May 20, 2024

Essay by NDSU professor published in academic journal


A traditional ballad sung by thousands of young farm people in North Dakota now has a history, thanks to the research of Tom Isern, NDSU professor of history and University Distinguished Professor. 

The song is "The Farmer Is the Man," an anthem of farm fundamentalism that declares, "The farmer is the man who feeds them all." Generations of attendees at summer camps of the North Dakota Farmers Union have sung the song, and still do, because it appears in their official camp songbook. Now they can do so knowing it originated in 1874 as a Granger song, extolling farming as a way of life and the virtues of an early farm organization, the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry.

The story of the discovery of "The Farmer Is the Man" goes back to the spring of 2020, when COVID descended on the land and, like others at risk, Isern went into isolation. As a way to keep in touch with the public, he launched a Friday-night livestream devoted to historic balladry on the Great Plains. 

"I'm both a farmer and, going back to the 1970s, a folkie who once made rent with a Martin D28," Isern explains. "This seemed like the time to return to the music. As I did, I discovered that balladry is a promising research field opened up by the availability of digitized source material."

"This modest enterprise took hold, such that on Friday evening 17 May 2024, in partnership with my producer and spouse, Suzzanne Kelley (Editor-in-Chief of North Dakota State University Press), we streamed Willow Creek Folk School Session No. 171 live from what we call the Salon on Willow Creek. That's the spacious back room of our home, with windows facing on the seasonal stream, Willow Creek," Isern said.

The research underpinning the folk school takes print form as scholarly journal articles fashioning a new canon of regional balladry. 

"I call this the Genesis Series, because the essays document the origins of classic folksongs of the Great Plains that we used to say were unattributable. Well, that's no longer true," Isern said.

In fact, it turns out "The Farmer Is the Man" had a specific author, known at the time but now long forgotten: the evangelical hymn writer, Rev. Knowles Shaw, best known as the composer of "Bringing in the Sheaves." Living and preaching in Kansas at the time, Rev. Shaw sent his "Granger song," as he himself labeled it, to the editor of the Osage Mission Journal, on January 14, 1874. Over the next few years it was sung at Granger picnics and rallies. Over the decades since, farm associations have continued to revive and sing the song, and popular folksingers like Pete Seeger have embraced it.

Isern has published his essay detailing the origin and history of "The Farmer Is the Man" in the Great Plains Quarterly, the journal of the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska. Isern is an associate fellow of the center.

Photo by Suzzanne Kelley

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