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The Arkansas Traveler
Music from
Little House on the Prairie


$10.00


The Songs

What They Are Saying

Liner Notes

Lyrics

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LINER NOTES

            The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) are rich in references to music and music-making.  Among the 127 songs embedded in Wilder’s stories are parlor songs, stage songs, minstrel show songs, patriotic songs, Scottish and Irish songs, hymns, spirituals, fiddle tunes, singing school songs, play party songs, folk songs, a Child ballad, broadside ballads, Christmas songs, catches and rounds, and references to “cowboy songs” and “Osage war dances.”  There may be no books in American literature that document family music-making so thoroughly.  And above everything, there was always Laura’s “Pa,” a born entertainer who missed few occasions to sing and play his fiddle, an instrument that accompanied the Ingalls family through times good and bad and came to symbolize the endurance of the family unit in a threatening frontier world.
            The most popular of these books is the third one published, Little House on the Prairie (1935).  Eighteen songs are woven into this book, many of them among the greatest in 19th-century American music.  This recording is an effort to give new voice and sound to the music from that great, classic book, music that has lain silent on the page for far too long.  To read the book and hear the music afresh adds emotional depth and meaning to a familiar story, for as Wilder herself wrote, “if you want the spirit of these times, you should [hear] these old songs.”

1. The Battle Cry of Freedom (John Cowan) 4:11
2. Old Dan Tucker (Elizabeth Cook) 3:01
3. The Gum Tree Canoe (Buddy Greene) 3:42
4. Money Musk (Pa’s Fiddle Band) 2:19
5. Green Grows the Laurel (Deborah Packard/John Mock) 4:00
6. Daisy Deane (Mike Eldred/Nashville Mandolin Ensemble) 4:24
7. Irish Washerwoman (Pa’s Fiddle Band) 2:47
8. Roll On Silver Moon (Judith Edelman/Blair String Quartet) 3:46
9. The Blue Juniata (Riders In The Sky) 2:04
10. Dixie’s Land (Bob Carlin) 3:18
11. Happy Land (Peggy Duncan Singers) 2:28
12. The Monkey’s Wedding (Mac Wiseman) 2:39
13. The Devil’s Dream (Butch Baldassari/David Schnaufer) 3:53
14. Oh!  California (Oh!  Susanna) (Andrea Zonn/Alison Brown) 3:35
15. The Gypsy King (Jeff Black) 3:10
16. Bye Baby Bunting (Deborah Packard) 1:34
17. The Arkansas Traveler (Riders In The Sky) 5:35
18. Bonus:  “. . . in the pot”:  Fantasy on “Pease Porridge Hot” (Stan Link) 1:51

Produced by Butch Baldassari and Dale Cockrell
Mastered at Foxwood Mastering & Editing by David Shipley,  Nashville, Tenn.
Graphic Art Design:  Terri Morris of McClearen Design Studios, Nashville, Tenn.
Also available from The Pa’s Fiddle Project:
            Happy Land:  Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder (Pa’s Fiddle Recordings PFR 0167-2)
            The Happy Land Companion:  Music from the World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, ed. by Dale Cockrell (Nashville:  NDX Press, 2005)

Catalog Number:  PFR 0168-2

© 2006 Cackle & Splash Music, BMI. 
Warning:  Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.  All rights reserved.

The Battle Cry of Freedom

            That James M. McPherson chose this song to title his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Civil War is some indication of its power and impact.  Written (music and lyrics) by George F. Root (1820-95), a well-known composer, educator, and publisher, the song stirred the emotions of northerners against the confederate rebels and highlighted the critical importance of the slavery issue—“and although he may be poor, he shall never be a slave!”  Like many such anthems, it lived on in the musical imaginations of Americans for many decades after the war.
            “The Battle Cry of Freedom” (published in 1862) is one of several songs that sounds out at the close of Little House on the Prairie.  The Ingalls family had just abandoned their home, which had been built illegally in Osage territory.  In their covered wagon on their way to another place and another life, Pa, ever the seeming optimist, raised the spirits of his family by singing and playing this uplifting song.

John Cowan – vocalist; Butch Baldassari – mandolin; Matt Combs – fiddle; Bryon House – bass; Jeffrey Taylor – accordion

Recorded 25 May 2006; Monkey Finger Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; Brent Truitt, engineer.  Mixed at Monkey Finger Studio by Brent Truitt.

