Professor brings music of `Little House on the Prairie' to life

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The way Laura Ingalls Wilder used music to help weave her stories of life on the American frontier struck a chord with Dale Cockrell as he and his son read the "Little House" series nearly a decade ago.
Now, the Vanderbilt University professor has his own record label, Pa's Fiddle Recordings, and is in the midst of recording a 10-CD set that brings to life all 126 songs mentioned in Wilder's books.

With the 140th anniversary of Wilder's birth and the 50th anniversary of her death approaching in February, Cockrell was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to help with part of the project.

"In looking back on it, I don't think there are any books that better capture the way music worked in the 19th century family," said Cockrell, a professor of musicology, essentially a music historian. "I came to the conclusion not only are the books rich in music-making, but it's virtually a playlist of first century American music."

Set in the late 1800s, the fictionalized stories track the family's life and travels in Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota and South Dakota, and Wilder lived with her family for a time in Walnut Grove, Minn.

Wilder biographer William Anderson said the fiddle music of Wilder's "Pa," Charles Ingalls, served as a rosy symbol in the midst of the family's struggles on the frontier.

"The fiddle music was always the highlight of the day after all the work had been done," said Anderson, who lives in Lapeer, Mich. "Pa's fiddle really helped them keep going through tough times."

Pa's music covered a range of genres - patriotic music, folk music, spirituals and hymns, even minstrel songs. Other songs were featured during Wilder's time at singing school and social gatherings.

Cockrell said the recordings of the music could have made it sound as historically accurate as possible or given it a more modern feel. He opted for the latter but didn't completely ignore the original feel of the music.

He found the recordings of Jep Bisbee, a fiddler who was born eight years after Pa was born and in the same Pennsylvania county. Bisbee moved west around the same time as the Ingalls did and was often accompanied on piano by his daughter, much as Pa was accompanied by a young Laura.

Bisbee's "The Girl I Left Behind Me," recorded by Thomas Edison, serves as a segue into the first album of the series, "Happy Land: Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder," and is immediately followed by a modern version of the song.

Cockrell received the help of a number of musicians. The best-known among them is the Grammy-winning quartet Riders in the Sky, the Grand Ole Opry members famed for their cowboy-style western music.

"Happy Land," released in June 2005, serves as a sort of anthology for the whole series, featuring a sampling of what Cockrell saw as the best songs. The album contains some songs still well known today, including "Sweet By and By," and "Oh! Susanna." It has sold more than 5,000 copies.

It was followed by the November release of "The Arkansas Traveler" CD.

"Happy Land" will be the first CD to be featured on the National Endowment for the Humanities' We the People Bookshelf, a program that provides classic books related to a particular theme - next year's is the pursuit of happiness - to 2,000 libraries across the country.

"Happy Land" will be featured alongside well-known selections such as "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Aesop's Fables" and Wilder's "These Happy Golden Years."

"I was convinced that this was a wonderful thing to be able to hear these songs," said Elizabeth Arndt, an NEH senior program officer who suggested the album for We the People. "When I was a kid, I wanted to know what some of these songs sounded like."

The NEH fellowship was awarded to Cockrell for work on the scholarly portion of his "Little House" project - a publication he's called "The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook," which will include scholarly essays on the music.

Cockrell hopes the albums appeal not only to fans of the "Little House" series but also to a broader audience that latched onto the 2000 "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack of bluegrass and country music.

"The `O Brother' phenomenon kind of opened up the possibility of this," he said. "Of course, I'd love it if people were to get on to it and just go `What a great CD, what great music and great performances.'"

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