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Tom Isern

  • Now and then in the middle of a Plains Folk essay you may hear me erupt into song, sometimes mournful, sometimes exuberant, because singing is a significant part of my life. I am, as I sometimes remark, an unreconstructed folkie from the 1970s, and there was a time when I made rent with a Martin dreadnought. Thank God I don’t have to do that now. Because the music business is full of, well, real musicians.
  • It was in 1941 that America’s great Shakespearean scholar, George Lyman “Kitty” Kittredge, slipped the surly bonds of Cambridge, Massachusetts, never more to enthrall and terrify the boys of Harvard. Kitty would not have been at home on the range, but he was a mentor to the greatest of all collectors of western ballads, John A. Lomax of Texas.
  • Early on in the greatest novel ever written about life on the Great Plains of North America, My Antonia, Ms. Cather’s narrator and her protagonist agree on something: they concur that people who grew up on the prairies shared a “kind of freemasonry.” Such folk possessed common experiences and attitudes that made them something like a secret society.
  • "We’re happy as a clam on our claim from Uncle Sam/Though the rabbit is not always fried the best"So sang the four bachelors of the Willow Bend Quartette, Valley County, Montana, at a schoolhouse gathering on Christmas Eve, 1916. The singers were L. O. Carter, lead; Will Lloyd, bass; Raymond Sullivan, baritone; and James Lloyd, tenor.
  • Soon the last of the massive poplars planted in the 1970s at our property on Willow Creek will all fall. Then the tallest tree on the place will be the native, seeded cottonwood I planted in 1992. Surely it will outlive me. I like that. Because Clay Jenkinson is right: cottonwoods speak to us of our common condition.
  • Clay Jenkinson’s book, The Language of Cottonwoods, is a lot like my suitcase packed for a long research junket. You open it up, and all sorts of things pop out. Some of them are kind of loopy—on purpose, I suspect. They help to situate the more sober ones as propositions for serious consideration.
  • “It is important that we have conversations about our beloved state,” says Clay Jenkinson, introducing his book, The Language of Cottonwoods. “I love North Dakota with all my heart.”
  • This new book by David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, is long, winding, and sometimes exasperating. I was making my way through its treatment of…
  • I don’t know whether it is on account of the nostalgia that oozes from that stanza, or because of my delight in the discovery of a new-to-me prairie…
  • Professor Tom Isern is a distinguished professor at North Dakota State University for a reason -- he really cares about the people of the plains, wants to…