Unwinding in Wichita

Got the South Dakota-Michigan game on, have to cheer for the ladies from Vermillion, who are leading at half. Turns out the game is here in town! Had I known that in advance, I’d be down in the arena tonight. Instead I’m at my little motel desk, one eye on the game, the other on the computer screen. I may go out for a bite to eat and a celebratory bourbon in a little while, but I have plenty of work to occupy me here, too.

The meeting of the Kansas Association of Historians wound up well today. We were well hosted by the folks at Newman, and the organization has good leadership. I made the acquaintances and connections I hoped for here, and also presented my paper on “The Stern Old Bachelor” today. Not a large audience, but an appreciative one, and I think the paper went over well. Because of its subject, I’ve met a couple of folkies here, one of them being Tom James, from here in Wichita. Finding that I research the history of folksongs, he made mention of one of his favorites, “Rivers of Texas,” with which I was unfamiliar. I said I’d see what I could find out about it.

I just did a little checking. Here’s what I have on “Rivers of Texas”: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1iYs2yHji8goj08uuXOXOBafrMvIAnMG18mv_FfUPDv0/edit?usp=sharing

I like the 1956 version here. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of the song’s origins, but then, nobody else has, either. We’ll see what turns up. I like the song.

Old Songs, Old Friends, New Songs, New Friends

Day 3 in Wichita, doing research, getting some writing done, attending the Kansas Association of Historians, reconnecting with old friends, making some new (younger) ones, livestreaming the Willow Creek Folk School, and today, presenting research on Great Plains folksong.

Last night, returning to my palatial Best Western room from sessions of the KAH, I went live with WCFS #95. This was essentially a shakedown of the paper I will present today, a study of the prairie ballad, “The Stern Old Bachelor.” I discovered the original text and author of the ballad last year in research for the WCFS. Today’s paper presentation will be the first more formal scholarly packaging of my research on Great Plains balladry. It is the first of many to come. (The second will be next week, in Denver.)

Such a pleasure yesterday to reconnect with Virgil Dean, editor emeritus of Kansas History, and to have him formally introduce me to the current and exceedingly competent editor, Kristin Eps. As a member of her board of editors, a Kansan, and a prairie historian, I wish her all success with the journal. Also good to chat with Joyce Harrison, of University Press of Kansas. All best wishes there, too. The great delight of the day was time spent with Lynsay Flory, public historian extraordinaire and a PhD student of mine.

The final KAH session I attended yesterday was a screening of the docu-drama Home on the Range and a Q & A with its producer, Ken Spurgeon. Looking forward to release of his cincmatic work in progress, The Contested Plains.

I find myself taking a lot of notes – on history and historians – which is a good sign. OK now, off to sessions, thence back to my desk to unwind and write.


I am ensconced in a semi-seedy Best Western is west Wichita, but working well and taking pleasure in a combined research-conference-see-old-friends expedition. Flew in here yesterday morning and immediately Ubered over to Wichita State University, more specifically its Ablah Library, and therein down to Special Collections, holders of the Joan O’Bryant papers.

Joanie was a legendary folklorist and folksinger of the generation just preceding mine. Born and raised in Wichita, she returned there to get her degrees and settled into teaching English and doing folklore at Wichita University, now WSU. She died in a car crash in, I think, 1961.

Her papers are a treasure house of collected lore – including, of course, lots of folksong, both from the Ozark region (she was buds with Vance Randolph) and from Kansas. I spent 2 1/2 hours poring over folksong texts, capturing wonderful stanzas and leads. Some things were new to me – they are in the realm of lost folksong – and these were of great interest. I can take these into my digital research and, I am sure, place them into lineage and context and, in some cases, the evolving canon of Great Plains balladry. Other things were new-to-me iterations of known ballads, always welcome. A couple of hours of manuscript research gave me leads I will be following up for months – will write more about all this, but right now I have to move on to other things.

The folks at the Ablah were most kind to me. After fiinishing up there, I was met by the wonderful Andrea Mott Glessner, our PhD grad from NDSU, but a Kansas girl, who works in a research center at WSU. We lingered over coffee for a couple of hours, catching up and talking prospects. This was a great pleasure.

Before settling in for an evening’s work back at the hotel (thesis chapters on my screen), I walked over to a local legend, the Oasis, for a burger they call the Widow Maker (see my Instagram post). I’m still alive this morning, so I beat the odds.

This morning I resumed desk work, but now must Uber over to Newman University, which is hosting the annual meeting of the Kansas Association of Historians. I’m not on the program today, just attending sessions and politicking and recruiting, and I look forward to it.

Then it’s back here to convene the Willow Creek Folk School at 8pm CDT. On the agenda is a run-through of the paper I will present to the KAH tomorrow, dealing with the Kansas origins of the classic ballad, “The Stern Old Bachelor.” Drop in if you’re inclined – Facebook Live on the Facebook timeline of Plains Folk.

After that, if I have any steam left, I have writing commitments to get back into. . . .

Meanwhile, I wonder what Dr. Kelley is up to in Philly. She should check in now and then, don’t you think?


