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.

Thomas D. Isern

Professor of History & University Distinguished Professor, North Dakota State University

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