The Decline of Folk Song

The mid- and late twentieth century marked the zenith of Minnesota’s influence around the nation, as governor Harold Stassen helped shape the United Nations, and two Minnesotans (Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale) became vice presidents. But it was a period of decline for folk songs. The reasons seem to have been two: radio and recordings. You can see their effects in some of the twentieth century folk song collections — the most popular “Hillbilly” singer of the pre-depression era was Vernon Dalhart, and he sold millions of copies of a song called “The Wreck of the Southern Old 97.” Dalhart learned the song with a very obvious error (“average” for “airbrakes”). The song has been collected many times since, and most versions found in the thirties repeated Dalhart’s “average” error.

Dalhart often would catalog events of the day in his songs — he recorded two songs soon after Minnesotan Charles A. Lindbergh made his trans-atlantic flight in 1927. The sheet music for one of these songs is shown [in the printed songbook). But not even Dalhart was reliably able to put songs into tradition by then. “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.),” despite a fascinating tune, was recorded — and quickly forgotten. A dozen or so other Lindbergh songs vanished without a trace.

Dalhart’s successors were less concerned with events. The next generation stopped singing the “old-time” songs altogether and recorded products by professional songwriters. Then came long-playing records, and Rock and Roll, and eventually MTV. Most people still learn a few songs by tradition (think Christmas carols — and surely you learned “The Worms Crawl In” or “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Burning of the School” on a playground somewhere), but it’s mostly a very different sort of music.

Minnesota in this period saw the rise of a new genre, the fake-Scandinavian material. One of the few songs the author collected for this project was a version of “Nikolina,” about a “Svedish” boy who is trying to marry a girl whose father guards her carefully; after the boy threatens to kill himself, Nikolina counsels, “Darling Karl, don’t be so unwise. A suicide is nothing but a dumbbell; Why don’t we wait until the old man dies?” This song was extraordinarily popular — but it was all due to recordings by “Olle i Skratthult.”

One of the few songs of this genre that seems to be genuinely traditional is “The Swede from North Dakota.” It also mentions several areas in Minneapolis/Saint Paul.

Song Link

The Colorado Trail: Songbook, p. 77

Minnesota would contribute one more folk song to the world’s repertoire. One of the most beautiful songs ever found in Minnesota was “The Colorado Trail,” though the singer sadly remembered only one verse. Many people have since added more.

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