Old Dan Tucker

            This song, with its jaunty melody and sprightly verses, has been sung and enjoyed up to the very present.  “Old Dan Tucker” is attributed to Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904), a New York-based performer from Ohio.  The lyrics are certainly Emmett’s while the tune, which has a folk-like quality, has been thought by some to come from the oral tradition (although no record of it exists before the publication of this song in 1843).
            Mr. Edwards, who helped the Ingalls build their log cabin on the prairie, is showered in appreciation with food and music.  As he reluctantly leaves to return to his own cabin, he invites Pa to “Play me down the Road!”  “Old Dan Tucker” was just the tune to put lilt in a working man’s tired feet, and “faintly from the creek bottoms came a last whoop from Mr. Edwards.”  (“House on the Prairie” chapter)

Elizabeth Cook – vocal; Butch Baldassari – mandolin; Mike Bub – bass; Bob Carlin – minstrel banjo; Matt Combs – fiddle; Pat Enright – guitar

Recorded 24 April 2006 and 3 May 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; Mark Howard, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

The Gum Tree Canoe 

            The music to this song was written by Anthony (“Tony”) F. Winnemore (1816-51), a leading composer and performer of songs for the musical stage during the 1840s, to words by Silas Sexton Steele.  Its lovely, rippling melody assured it a long life in the popular imagination. 
            Little House on the Prairie ends with the Ingalls family camped out under the stars.  As Laura drifted into sleep “over endless waves of prairie grasses,” the last thing she heard was Pa singing the chorus to this song.  With that, the book closes.

Buddy Greene – vocals, harmonica; Butch Baldassari – mandolin; Mike Bub – bass; Matt Combs – fiddle; Pat Flynn – guitar 

Recorded 13 June 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; David Shipley, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

Money Musk

            A source from 1776 credits Daniel Dow, perhaps a Scottish musician, with composing and titling this fiddle tune.  Its odd name is homage to a community in Aberdeenshire in Scotland—Monymusk—a village that was laid out in the 18th century by Sir Archibald Grant.  Sir Archibald’s name has sometimes been attached to this tune as well.
            “Money Musk” is among the several tunes that Pa plays at the house-raising celebration at the end of “The House on the Prairie” chapter.

Butch Baldassari – mandolin; Mike Bub – bass; Bob Carlin – banjo; Matt Combs – fiddle; Pat Enright – guitar

Recorded 24 April 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; Mark Howard, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

Green Grows the Laurel

            Everyone seemed to know this folksong in the 19th century, but no one apparently bothered to write it down until the early 20th.  Probably of Irish origin, the song has other titles by which it has been known, most notably “Green Grows the Lilacs” and “The Orange and Blue” (which is probably a mishearing of “origin blue,” an alternate term for the herb more commonly called “oregano”).
            Towards the end of the “Fire in the Chimney” chapter, Pa prepares to head out for the long trip to town, to purchase provisions for the winter ahead.  Before leaving he sings this song to Ma—“So woeful, my love, at the parting with you”—prompting a smile from her.

Deborah Packard – vocal; Byron House – bass; John Mock – guitar, tin whistle, harmonium

Recorded 8 June 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; David Shipley, engineer and 18 July 2006; New England Sound, Nashville, Tenn.; John Mock, engineer.  Mixed at New England Sound by John Mock.

Daisy Deane

            Surprisingly little is known about this popular song, other than that it was published in Chicago in 1863, with “words and Music mostly by Lieut. T.F. Winthrop, 19th Regiment, and James R. Murray, 14th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers.”  The style is similar to many other such songs from the period:  sentimental, broadly romantic, elegiac, and suitable for performance in the American parlor.  Stephen Foster gave definition to the type with his greatly loved songs like “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” 
            Music and nature frequently coexist in Little House on the Prairie.  Such is the case on a night that “was full of music,” when Laura listened to her father singing “Daisy Deane” and imagined that “The stars were singing.”  (“Prairie Day” chapter)

Mike Eldred – vocalist; The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble:  Butch Baldassari – mandolin; Walter Carter – mandola; Matt Combs – mandolin; John Hedgecoth – mandocello; Mark Howard – guitar; David Spicher – bass

Recorded 23 May 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; David Shipley, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

Irish Washerwoman

            The first time this tune was published under this title was in 1792, but earlier forms of the tune itself date back as early as 1609—an “old-time fiddle tune” to say the very least.  It had spirit enough to get Mr. Edwards up a-dancing in the house-raising chapter of Wilder’s book (“The House on the Prairie”).

