It wasn’t just the jobs that were different in Minnesota’s early history. The way people lived was different, too. If you’ve read the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ll have noticed how much school has changed. Most schools in small towns had many grades in one room, so the teacher had to shift subjects all the time. They didn’t teach science. Mathematics was different. History was mostly a matter of memorizing things — sometimes whole speeches, such as Daniel Webster’s speech in favor of the Compromise of 1850.
Plus many teachers used songs to teach their children. Laura herself didn’t describe using songs as a teacher, but Vance Randolph in 1930 collected nine songs from Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane. In that same area, he picked up several teachers’ rhymes.
They had interesting songs for teaching the alphabet, too, such as “A is for apple pie, B baked it, C cut it, D divided it, E eat it….” This rhyme was in use at least as early as 1743.
When children weren’t in school, they often worked — many children, especially boys, hardly ever went to school, because they had to help on the farm. But not even chores could take all day, every day. Sports were popular — boxing was a frequent subject of songs, and John L. Sullivan, a major name in the sport, fought a bout in Minneapolis in 1887. This proved controversial enough that boxing was made illegal from 1892 to 1915 (Blegen, p. 534). It didn’t stop the songs, though:
It was in merry England, all in the blooming spring,
When this burly English champion he stripped off in the ring,
He stripped to fight young Heenan, our gallant son of Troy,
And to try his English muscle on our bold Benicia Boy.
(from “Heenan and Sayers, Dean, p. 24)
Horse racing was popular, too, and Minnesota gave birth to the famous Dan Patch, one of the most famous animals of the early twentieth century. There was also the relatively new sport of baseball, a variant of the British game of “rounders,” which dated from the 1840s and which had been particularly popular with Civil War soldiers — though Blegen, p. 204, reports that the town of Nininger had a baseball team as early as 1857. The current Minnesota Twins are descended from a team (then based in Washington, D.C.) that was a charter member of the American Association in the years leading up to the first World Series in 1903. Before the Twins, there were the Minneapolis Millers (which became part of the Western League in 1882) and their cross-town rivals the Saint Paul Saints. College football apparently came to Minnesota in 1882 (Blegen, p. 531).
There were games other than sports. With no television, no video games, and few toys that weren’t homemade, children invented activities. Among these were the singing games. “Here We Go Looby Loo,” which was known around the country, looks like it inspired the “Hokey Pokey” that is sometimes still played in school. “Hunt the Squirrel” may have inspired the popular song “A Tisket, A Tasket.” One of Rose Wilder Lane’s songs was “King William Was King James’s Son,” a singing game which perhaps recalled England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and which was sung in both Wisconsin and Iowa. Laura Ingalls Wilder herself reported playing “Uncle John is Sick Abed” in Minnesota.
Plus everyone told stories. Almost all English-speaking peoples have legends of outlaws, for instance. England had Robin Hood; later, they added the highwayman Dick Turpin and his horse Black Bess. There are hints that one of the Black Bess songs may even have been sung in Minnesota. But no outlaw has grabbed the attention of the entire United States like Jesse James. He has been the subject of several (very inaccurate) movies and countless (usually bad) books. Jesse inspired at least five songs, mostly about his death, and his colleague Cole Younger inspired a “confession” about the Northfield Robbery of 1876 and the Younger Boys’ long time in prison.
A home-grown criminal inspired no such admiration; “The Harry Hayward Song” is set in Minneapolis, but roundly condemns the criminal. Could that be why the song had little vogue in tradition?
With no television or computers or iPods, young children in the nineteenth century still fell asleep the old way: with lullabies. And they might hear, or tell each other, stories and songs about ghosts. And always, always, there were lost love songs.
Plus, people heard popular songs of the day. Around 1900, everyone was singing “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” At least a dozen folk songs lamented the loss of the Titanic in 1912 (you wonder if honeymooners John and Nellie Snyder of Minneapolis, who survived the sinking, knew any of them). At least one song Laura Ingalls Wilder sang in the Midwest was sung on the boats leaving the Titanic:
Pull for the shore, sailor, pull for the shore,
Heed not the rolling wave, but bend to the oar.
Safe in the life boat, sailor, cling to self no more!
Leave the poor old stranded wreck, and pull for the shore.
During the First World War, soldiers from every nation sang Jack Judge’s “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” [which gave rise to “It’s a Long Way to Amphioxus”; see the Science section] and “Asaf ” and Powell’s “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.”