Thomas D. Isern's Blog: Willow Creek: A Writing Journal

March 24, 2023

Willow Creek Folk School Tonight!

Willow Creek Folk School No. 133
Livestream 24 March 2023 from the Salon on Willow Creek to the Facebook timeline of Tom Isern
Theme: Forgotten Balladeers

Only recently, with the advent of searchable digital collections, have we begun to comprehend the depth of poetic expression on the prairies in the heyday of regional balladry. Tonight we celebrate three forgotten bards and their ballads.

Header - “Hotdish Highway”

Opener - “Song of the Kanzas Emigrants” - not by John Greenleaf Whittier, but by the mysterious T.B.H.
Reading by Dr. Kelley

NDSU Press

#2 - “In the Bastille at Fargo” - a bootlegger ballad goes into the songbag

Check in on the chatline

#3 - “To Those Who Plowed with a Walking Plow,” by Ole A. Olson, homesteader and poet

Calendar Ballad - “Daylight Savings,” a lament

Tailer - Easy Peaceful Home on the Range
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Published on March 24, 2023 06:45

March 18, 2023

WCFS No. 132

Last night's WCFS No. 132 is now uploaded to YouTube--processing, will be ready for viewing in a few minutes
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Published on March 18, 2023 07:57

The Fatal Wedding

This week on Prairie Pubic -
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Published on March 18, 2023 04:26

March 9, 2023

Transported by Ballads

Remember, no Willow Creek Folk School this Friday night, 10 March, as Drs. Kelley & Isern are traveling to joyous family events. We'll be back in the Salon on Willow Creek next week, resuming programming on Friday 17 March. Take heart, friends, March cannot last forever.

I'm not sure I will be able to sleep tonight, as I am transported by the heartfelt folk poetry of Ole A. Olson, an immigrant raised on a Dakota Territory homestead, into whose papers I stumbled by accident this afternoon. How has this balladic voice lain forgotten all these years?

You, whose hand has never held a plow
Have missed the ecstasy of knowing how
Much frangrance is released from upturned earth
To which all plants that clothe and feed us owe their birth[0]=AT2cF3JK5S2NyP0FqxgIZ4tDTs2QcKL3C1qMuwoqzdZVl1Moq64iWxSjLUa1PBYtBFG9OIjUwRIgpl1W7bfLC7ziGkciZsLqCpRr5I9gDinS9jCb4wR4B-vUnxGshC4onHCr5Mpdr4r9GA
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Published on March 09, 2023 22:20

March 5, 2023

WCFS No. 131

Last Friday's Willow Creek Folk School, No. 131, is uploaded to YouTube -
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Published on March 05, 2023 21:27

Who Feeds Them All

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Published on March 05, 2023 10:37

February 26, 2023

The Farmer Is the Man

Another weekend, another manuscript - this one opening with a chorus from the North Dakota Farmers Union Summer Camp Songbook.
When the farmer comes to town
With his wagon broken down,
Oh, the Farmer is the man who feeds them all.
If you’ll only look and see
I think you will agree
That the Farmer is the man who feeds them all.
What's going on is, I have these papers presented over the past couple of years at scholarly meetings, papers from my line of research on Great Plains folksong--the stuff we do every Friday night with the Willow Creek Folk School. The papers have begun to accumulate, and so now I'm touching them up to submit for journal publication. Last weekend was a long weekend, and so I finished two. This was a regular weekend, and I finished one.

I didn't know when I started Saturday morning that I would end up quoting both Gil Fite and Walter Prescott Webb in the conclusion, but so it went. The subject of the paper is the Granger song, "The Farmer Is the Man," written by the evangelical preacher, Knowles Shaw, when he was sojourning in Kansas in 1874. In the original text of 1874 and the NDFU songbook today, the message is pure farm fundamentalism. That's how Gil Fite came into the story, as he wrote a paper about farm fundamentalism in 1962.

I've printed the paper and now will let it sit overnight. Perhaps the dogs will eat it. Perhaps I will read it over in the morning, and I'll decide it is no good. Most likely, I'll give it a hard read, make some revisions, and send it off. Things are moving off my desk prettty well these days. Not always the things that the people I report to at the university want me to be moving off my desk, but the ones I care about.