Butch Baldassari – mandolin; Mike Bub – bass; Bob Carlin – banjo; Matt Combs – fiddle; Pat Enright – guitar

Recorded 24 April 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; Mark Howard, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

Roll On Silver Moon

            Unusual for the time, this song was written by a woman, Jane Sloman (b. 1824), an English-born pianist and composer who lived most of her life in the United States.  The text she set was first printed some years before in England.  Her song appears to have enjoyed considerable popularity in America until well after the Civil War.
            In “Moving In,” the walls of the new house were up and Pa had stretched a cover over the skeleton rafters to provide temporary shelter.  The first night in the new house, Laura saw the bright moon “sailing silently higher in the clear sky.”  Pa, with a voice that was “like a part of the night and the moonlight and the stillness of the prairie” sang his family to sleep with “Roll On Silver Moon.”

Judith Edelman – vocal, guitar; The Blair String Quartet:  Chris Teal, 1st violin; Cornelia Heard, 2nd violin; John Kochanowski, viola; Felix Wang, cello

Recorded 3 May 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; Mark Howard, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

The Blue Juniata

            Marion Dix Sullivan composed the lyrics and melody to “The Blue Juniata,” which was then arranged by Edward L. White and published in 1844.  The song appeared during a time when many Americans were becoming more concerned about the plight of the American Indian, as its sympathetic narrative suggests. 
            The song’s placement in Little House on the Prairie points up an important moral dilemma.  In a dramatic chapter (“The Tall Indian”), Ma and her daughters manage to hold off two Osage men who were attempting to steal the family’s cache of furs, virtually their entire capital.  (In a telling parallel, the Ingalls family was then, in 1870, living on land that was officially “Indian territory,” virtually all that still “belonged” to a whole nation of people.)  As the Ingalls children prepare for bed, they hear Ma sing “The Blue Juniata,” a deeply poignant expression of loss.  Laura, who is clearly moved by the sympathetic portrayal of the song’s protagonist, asks, “Where did the voice of Alfarata go, Ma?”  She is told that Alfarata probably went west because that is what “the government makes [the Indians do].”  She wonders if the Osage will have to go west.  “Yes,” Pa said.  “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on.”  “But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory.  Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to—”  “No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly.  “Go to sleep.”  And the chapter ends, but the question, underscored by the song, lingers.

Riders In The Sky:  Ranger Doug – lead vocal, guitar; Too Slim – bunkhouse bass; Woody Paul – fiddle; Joey the Cowpolka King – accordion

Recorded 7 February 2005; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; Mark Howard, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

This performance was first released on Happy Land:  Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder (Pa’s Fiddle Recordings PFR 0167-2)

Dixie’s Land

            This famous song—usually called just “Dixie”—was probably written by Dan Emmett, also the composer of “Old Dan Tucker.”  It, like several other songs on this recordings, was originally intended for performance in the blackface minstrel show, which was the most popular form of musical theatre in 19th-century America.  As hard as it might be to imagine today, millions flocked to the theatres and stages in cities, towns, and crossroads to see the dances and antics of white men with blackened faces and to hear their music and jokes.  (Indeed, Pa Ingalls stars in an amateur minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie.)  Minstrelsy generally was an expression of a deeply seated and widespread racism common to that time, and African Americans were represented in it as objects of crude humor and ridicule. 
            When the Civil War followed hard on the heels of the song’s publication (in 1860), “Dixie” was appropriated by the Confederacy as its unofficial national anthem.  With its wild lyrics and lilting tune, the song was never fully  abandoned by the North though.  Abraham Lincoln, for example, had it played right after the close of the Civil War to signal its rebirth as a “national” song.  The Ingalls family must have agreed, for it appears in two of the Little House books. 
            Like so many of Wilder’s books, Little House on the Prairie closes with music-making.  The situation is bittersweet this time, though, for the Ingalls Family has abandoned its “little house,” and is camping out on the way back north.  One wonders if their singing of “Dixie” was an ironic comment on how the family chose not “to live and die” in the southernmost of the domiciles chronicled in the Wilder’s books.

