Thursday, September 21, 2006

Girl Friday: Big Day for the Little House

When I was a girl, I Little Womened when I should have Little Housed.

The highlight of my week took me back to the days when a good book led me to imagine what life for girls in other times must have been like. The other day I received a note from a Nashville PR outfit about how a new series of recordings organized by a couple of Vanderbilt professors , Dale Cockrell and Butch Baldassari, who was mentioned in a previous post, will be the first recordings to be included on the National Endowment for the Humanities’ We the People bookshelf, a project intended to strengthen students’ understanding of American culture and history.

The two recordings, one yet to be released, are part of a project called Pa’s Fiddle. The releases celebrate the near-concurrent anniversaries of the birth (140th) and death (50th) of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and first publishing of Little House in the Big Woods (1932), Ingalls Wilder’s first in her series of eight Little House stories.

The first cd, Happy Land: Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder, is packed with string band music that runs through all eight of the Little House books. Stephen Foster tunes, gospel, sacred hymns, and even a few mountain ballads track the songs woven through Ingalls Wilders’ stories.

The second installment in Pa's Fiddle Project, Arkansas Traveler: Music from Little House on the Prairie, hits shelves Nov. 14th. Riders in the Sky will help launch the release by hosting a one-hour NPR Holiday Special program with interviews, excerpts from the books, commentary, and about ten songs from the album.

This was a real happy moment in my week. First, the idea that this is the music that is first selected to participate in this NEH program gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling that I’m not as crazy as I thought I was. If the 10 million copies of “O! Brother” weren’t enough evidence, this event is a smack upside the head of doubters that traditional musical idioms are “trending” and making a meaningful return to life, to the classroom, to the American consciousness. It’s also a smack upside the head of yours truly, who is hoping she isn’t so far behind the curve of initiatives like this that the opportunity to make an impact has passed.

Second, it gives me great pleasure to help celebrate a woman whose literary contribution had an enormous impact on our consciousness, and to learn that it was her father’s fiddle playing that carried the day throughout the stories of her family’s joys and tribulations.

This news gives me real happiness. There are people out there with good ideas – what a great idea to take the concurrent anniversaries connected to Laura Ingalls Wilder and come up with a couple recordings to celebrate the music that abounded in her life’s work. Those are the kind of people that make me want to think and work harder about this stuff I love.

I want to share an excerpt from the Pa’s Fiddle website by Dale Cockrell, Professor of Musicology and American and Southern Studies at Vanderbilt University:

Throughout [the Little House series], the guiding musical spirit is Laura’s father, Charles “Pa” Ingalls (1835-1902), who missed few opportunities to sing and play his fiddle. And it’s “Pa’s fiddle,” carefully wrapped, stowed in its fiddle-box, and cushioned by pillows, that accompanies the Ingalls family through all its adventures and comes to symbolize the endurance of the family unit in an often wild and threatening frontier world. Indeed, Wilder wrote to her publisher that “(t)here is one thing that will always remain the same to remind people of little Laura’s days on the prairie, and that is Pa’s fiddle.”2There may be no books in American literature of comparable standing and popularity where America’s music is so central to the themes, assumes such a major narrative role, and is found in such rich abundance. If Laura Ingalls Wilder penned what have become the books that best express “The Great American Family,” then the music she referred to in those books has become an important part of that mythology too. These recordings are an effort to give new voice and sound to music that has lain silent on the page for far too long. For as Wilder herself wrote, “if you want the spirit of these times, you should [hear] these old songs."3

In college, one of my friends – I don’t remember who – decided I looked a lot like Melissa Gilbert. I was dubbed Jennie Laura Ingalls Dawes by some, and at the time, of course it was mildly annoying. But I was never really insulted. Now that my paths are old and grey as the song goes, I wish I had approached those quirky games with just a teensy bit more pride. This winter maybe my children and I will sit by the fire and read through the books and listen to the music, maybe some played by my son, in our own little house. I reckon you’re more than welcome to stop by and pay a call if you care to listen.

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