A really useful book

Every once in a while you run across a book that’s so useful, you just have to tell everybody about it.

Let’s say that you’re working on an annotated edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unpublished autobiography. The Ingallses, you’ll recall, were a highly musical family, and dozens of tunes and lyrics are mentioned in Pioneer Girl and in the Little House books. Much of this music is unfamiliar to us early-twenty-first-century types, and so our annotations attempt to give the songs some context. And to do this, we keep coming back to Dale Cockrell, ed., The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook (Middleton, Wis.: A-R Editions, for the American Musicological Society, 2011).

Cockrell has systematically tracked down every song mentioned in Wilder’s oeuvre and provides us with music, lyrics, and valuable notes on variants, provenance, publication, and the general history of each one.  An impressive effort, and it came to fruition at just the right time for the editors at the South Dakota Historical Society Press.

Besides its intimate connection to a widely loved author, let me point out two other things that make this book so engaging.

First, what a neat concept!—to use these popular semiautobiographical novels as a case study, a lens through which to examine a (surprisingly wide) cross-section of nineteenth-century American music in the Midwest and Great Plains.

Second, as Cockrell points out, there may really be no better place to start such a study. “Almost no research has been conducted on nineteenth-century Midwestern performance practices,” he remarks in his extensive editorial notes. “In fact, perhaps the fullest published account of how music was actually played and heard in that time and place is found in the Little House books.”

Rodger Hartley