Bob Carlin – vocal, minstrel banjo; Butch Baldassari – mandolin; Mike Bub – bass;  Matt Combs – fiddle; Pat Enright – guitar

Recorded 24 April 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; Mark Howard, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

Happy Land

            Scottish educator and poet Andrew Young (1807-89) wrote the words to this hymn while living in India in 1838 and fit it to a popular song of that time titled “I Have Come from a Happy Land:  The Celebrated Dancing Girls’ Song.”  The title page of the song by Robert Archibald Smith (1780-1829) claims that the melody is a “Hindustani Air.”  The song quickly worked its way into hymnbooks intended for use in Sunday schools; through these collections “Happy Land” came to be known by the Ingalls family.
            This hymn appears more often in Wilder’s books than any other.  Supposedly “Ma’s favorite,” it stands for strength-in-family and in opposition to a unruly, outside world, most graphically illustrated in Little House on the Prairie when Ma Ingalls cradled Pa’s pistol and sang “There is a happy land,” while nearby Osage Indians powwowed and appeared to threaten the Ingalls and other settlers. 

The Peggy Duncan Singers:  Peggy Stewart Duncan – soprano; Mark Powelson – tenor; Jane Sherberg – alto; Jon Sherberg – bass
Butch Baldassari – mandolin; Joe Caverlee – fiddle; Pat Enright – guitar; Byron House – bass

Recorded 15 March 2005; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; Mark Howard, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

This performance was first released on Happy Land:  Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder (Pa’s Fiddle Recordings PFR 0167-2)

The Monkey’s Wedding

            This anonymous, nonsensical folksong was known by Americans certainly by the late 18th century.  It was printed widely in the 19th century, often in a cheap “songsheet” format that contained words but no notated music (also called “broadsides”).  The broadside version sung here was published in mid-century in Philadelphia. 
            Several other well-known texts have used the same catchy tune, including “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” (which is probably even older than “The Monkey’s Wedding”), “Picking up Paw-Paws,” and “John Brown Had a Little Indian” (often called “Ten Little Indians,” published in 1849).  The latter version is the one referred to by Pa in Little House on the Prairie (“A Roof and a Floor”).

Mac Wiseman – vocal; Butch Baldassari – mandolin; Mark Howard - guitar

Recorded 25 July 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; David Shipley, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

The Devil’s Dream

            This fiddle tune was first collected in the 19th century.  Like many such dance tunes, it has an opening strain (A) that is repeated; a second strain (B) that is also repeated; and then a repeat of the whole process (AABB) until the dancers and/or the fiddlers are happily exhausted.  Here Butch and Dave give a performance that is more for listening, one that evokes a time long past, perhaps one rooted in the Scots-Irish heritage of the many Americans that cherished and nurtured this tune.
            Wilder refers to the “Devil’s Hornpipe” in Little House on the Prairie (the chapter is titled “The House on the Prairie”).  No tune has ever been written down, printed, or recorded with such a name, though.  Our recording assumes that she intended to refer to “The Devil’s Dream,” which is usually danced as a reel (fast and energetic) while hornpipes, although related to reels, are somewhat slower, much, in fact, like that heard in this performance. 

Butch Baldassari – octave mandolin; David Schnaufer – 6-string dulcimer

Recorded 3 May 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; Mark Howard, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

Two other interpretations of this tune can be heard on Happy Land:  Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder (Pa’s Fiddle Recordings PFR 0167-2)

Oh! California (Oh! Susanna)

            Stephen Foster (1826-64) wrote “Oh! Susanna” in 1847, the first in a string of unforgettable songs by America’s greatest songwriter.  Foster’s gift was that he could write a melody that sounded so natural and free that it seemed not to have been composed at all, but just revealed.  Indeed, many of his best songs have become “folksongs,” in the best sense of that term.
            “Oh!  Susanna,” with its upbeat, optimistic tune and zany, fun-loving lyrics, immediately swept the country and soon people were making up new verses to express their own ever-changing lives.  The song was especially favored by those who rushed to the California goldfields, beginning in 1849.  Little House on the Prairie (and two other Little House books) refers not to Foster’s original lyrics but to “Oh!  California,” “the company song” of the Eliza, a ship from Salem, Massachusetts that carried miners and supplies to California.  Some of the lines are similar to or in parallel with Foster’s; in the original, for example, the “Telegraph” was a steamship that “traveled down the river,” and here it’s the “’Liza that traveled o’er the sea”; instead of a “banjo” on the knee, it’s a miner’s “washbowl” in this version.  The most compelling difference is that “Oh!  Susanna” references a person while the Eliza version—the one heard here—celebrates the Golden State of California.  One does wonder how Pa Ingalls, who so far as we know was never at sea or in California, came to know this version!

