Plains Folk | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Plains Folk

Once a week during Main Street, weekdays at 3 pm CT with a repeat at 7 pm CT.
  • Hosted by Prairie Public

Plains Folk is a commentary devoted to life on the great plains of North Dakota. Written by Tom Isern of West Fargo, North Dakota, and read in newspapers across the region for years, Plains Folk venerates fall suppers and barn dances and reminds us that "more important to our thoughts than lines on a map are the essential characteristics of the region — the things that tell what the plains are, not just where they are." 

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Sunday morning, the Madson’s, along with Melodie and McKenzee Madson, joined Paul and Carrie for breakfast in Devils Lake. Following breakfast, Carrie and Paul went to Dave and Linda’s home, where Paul did some work on the air conditioner and got it going just in time for the warmer days ahead.

Larry, Levi and Beau were at the Ludden Cemetery this weekend mowing. Jon Hansen came by and did the trimming. Would you like to help keep this looking as good as it does now? Contact any one of the Cemetery Board with your offer.


Barb Eversvik and Jan Loe were at New Rockford-Sheyenne School on Monday morning to help the art department get their kiln up and running. Jan and Barb enjoyed lunch at the cafe before heading home.


Beverly Bjornson enjoyed a chat over pie and coffee on Thursday at Margie Anderson’s home.


There you have the news from Oberon, Guelph, Sheyenne, and Pleasant Prairie, respectively. Brought to you by the country correspondents of those rural communities.

Marching to Bismarck

May 29, 2021


Hurrah! Hurrah! The farmers shall be free

Hurrah! Hurrah! Their freedom now they see

Because the time has come when farmers all agree

And now they’ll go marching to Bismarck


Two things stand out in the chorus from 1916 I just sang. First, the tune is familiar. It’s “Marching through Georgia,” a triumphal battle anthem from late in the Civil War. Political balladeers liked to use melodies from the Civil War, because they were familiar, conducive to group singing.


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.

Deserts on the March

May 15, 2021


Years ago I had the honor of meeting Paul B. Sears, the ecologist from Oklahoma, author of the 1935 jeremiad, Deserts on the March. He came to Emporia State University as a consultant in the founding of the Center for Great Plains Studies. At the time I was unaware what a giant this slight old man, Paul Sears, was.


In an unlikely turn of events, a poem by an Englishwoman about a soldier in the French Foreign Legion traveled to America to become a cowboy ballad. The poem, as recounted in my last essay, was “Bingen on the Rhine,” by Caroline Norton. The ballad is “The Last Longhorn.” It begins,


An ancient Longhorn bovine lay dying by the river

There was lack of vegetation, and the cold wind made him shiver


Eureka! Found it.


Lately I’ve been looking into the origins of all the old standard folksongs of the Great Plains. Operating with the advantages of digitization, optical character recognition, and the internet, I see all sorts of things that were invisible to the songcatchers of a century ago.

A Cloud in the West

Apr 24, 2021


“As Henry stepped out of the door, he noticed a peculiar cloud in the west, too light in color to be rain, or even dust. He called Rosie to the door to look.” Henry and Rosie Ise, homesteaders in northern Kansas, faced a grave challenge coming from the land itself: “Grasshoppers--millions, billions of them--soon covered the ground in a seething, fluttering mass, their jaws constantly at work.”

If I use the word “pastoralism,” it’s usually misunderstood. People think I’m talking about clergymen, possibly of the Lutheran variety--when really I’m speaking of what we in the United States generally call “ranching.” In the rest of the English-speaking world that’s pastoralism, and if practiced on the open range, that’s “extensive pastoralism.” And the open range is referred to as “waste lands.”


A week ago I confessed to being an unabashed academic, and I’ll tell you what’s more: I work in the academic area known sometimes as “the liberal arts” (a term so difficult to explain in the current social climate that I’m going to skip it for the moment) and otherwise known as “the humanities” (also a term fraught with misunderstanding, but one I will go with for now).

Farming the Plains

Mar 27, 2021


If you’re a regular listener to Plains Folk, then you know you’re dealing with a farm boy. I’m the guy who buys out other heirs and nurtures hopes of seeing the family farm (dating from 1874) into its seventh generation. I will need more than my biblical three-score-and-ten to do that, so wish me luck.