a real-life songcatcher.


A century ago songcatchers--ballad hunters, seekers and recorders of folk music traditions--roamed the country, trying to save what they believed to be dying cultures, generally in remote places. The American prairies were a fertile frontier for their work.


Understand that there was an academic establishment in the fraternity of songcatchers, a sort of club headquartered in eastern places with ivy on their walls--more specifically Harvard University. Tweedy names like Francis James Child, George Lyman Kittredge, and Francis Barton Gummere dominated the field. So as songcatchers worked the Great Plains, they not only accumulated collections but also were part of a struggle for identity.


Cowboy songs were a visible battleground. There were a lot of them, and they appealed to the popular imagination. First in the field was N. Howard Thorp, who self-published his collection, Songs of the Cowboys, in 1908. This is a valuable work, but Thorp had no academic chops, and so he is not part of the struggle over ballads I’m talking about.


But John Lomax was. A Texas boy who did graduate work with Kittredge at Harvard, he published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910. This is the most significant work of a songcatcher on the Great Plains--but if you know the backstory, there is tension there. Lomax brought western balladry to Harvard, but he also took Harvard home with him.


You see, Kittredge and company had some quaint ideas about ballads. They loved to think of them as relics of primitive, tribal peoples expressing a charming rustic character but lacking artistic merit. Lomax often spoke about how his cowboy ballads were in this tradition. But think about it--this is insulting to the people of the plains. It makes them into anthropological museum curiosities.


Meanwhile, songcatching took hold up and down the plains. North Dakota had two ballad hunters--the sadly short-lived Franz Rickaby, at the University of North Dakota, and the eclectic scholar George Will, of Bismarck. They were not fixed on cowboy ballads, so they broadened the field both in geography and in content.


Women, too--contrary to the male exclusivity of Harvard--collected prairie ballads. Myra Hull, at the University of Kansas, is a neglected figure in this respect, one I must write about in a future contribution.


The star of my current story, however, is Louise Pound, a Lincoln, Nebraska girl who got herself a PhD from Heidelberg and came home to unsettle the academic establishment at the University of Nebraska. She was the wonder woman of her generation--a world-class athlete in several sports and the first female president of the Modern Language Association. She not only made a great collection of ballads from the central plains but also assailed, in print, the arrogant ideas of the Harvard crowd.


The singers of the plains, she insisted, were imaginative artists deserving of recognition for their creative work as persons, not as tribes. So although the press of her day often insisted on referring to Lousie Pound as “Miss Pound,” she is always “Dr. Pound” to me. Dr. Louise Pound, Songcatcher.

-Tom Isern