"A Genuine Granger Song: Reverend Knowles Shaw and 'The Farmer Is the Man'" - this is one of the discovery pieces in my line of work on Great Plains balladry. It tickles me no end to have tracked this song I have been singing for a half-century back to its very headwaters, its original author and original publication in 1874.

Now, two fingers of sour mash, and six hours of sleep. Then the dogs will wake up.
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Published on February 26, 2023 21:40

February 25, 2023

What Have I Done?

Last night's Willow Creek Folk School. No. 130, is now uploaded to YouTube. -
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Published on February 25, 2023 09:00

February 22, 2023

Some of the Road, Most of the Time

Up early this morning, going through a manuscript by one of my resident PhD students, and thinking, this is really good work. I can see one, two, three things to point out that will add value, and we'll talk about them, but then I'll get out of the way. There is a stage in your life as a mentor when you think you know better about eveything. There is a better stage, later, when you know you still have tricks you can teach a really good student, and you do so, but you don't have to get your fingers on everything.

Then I spent some time rummaging through some century-old scholarship on balladry in America, and as I did so, I sensed that I was framing in a whole new room for the house of interpretation I have been building for the re-emergent field of Great Plains folksong. This reminded me that I still have oh so much yet to discover and learn, that I am still capable of discovering and learning, and that this is what I do. Three-score and ten is just a platform.

At this point my phone sounds, and on the end is a great friend in a country town who has a promising idea for an art installation that would draw people onto the land and teach them about ways to live on it, settler and indigenous. (I'm not going to say anything more specific about his ideas, they're his, and I know he'll write about them soon.) I'm still thinking about that conversation and giving thanks there are people who ring me out of the blue with such notions.

But off to the office on a nasty winter day, whoops, I'm in the ditch, gun it, there, I'm out of it, and on with the day. I'm supposed to be in Vermillion leading a delegation of student presenters at a conference, but the South Dakota blizzard scotched that, so here I am back in class. Heck with it, I turned the operation over to my graduate students and watched them operate, and they did a better job than I would have. Which is another aspect of teaching at this level.

Done with that, hustle now, off to the archives, where my methods students are streaming in and opening document boxes and trying to figure out this game of archival research. I set up in the lobby and tell them, come out and sit with me when you need to talk about what you're trying to do. One and two at a time, they do, always with pretty much the same query: What am I looking for here? Well, I don't know, what are you finding?

In each case I come around to saying, You're asking the right question at this point, which is, What is my question? And there are two ways to find it. First, keep rummaging through the documents, see what emerges, see what things align into patterns, see what interests you. (My fellow old-school historians will recognize this as the Idealistic theory of History--watch and wait for the Idea. Yeah, it's kind of mystic.) The other way of finding your question is to look at the secondary literature, the books and articles around your subject, and see what ideas other scholars have induced from, or brought to, the subject. Just be sure that if you get your idea this way, you bring it to your own material as a question, not as an answer to be imposed on the past. This, too, is teaching on a pretty high order. I had some research of my own I had intended to get done, but there wasn't time. Many thanks to our eminently professional archivist who kept the place open late for us to get work done tonight, even though he was feeling under the weather.

And who pointed out as I was leaving, Hey, you know the interstates are closed, right? No, I didn't, I hadn't been looking out the windows. So I rang up Dr. Kelley, who was across town on an arrand, apprised her of the situation, and convoyed up with her to track our way home via the snowy section roads. We could see some of the road most of time. There's a big fat metaphor in there somewhere.

Now it looks like tomorrow is a snow day, which is good, because I have printed out a couple more essays I'm beginning to revise for publication, I should write a couple of Plains Folk radio scripts for recording on Friday, and I need to work out the order of service for Friday night's Willow Creek Folk School, No. 130.

Hey, join us on my Facebook timeline. We'll livestream from the Salon on Willow Creek at 8pm CST. Pop some popcorn, we're doing murder ballads this week.
O Lord, they're going to hang me
It's an awful death to die
O lord, they're going to hang me
Between the earth and sky
You're guilty, dude, Lord have mercy on all of us.
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Published on February 22, 2023 19:58

Willow Creek: A Writing Journal

Thomas D. Isern
From the home office on Willow Creek, in the Red River Valley of North Dakota, historian Tom Isern blogs about his (literary) life on the plains.
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