Andrea Zonn – vocal, fiddle, violin, viola; Alison Brown – banjo, guitar

Recorded 16 May; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; David Shipley, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

Another interpretation of this song may be heard on Happy Land:  Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder (Pa’s Fiddle Recordings PFR 0167-2)

The Gypsy King 

            First published by English composer Sydney Nelson (1800-62) around 1836, this song enjoyed popularity on  American and English stages and among ordinary people for decades.  Gypsies (or, “roma people”) were sometimes idealized during the 19th century for their lives of seeming freedom, unencumbered by the restraints of homes, steady jobs, and responsibilities.  In this, they shared a similar place in the popular imagination with American Indians, who also like the roma were simultaneously idealized and persecuted.
            In celebration of the “little house” first rising on the prairie, the Ingalls enjoyed a fine meal and some of Pa’s music-making.  The first song on the program was this one, the “very favorite” of Laura and Mary.  Wilder remembers Pa’s voice going “down deep, deep, deeper than the very oldest bullfrog.”  No sheet music of this song captures that gesture however, a theatrical moment that was probably improvised by Pa Ingalls, ever the showman it seems. 

vocalist – Jeff Black; Butch Baldassari – mandolin, rhythm guitar; Matt Combs – fiddle; Bryon House – bass; Jeffrey Taylor - accordion

Recorded 25 May 2006, 6 July 2006; Monkey Finger Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; Brent Truitt, engineer.  Mixed at Monkey Finger Studio by Brent Truitt.

Bye Baby Bunting

            The first printing of this lullaby with its tune was at the end of the 18th century.  No one knows who composed it or when; likely it had lived in the oral tradition for decades or centuries before its first publication.  Like many traditional children’s song and fairy tales, the warmth and comfort the lyric offers is spiced with a dash of harsh reality.  (Where does the soft rabbit skin wrap come from?”  And how did Poppa get it?).          
            In Wilder’s book, Ma gathers her daughters around a blazing family hearth, rocking and singing to her “Baby Bunting” Carrie.  The idyllic family scene—warm and comforting, like the rabbit skin—is disrupted harshly by a chimney fire that threatens to burn down their new house, but which is brought under control after some heroics by Laura.  (“Fire in the Chimney” chapter)

Deborah Packard – vocal; John Mock – guitar, bouzouki

Recorded 8 June 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; David Shipley, engineer.  Mixed at New England Sound by John Mock.

The Arkansas Traveler

            This tune, first printed in 1847, was perhaps written by Joseph Tasso (1802-87), a Mexican-born violinist of Italian parents who lived most of his adult life in Cincinnati.  Although generally performed without words, a comic skit interwoven throughout the playing of the tune was published in 1863 by Mose Case, who is thought to have been an itinerant African American musician.  The performance heard here includes dialogue compiled from several 19th-century sources.  The story hinges on a characteristic of fiddle tunes, an “A” strain that is balanced by a complementary “B” strain (which it seems the Arkansas fiddler didn’t know!).
            This tune must have been one of Pa Ingalls’ favorites, for it appears more often in his daughter’s books than any other.  In Little House on the Prairie Pa played it to accompany his neighbor Mr. Edwards—“a wildcat from Tennessee”—as he madly danced the night away.  (“The House on the Prairie” chapter)

Riders In The Sky:  Ranger Doug – narrator, guitar; Too Slim – the Arkansas traveler, bunkhouse bass; Woody Paul – the Arkansas fiddler, fiddle; Joey the Cowpolka King – accordion

Recorded 23 May 2006; Signal Path Studio, Nashville, Tenn.; David Shipley, engineer.  Mixed at Signal Path Studio by Mark Howard.

A purely instrumental interpretation of this tune can be heard on Happy Land:  Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder (Pa’s Fiddle Recordings PFR 0167-2)

