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)
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

Scotland Vote Raises Questions of International Law

Experts say self-determination, as defined and protected by international law, confined narrowly to independence movements in process of de-colonization More

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

Conservationists hail ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015 More

Annual Military Exercise Takes on New Meaning for Ukraine Troops

Troops from 15 nations participating in annual event, 'Rapid Trident' in western Ukraine More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctionsi
X
September 18, 2014 2:28 AM
A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctions

A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, the stage when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Mogadishu's Flood of Foreign Workers Leaves Somalis Out of Work

Unemployment and conflict has forced many young Somalians out of the country in search of a better life. But a newfound stability in the once-lawless nation has created hope — and jobs — which, some say, are too often being filled by foreigners. Abdulaziz Billow reports from Mogadishu.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Graham Nash has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once for his work with The Hollies and once as part of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The legendary folk-rocker joins "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his latest project, “CSN 2012,” which captured on video recent live performances by Crosby, Stills & Nash.