This recording is an effort to pay some small musical tribute to Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) for her efforts to illuminate, explain, and capture the place that music-making once occupied in the family life of ordinary Americans. Her famous series of eight books traces her own family’s history, with settings in Wisconsin, Kansas (Indian territory), Minnesota, and South Dakota (Dakota Territory) that cover a period from 1867 to 1885. The books have rightly become cornerstone classics in American children’s literature, read by millions the world over.*
Embedded in Wilder’s stories are references to 126 separate songs and tunes. By the Shores of Silver Lake alone contains mention of 37 songs. These Happy Golden Years is titled after a song, and six of the books close with music-making. The types of music Wilder employed are extensive. There are parlor songs, stage songs, minstrel show songs, patriotic songs, Scottish and Irish songs, hymns, spirituals, fiddle tunes, singing school songs, play party songs, folk songs, a Child ballad, broadside ballads, Christmas songs, catches and rounds, and references to “cowboy songs” and “Osage war dances.” Throughout, the guiding musical spirit is her father, Charles 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.”
There 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. This recording is 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.”
Happy Land is the first recording ever to be selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities for inclusion in its "We the People Bookshelf" Program. It has also been featured on an NPR one-hour Holiday Special titled "The Arkansas Traveler: Music and Tales from Little House on the Prairie."