You Oughta Go Ta North Dakota
Many who grew up in North Dakota are familiar with the song “You Oughta Go Ta North Dakota” — it has been commonly taught in elementary schools and sung by choirs across the state for decades.
Songwriting duo Lois Steele and Jack Fulton wrote the tune while they were living in Chicago, Illinois, in 1958. They’d entered it into a song competition that was jointly sponsored by the Greater North Dakota Association and the North Dakota Broadcasters Association. The aim of the contest was to “uncover a catchy, rouser-type North Dakota song.” In short, North Dakota’s new state song.
There were 278 submissions, and in the end there was tie for first place: Lois Steele and Jack Fulton with “You Oughta Go Ta North Dakota,” and a song titled “North Dakota Here's To You” by former Fargo High band director Leon C. Sorlien. Leon Sorlien, and the duo Lois Steele and Jack Fulton, each received a prize of $25.
Below, Great American Folk Show host Tom Brosseau writes about Lois Steele, Jack Fulton, and the history of “You Oughta Go Ta North Dakota." In the audio for this story, listen until the end to hear Tom perform this classic North Dakota song.
Lois Steele and Jack Fulton were a songwriting duo from the 1950s. They could be thoughtful and poetic with their writing, and create lyrics and melody that anyone could relate to. The duo had some big successes: "Wanted," Perry Como’s 1954 hit, and “Ivory Tower,” recorded by Cathy Carr, which made the charts in 1956.
A few lesser-known titles they penned include “Peace” by the McGuire Sisters, “Theme of Love” by Jim Reeves, “Keep Your Promise, Willie Thomas,” by Anita Carter and Hank Snow, and “Silence Is Golden,” by Vic Damone and Jo Stafford.
Lois Steele and Jack Fulton could be put to task and swift with their compositions, rise to the occasion when called upon or when struck by muse, and deliver. For instance, when the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series in 1957 against the New York Yankees, they composed “Home Sweet Home of the Braves,” which was then recorded by a specially assembled band assembled called The Bush Leaguers.
Apparently, the inspiration of the band name came from a comment one of the New York Yankees made about the Milwaukee Braves: They were “bush league,” meaning minor league, or a step below the majors. (And well, didn’t the Milwaukee Braves really show the New York Yankees?)
It’s evident that Lois Steele and Jack Fulton purely enjoyed songwriting. They had no limitations, and they were versatile. They wrote ballads, love songs, novelty songs, pep songs, and patriotic songs, such as “Make America Proud of You.”
Make America proud of you/ In everything you say and do/ Make America proud to say/ You’re a son or a daughter of the U.S.A.
In America you are free/ To write your name in history/ But now it’s up to you, so what are you gonna do/ But make America proud of you
Now that you know a little dossier on Lois Steele and Jack Fulton, let me tell you about “You Oughta Go Ta North Dakota.” Folks my parents’ age and older will know this song well, and my own generation should know it, too. It was taught in elementary school in the early 1980s in North Dakota.
Lois Steele and Jack Fulton wrote “You Oughta Go Ta North Dakota.” That’s sort of where the train stops when searching the internet. For a deeper dig, I called Sarah Walker, Head of Reference Services at the North Dakota State Archives, and she provided me with a few helpful links.
(By the way, she also knew the song by heart. Thank you, Sarah Walker.)
Mostly, I was curious about why the song was written, and whether or not its authors had any ties to North Dakota. Here’s what I discovered: Lois Steele and Jack Fulton wrote “You Oughta Go Ta North Dakota” while they were living in Chicago, Illinois, in 1958. They’d entered it into a song competition that was jointly sponsored by the Greater North Dakota Association and the North Dakota Broadcasters Association, headed by chairman Charles G. Burke of Fargo, North Dakota.
The aim of the contest was to “uncover a catchy, rouser-type North Dakota song.” In short, North Dakota’s new state song. There were 278 submissions, and in the end there was tie for first place: Lois Steele and Jack Fulton with “You Oughta Go Ta North Dakota,” and a song simply titled “North Dakota Song” by Leon C. Sorlien, an insurance salesman who was also band director at Bismarck High from 1923-1926 and at Fargo High from 1926-1950. Mr. Sorlien, and the duo Lois Steele and Jack Fulton, each received a prize of $25.
Mr. Sorlien’s connection to North Dakota was that he was a band director at two high schools, but what of Lois Steele or Jack Fulton?
Of the duo, Jack Fulton’s biography is the lengthier. He was a member of the very popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra. He played trombone and sang. He wrote other songs with other songwriters, too — those compositions were covered by singers such as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, The Ink Spots, just to name a few. He was a Pennsylvanian.
Lois Steele owned a cattle ranch near Woodworth, North Dakota. Likely it was she who came up with the lyric, “see the cattle and the wheat and the folks that can’t be beat.”
Here’s what I find interesting: 50 miles straight east of Woodworth is the town of Wimbledon, North Dakota, Peggy Lee’s hometown. I wonder if they knew each other when they were growing up? More likely, their paths crossed in Hollywood. Peggy Lee was popular and in demand, and I imagine always she was also in the studio — she recorded over 1,000 songs. It’s possible that Peggy Lee covered one of Lois Steele’s songs.
I hope you enjoyed a little insight on Lois Steele and Jack Fulton, Lois Steele’s North Dakota connection, and the story of how North Dakota got its catchy, rouser-type song, “You Oughta Go Ta North Dakota.” 64 years later, and we still sing it.