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Plains Folk

The Agency of Wheat

Nov 21, 2020

Take a couple of good breaths, because we’re about to take a deep dive into the philosophy of history. Maybe not that deep, because I’m still a farm boy, and my subject today is wheat, but this little essay has to do with how we think about an everyday, material subject like wheat.

Shadow Socials

Nov 14, 2020

 

“At the shadow social Saturday evening a young fellow was bidding at his lady friend’s shadow,” so says the press report from Bottineau in December 1912. “Three guys chipped in and bid over him, giving the ‘shadow’ to another friend.”

 

“The question, Money vs. Fame, was decided for the affirmative,” reported the Golden Valley Chronicle on the debate featured in the first meeting of the Belfield Literary Society in February 1908. But wait a minute, which was the affirmative, money, or fame? No matter, the society moved on with an announcement that its next meeting would debate the question, “Resolved that the United States should own and control the railways.” Never let it be said that our forebears a century ago were out of touch with the progressive issues of the day.

Proper Amusements

Oct 31, 2020

 

There was some talk about it in 1885, but it was November 1886 before folks in Williamsport, Emmons County, organized a meeting to consider forming a literary society. Literary societies--often just referred to as “the literary,” as in, I picked up my sweetheart and took her to the literary last night--were common across the country, but tough to get going in the hardscrabble earliest days of prairie settlement. Before long, though, every community came to the point when people decided, we should have a literary.

Farmer's Son

Oct 17, 2020

 

“I may not know who I am, but I know where I came from.” So writes Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize winner and prairie boy, in an essay I assign every fall to my students in the history of the Great Plains. Stegner here addresses what he calls “the question mark in the circle,” the identity question: Who am I, and what am I doing here?

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.

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