News / Arts & Entertainment

New Documentary Revives American Pioneer Music

Dr. Dale Cockrell, director of MTSU's Center for Popular Music and co-coordinator of "Pa's Fiddle: American Music," poses for a photo before filming begins for the PBS special at the Loveless Barn. ( Photo: MTSU / Andy Heidt)
Dr. Dale Cockrell, director of MTSU's Center for Popular Music and co-coordinator of "Pa's Fiddle: American Music," poses for a photo before filming begins for the PBS special at the Loveless Barn. ( Photo: MTSU / Andy Heidt)
TEXT SIZE - +
Mike Osborne
NASHVILLE, Tennessee – One of the most authentic descriptions of pioneer life on the American frontier can be found in a series of children’s stories. Laura Ingalls Wilder's eight "Little House" books have sold over 60 million copies worldwide in more than 40 languages. Although works of fiction, the stories are semi-autobiographical, drawing heavily on Wilder’s own childhood in Kansas and South Dakota in the mid 1800s. While pioneer life has disappeared, the music Wilder grew up with is alive and well.


The Little House on the Prairie television series is perhaps the best-known adaption of the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories. The show aired for eight seasons beginning in 1974 and has since been translated into 18 languages.

“Her work, her books, her stories are quintessentially American," explains actor Dean Butler, who played Laura Ingall’s husband, Almonzo Wilder on the series. Butler later produced a documentary about the author’s life and books.

“They’re about discovery and struggle and triumph over adversity. They’re about family and about making your way in the world,” Butler says.

This year, he produced a television special entitled “Pa’s Fiddle: The Music of America.” The show is part documentary, part recorded-live performance.

"Pa’s Fiddle" is based on the 127 songs mentioned in the Little House stories, mostly fiddle tunes played by the family patriarch Charles “Pa” Ingalls like “Arkansas Traveler” or “Devil’s Dream.”

Butler hadn’t thought about the books’ musical legacy until he attended a lecture on the subject by musicologist Dale Cockrell.

“As he was weaving the narrative of these songs, and the way that they were embedded into the books, I just loved the way he told the stories,” Butler explains.

That polished presentation was the result of a decade of scholarship. Cockrell, a professor at Vanderbilt University, had already published a 425-page reference book on the Little House songs, seven books of sheet music, and nearly 50 musical recordings on 3 CDs.

Cockrell stumbled on the songs when he began reading the "Little House" books to his eight-year-old son. He realized that nowhere had he seen a fuller portrait of popular music from a crucial era.

“Just about any form of popular music that would have been heard and enjoyed by audiences from the 1860s to the 1880s - the genre, the category at least - is included in the books,” he says.

Cockrell says it’s a legacy he fears Americans are losing touch with.

“Maybe being a historian I’m prejudiced," he admits, "but I think to understand who we are as musical beings now, we need to understand who we were as musical beings then.”

One thing that songs like “Oft in the Stilly Night" and Wilder’s stories help 21st century audiences understand, Cockrell says, is that 19th century pioneer life was a dangerous, unrelenting struggle.

“These aren’t superheroes. The dog dies. The children die. The houses burn down. The crops get destroyed. They’re often picking up and moving on because of defeat,” notes Cockrell.

Defeat perhaps, but never despair. As Wilder herself wrote, “There's no great loss without some small gain.”

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Saxophonist Craig Handy has an exciting new band called 2nd Line Smith, which combines the organ-jazz repertoire of Jimmy Smith with the “second line” rhythms of New Orleans parade music. Craig Handy joins "Beyond Category" host Eric Felten at Washington’s Bohemian Caverns jazz club to talk about the music and perform with the band.