A Note on Music Unheard

            Little House on the Prairie gives historical witness to a part of the American struggle over the place and position of Native Americans.  How appropriate that some of the most graphic descriptions of music-making in Wilder’s book are of the sounds heard in the rituals enacted by the people of the Osage Nation.  For example, in “Indian Jamboree,” as Laura and Mary played together, they listened to:
the sound of quite a lot of Indians, chopping with their voices.  It was something like the sound of an ax chopping, and something like a dog barking, and it was something like a song, but not like any song that Laura had ever heard.  It was a wild, fierce sound, but it didn’t seem angry.
Later, she reported “fierce yells of jubilation. . . . ‘Hi!  Hi!  Hi-yi!  Hah!  Hi!  Hah!’”  And yet later the sounds of drums beating “faster, faster, and the wild yipping rose higher and higher, faster, wilder,” followed by the frightening “Indian war-cry.”
            Songs of the Osage like those heard by the Ingalls exist today on wax-cylinder recordings made in the very early 20th century by Francis La Flesche, a Native American anthropologist.  So why not make modern transcriptions of them and include a representative selection here? 
            Events that led the Osage Nation to vacate Indian Territory for lands in Oklahoma (described partly in “Indians Ride Away”) were so traumatic that Osage life, culture, customs, and rituals were changed forever.  The few thousand who survived the Osage segment of the “trail of tears” eventually abandoned the songs and rituals heard by the Ingalls family.  “Clan bundles” (sacred objects that provide spiritual guidance) associated with that time were exorcised from all aspects of Osage life, for these were the songs, dances, words, and ideas of a tragic past.  Today, the Osage practice rituals that bear no relationship to those of the earlier time.  In truth, those old rituals and songs, in a very real and tangible way, simply no longer exist for the Nation! 
            Out of regard for the sanctity of Osage history, life, and culture, the producers of this recording have chosen to  veil those “wild, fierce” songs, sealing history’s trembling lips with a memorial of silence. 

Bonus:  “. . . in the pot”:  Fantasy on Pease Porridge Hot

            From the start of The Pa’s Fiddle Project a guiding principle has been that music and music-making can and should serve to fashion a place where people engage freely in dialogue about what they might not fully expect or understand.  This has prompted us to bring a string quartet into the studio with a bluegrass vocalist; to let women musicians put their voices and perspectives into timeworn “men’s songs”; to afford singer-songwriters the opportunity to sing songs written by others; and more.
            Application of this principle seemed particularly appropriate when we were confronted with “Pease Porridge Hot,” an old singing/clapping rhyme song that makes an appearance in the chapter “A Scream in the Night.”  Is it a “song?”  A “game?”  A “rhyme?”  All, . . . but fully none. 
            What better opportunity for some good old, new-fashioned “ear stretching” (a term used by American composer Charles Ives—a contemporary of Laura Ingalls Wilder—to refer to challenging and “new” music).  Towards that end, we gathered a trio of eight-year old girls (quickly dubbed “The Pease Sisters”); ran through the rhyme a time or two; set up the mikes; and turned the recorder on.  But only after impressing upon “the Sisters” that pea porridge is a nutritious dish made by boiling the meal of dried peas.  (“Yuke!” was the unimpressed response to the lesson.) 
            After two energetic hours recording the rhyme and the surrounding sounds of clapping, circling, and even the “oral traditions” of mothers teaching daughters and “sisters” teaching each other how the game goes, the unedited result was turned over to Stan Link, a composer in the Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University.  Known for his computer music compositions, Stan’s commission was simple:  compose a short piece, preferably with a laugh or two, that brings yesterday’s “Pease Porridge” rhyme into our world.  His finished piece consists entirely of computer manipulations—at once realistic and yet completely unreal—of the source recordings digitally combined with other everyday sounds.  Stan wrote this on the process:

Children's rhymes are strangely enduring strands of culture.  Almost "viral" in their ability to reproduce themselves across generations, they constantly find new "hosts" even when their origins lie obscured by time.  Hearing "Pease Porridge," which dates back at least to the 1700s, I think of the movie star Marilyn Monroe and one of cinema's most beloved comedies, Billy Wilder's 1959 Some Like It Hot.  Here we are two hundred years later with a strain of the "Pease Porridge" rhyme replicated in its title.  So, in imagining a "living" children's rhyme, I pictured a kind of humorous but mischievous spirit-one showing up unexpectedly in places it doesn't belong and doing things that surprise us.  From out of "the pot" of history into my computer, then hitching a ride on CD to your iPod . . . that's my  idea of catchy!"

The source recording used in the composition of this piece feature “The Pease Sisters” – Emma Blackford, Hadley McCammon, and Bronwyn Redvers-Lee; “The Pease Moms” – Jenni Blackford, Elizabeth Boyd, and Holly McCammon; and “The Pease Brother” – Seth McCammon

Source recording 14 April 2006; New England Sound, Nashville, Tenn.; John Mock, engineer.

Notes by Dale Cockrell, Professor of Musicology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.


Eddy Red Eagle, director of the Cultural Center of the Osage Nation, Pawhuska, Oklahoma, gave generously of his time and knowledge to help fashion this note.

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