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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Comanche Bill

Oct 10, 2020

 

Ballad hunters of the early twentieth century captured from memory the folksong, “Dreary Black Hills”--“Stay away I say, stay away if you can / Far from that city they call Cheyenne.” The ballad is a lament by a gold-seeker in the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1876 who goes home broke and disillusioned.

 

On a February morning in 1925, there convened in Lincoln, Nebraska, a meeting of a genteel society, the Nebraska Writers’ Guild. The featured speaker was none other than the distinguished folklorist and linguist, Louise Pound.

A Handful of Roses

Sep 26, 2020

 


And the cowboys now as they roam the plain

For they marked the spot where his bones were lain

Fling a handful of roses o’er his grave

With a prayer to him who his soul will save

 

Recently I sang this stanza in a public performance of the classic cowboy song, “The Dying Cowboy,” better known as “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” It took a while: the standard version of the song, the Lomax text, runs to thirteen stanzas, plus choruses. That line about flinging roses onto the lonely grave is just one of many exceedingly poetic passages.

The Deep, Deep Sea

Sep 19, 2020


Oh bury me not in the deep, deep sea

These words came faint and mournfully
From the pallid lips of a youth who lay
On his cabin couch from day to day

 

That old Conrad Richter trope of the sea of grass, the tired cliche that the prairie is like the ocean - I never have bought into that. Evidently it works for some people, though, and now we have this lament - Bury me not in the deep, deep sea - showing up in a North Dakota farmhouse.

Farmer is the Man

Sep 12, 2020

Oh the farmer comes to town with his wagon broken down

But the farmer is the man who feeds them all
If you’ll only look and see, then I think you will agree
That the farmer is the man who feeds them all

 

Well, yes, we do have to agree that the farmer is the man who feeds them all. Because given what we have learned about the capacity of indigenous peoples to manage landscapes for food production, there is no clear line between farming and hunting and gathering.

Texas Cowboy

Sep 5, 2020

 

George F. Will, of Bismarck - ethnologist, archeologist, dendrochronologist, and son of the celebrated horticulturalist and seedsman, Oscar Will - was also, as disclosed in a previous essay, a songcatcher - a lover and collector of folksongs, particularly cowboy ballads. He published his folksong findings in the Journal of American Folklore in 1909 and 1913.

Songcatchers

Aug 29, 2020

 

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?

Indian Acres

Aug 22, 2020

 

If you are unfamiliar with the classic of first farmers on the northern plains, Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, pick up a copy. I am making it the first core text for my college course, The North American Plains. For two reasons.

Russian Roots

Aug 15, 2020

 

In the course of that slow dance by which we people of the plains come to an understanding of the place we inhabit, we require many contributors. We commence with native knowledge, the product of centuries, even millennia of experience with the land. Layered on that we have the sense of the settler societies, who, however brief their experience, is at least well documented. There is a vital role, too, for public intellectuals on the plains--thinkers like Walter Prescott Webb, the historian, or Charles Edwin Bessey, the botanist--who form the inchoate sense of prairie life into deeper and larger forms that help us understand what is around us.

Bad Seed

Aug 8, 2020

 

In August of 1887 the Jamestown Alert sounded an alarm. “The Russian thistle,” writes the editor, “the seed of which was brought to the territory by some Russian emigrants, is spreading with great rapidity in Yankton county, where it has been started.

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