Minnesota became a state in 1858. This book came into being in 2008. Those dates are not coincidence — the purpose of this book is to celebrate Minnesota’s sesquicentennial, and to help us remember the lives and times of the people who made the state what it is.
To do this, we’re using folk music — here defined as songs which people preserved by singing them, not just by listening. These are songs that people passed on to other people, and which still exist because people sang them to their children, their friends — eventually, to total strangers.
Most states have had folk song collectors travel them looking for these songs. Relatively little of this has been done in Minnesota, and what has been done was mostly done after the best singers were gone. To a large extent, this book relies on printed sources and occasional manuscript collections, though we’ve tried to find singers who still remember their family songs. The most important of the printed sources is certainly Michael Cassius Dean’s The Flying Cloud. Dean was a [resident of Hinckley], and in 1922, he gathered together the songs he had learned on the Lakes and had them published. The great folk song scholar D. K. Wilgus said of Dean, “The book certainly seems to be a slice of the repertoire of the Northern folksingers… the editors of random-text collections have consciously and unconsciously followed the organization and texts of The Flying Cloud” (D. K. Wilgus, Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship since 1898, Rutgers University Press, 1959, p. 210). Dean’s book is long out of print, and it contains words only, with no tunes and no source information (not even composer information); this book tries to follow its best traits of selection while adding organization, background information, additional songs from other sources — and, of course, tunes.
This is a key element of the songs in this book: They are meant to be sung. A song only becomes a folk song by singing. So any song in this book is one that has a solid tune, worthy of people’s voices. Sometimes this means leaving out a song with much historical value if it doesn’t sing well. And we have included a few very singable songs whose Minnesota connections are questionable, as long as they illustrate Minnesota’s heritage.
One noteworthy omission in this book is the music of the Dakota, Ojibwe, and other native peoples. This is not because I’m unaware of its significance — rather, it is because it is so great a subject that it needs specialist treatment. The first great work in this area was done by Minnesota native Frances Densmore, and other publications have appeared since; I urge you to consult those volumes. For the same reason, the native-language songs of the immigrants to Minnesota are under-represented, though I’ve included a few well-known examples to give a feel for these songs.
Folk songs have more influence than most of us realize. The legend of Robin Hood began in songs and ballads; though none are known in Minnesota, there was a version of “Robin Hood and Little John” collected in Ohio; other Robin Hood songs have been found in Virginia, the Appalachians, New England, and eastern Canada. There would have been no “Beggar’s Opera” (and hence no “Threepenny Opera”) had John Gay not used folk tunes. In more recent times, Wallace Stegner wrote a novel inspired by the hobo song “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and the Finnish epic The Kalevala inspired J. R. R. Tolkien — indeed, I think one of his Entish songs was was influenced by “Eikä ne haaven lehdet lakkaa,” which Marjorie Edgar heard sung on the Iron Range.
One of the interesting things about folk song is how the songs often stay relevant long after they were composed. No one will ever vote for Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, of course, but a song like “When This Cruel War Is Over” is just as meaningful in 2008 as when it was written during the Civil War. We hope you will find these songs as beautiful, and as meaningful, as we do.
This project isn’t finished! We had only a limited time to put this book together, meaning that I had to rely primarily on my personal library. There was little time to look over the Edgar papers at the Minnesota Historical Society, and none to look over the Morris Collection at the Minneapolis Public Library. And we managed only two “collecting sessions.”
We couldn’t even include all we found, because this book had to be limited to 80 pages due to budget constraints. But we intend to do more….
Robert B. Waltz