The music of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s era

Songbook imagePlaywright Laurie Brooks suggests using traditional 19th century music to enhance her play, A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas. And she points to a valuable resource, a compilation of all the songs mentioned in Wilder’s Little House books. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook presents a comprehensive collection of folk tunes from the 1800s in America. Some are silly, many are familiar, but a few have slipped through the cracks of culture and been forgotten.

One of these, “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way” (words and music by Henry Clifton, 1867), Brooks has adopted as the unofficial theme for her play about a difficult time in Laura’s early life. Her parents were struggling to make ends meet, and had left the familiarity of farming for life in town. Perseverance was a hallmark of Charles and Caroline’s lives, and so this little some about contentment and hope is very appropriate. Our audience will hear it played or sung several times in the course of the play. Here is verse one and the chorus:

This life is a difficult riddle,
for how many people we see
with faces as long as a fiddle
that ought to be shining with glee?
I am sure in this world there are plenty 
of good things enough for us all.
And yet there’s not one out of twenty,
but thinks that his share is too small.

Then what is the use of repining
for where there’s a will there’s a way.
And tomorrow the sun may be shining,
although it is cloudy today. 

LIWC Pa and Laura

Pa (Evan Fritz) consoles Laura (Maddie Gerig) who is ‘repining’…

Other songs used instrumentally are:  “In the Sweet By and By” (words by S. Fillmore Bennett; music by J.P. Webster, 1867), which opens the play as the family stand around Baby Freddy’s grave;  “Deck and Halls” and “Silent Night”–used for scene changes or pantomime; “Paddle Your Own Canoe” (words and music by Henry Clifton, 1867)–heard played on the tavern piano in the three “soundscapes” depicting life in the hotel. Additionally, several songs will be sung:  “The First Noel”–Mary and Laura are practicing for a Christmas Eve service;  “Oft in the Stilly Night” (words by Thomas Moore, music: traditional Scottish, 1815)–a sad song sung as a sort of wistful lullaby by Ma and Mrs. Starr; and “Merry, Merry Christmas” (words and music by Mrs. T.J. Cook, 1871)–a lively piece whose rollicking chorus and hymnlike verses will be unfamiliar to the audience. It perfectly portrays the joy the family feels at the end of the play:

Why should we so joyfully sing with grateful mirth?
See, the Sun of Righteousness beams upon the earth!

Merry, merry Christmas ev’rywhere!
Cheerily it ringeth through the air.
Christmas bells, Christmas trees,
Christmas odors on the breeze.
Merry, merry Christmas ev’rywhere!
Cheerily it ringeth through the air.

Garth Williams' illustration for a Christmas tree in one of Wilder's books

Garth Williams’ illustration for a Christmas tree in one of Wilder’s books

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Up Next: “A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas”

liw-final-graphic-crop   We are several weeks into our rehearsal process for the second show of the 2014-2015 season. While we all agree that it’s something of a misnomer, A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas, by Laurie Brooks, is–we’ve recently discovered–based on good solid research into the “missing” two years of Laura’s childhood.

Of course the Little House books which she wrote were about her days as Laura Ingalls, and since this play takes place when she was nine years old, it should really be A Laura Ingalls Christmas…but that would be quibbling.

Here’s the backstory on this play:

 In 1876 the Ingalls family had endured two consecutive years of grasshoppers devouring their crops on the Walnut Grove farm.  They had no more food to keep them going through another year.  The Steadman family, friends who had moved away, invited the Ingalls to join them in Burr Oak, Iowa, to help run a thriving hotel/tavern.  So they set out, stopping to visit Uncle Peter’s family in South Troy, Minnesota. While they were there, Laura’s baby brother, Freddie, sickened and died. He was nine months old.

The family arrived in Burr Oak in the fall. Charles and Caroline and the girls were all kept busy with duties around the hotel. Laura and Mary were able to attend school–Mr. Reid, the young schoolmaster was a border at the hotel.  The Steadmans had two sons, who teased the Ingalls girls quite a lot. Johnny, crippled in one leg, was especially mischievous, but the girls were instructed to be kind and patient to him because of his infirmity.

There was a doctor in the town named Starr, whose wife took a great liking to the girls, especially Laura. Theodora Starr was lonely because her own daughters were grown and had settled permanently in Philadelphia.

[For more information about this time in Laura’s life, you may want to check out the museum website for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum at Burr Oak, Iowa.]

pioneer-girl coverIt is very satisfying to know that the events depicted in our play are based on history. Even the girls’ measles–and the fact that Johnny gets them at Christmastime–are events recorded in the source material, primarily Laura’s soon-to-be-published memoir, Pioneer Girl.  For most of a century this manuscript has been available only to scholars. Laura tried to have it published during the Depression, but it was deemed too harsh and bleak a story to appeal to the general public at that time. Years later, Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane, herself an author, would encourage Laura to reframe her life as stories for children. The Little House series of books was born, and was to have enduring popularity.

For some reason, Laura did not include this nine-month period in her set of Little House books. Perhaps the story arc was too short, or too painful. In any event, audiences now have a new chapter of her life to enjoy, and afO is proud to be able to premier this play in the Fort Wayne area.

The cast of A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas:

Pa Ingalls:  Evan Fritz

Ma Ingalls:  Bridget Bogdon

Laura:  Madeline Gerig

Mary:  Hannah Gerig

Carrie:  Lily Helmuth

Johnny Steadman:  Ben Gerig

Mrs. Starr:  Christine Newman-Aumiller