We’re getting questions from young or young-ish or urban friends and readers what “RFD” means. Perhaps the beginning of an answer is in this image.

Year of issue: 1996

Then see: RFD: The Changing Face of Rural America, by Wayne E. Fuller. Indiana University Press, 1964.

Paper Products & the AWP

I am a paper product fiend.

As I prep and pack for my trip to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference today, I picked up this blank-page book, dusty at the back of my desk. I love the feel and heft of it; love pulling out a sweet pen for writing. It’s a book I carry when traveling so I can jot down research notes, memories, tidbits about trips, and observations about conference sessions. As I opened this beautifully bound, leather book, I saw my notes from 2019, where this book begins and ends. A postcard from the Metcalfe Fine Art Museum falls from the pages into my lap, and I am immediately transported back to our Oklahoma visit . . . traipsing the grounds where Augusta Metcalfe–the subject of my biographical writing–also traipsed as she fetched produce from the garden, horses from the barn, paints and canvas from her art supplies stash. Following pages take me to New Zealand, with my notes from the Hocken Collections/Uare Taoka o Hakena on Lake Dunstan, the Clyde Dam, hydro development, and–from our vintner friends–the “catch of the yeast.”

The last notes taken in my book are about writing and publishing Indigenous fiction, publisher contracts, how to grow the next generation of publishers/editors/designers/indexers, and commentary from a fabulous session called, “This is Not Your Mom’s University Press.” The occasion? The 2019 AWP conference. How fitting that–as I dust off the cover and cast off the two-year stay-at-home protocols–my book’s next adventure will be at the 2022 AWP!

Traveling together in different directions

Prepping for travel this week, each of us in his or her own direction. Dr. K is headed to Philly for a big meeting, the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs). This will be the first time either of us has attended a large conference, in-person, since COVID19. Perhaps Dr. K will reply here with a bit more about all that. I’m bound to a much smaller meeting in Wichita, the Kansas Association of Historians. It’s been a heckuva long time since I’ve been professionally active in my native state. Most of my associates from the 1980s there are, well, retired or worse (if there is anything worse). It’s time to get acquainted with the generation taking the reins now two decades into the twentieth century. I’ll be livestreaming a foreshortened session of the Willow Creek Folk School from Kansas, essentially reprising the paper presentation I’m scheduled to make at the KAH conference – “The Stern Old Bachelor: Reigniting Research in Great Plains Folksong.” I’m hoping Dr. K will connect up with the session from Philly, but she may be too busy politicking and socializing among the literati.

We’ve been doing the weekly WCFS for almost two years now (session #95 this Friday). The enterprise has led me in an unexpected direction. At first I thought, well, this will be fun, sing some old ballads and talk about them, revisit my days as a folkie a half-century ago. Two things intervened, however. First, I have become such an inveterate research historian, I could not help going deeper, deeper into the ballads and their context, such that I was driven to countless new discoveries of old ballads. Also to development of an elaborate, self-conscious approach for research on the balladic tradition on the Great Plains of North America. Second, digital technologies energize the research on traditional ballads. Optical character recognition has made vast data dumps of folk literature accessible and searchable. This is why I now have fifty or more texts of “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim,” the settler’s anthem of the plains.

When our professional paths diverge, we stay in personal touch via our devices, but as for the intellectual and literary transactions to come, this blog will be the place for us to exchange intelligence.

To the Arbuckles (the mountains, not the coffee)

Later this week we make a celebratory expedition to the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma for a family event. (Thus, no Willow Creek Folk School this Friday. Be back in the salon on the 18th.) Next week, home on Willow Creek, all week, for so-called spring break (known to us as catch-up week for editing and writing). After that the spring schedule gets hectic – lots of professional commitments. Which is OK – catching up with a lot of old friends. Meanwhile, waterfowl are the advance guard for the change of seasons we shall not name until it is full upon us, and at NDSU, the campus mask mandate has ended. (We still mask up situationally.) Throughout the corona crisis, NDSU has done a little better than the other state universities at keeping a lid on the virus. Current infection rates are minimal. Knocking on hickory.

AHS 2022: Stavanger

We will be attending the conference of the Agricultural History Society this summer – in Stavanger, Norway, 4-6 August. Dr. K will chair a session, and I will present a paper on the impact of the Little Ice Age on the deep history of the Great Plains. The annual meeting of the AHS is always a joy; the level of scholarship is exemplary. Stavanger, well, that’s a bonus. We’ll be attentive to the importance of Stavanger to the Norwegian petroleum industry, but also soaking up some scenery. Veteran Norwegian travelers, we welcome travel tips.

This blog for Kelley & Isern

This WordPress blog is associated with History RFD, the joint professional website of Drs. Kelley and Isern. Each of them blogs elsewhere – Kelley, as editor, in the website of NDSU Press, and Isern, as author, in Goodreads – but the blog here serves their joint professional enterprises; or, in some cases, they use it to communicate their multifarious ventures to one another! It is especially employed to document their research and professional travels.