One of the most popular television series of the 1970s and 1980s was Little House on the Prairie, depicting the lives of the Ingalls family, settlers in late 1800s Minnesota. Fans of the show may remember Charles Ingalls, or “Pa,” occasionally playing the fiddle for his family. The real-life Charles Ingalls was actually an accomplished fiddler, and in the book series which inspired the television show, his daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, documented 127 separate tunes that she remembered him playing.
The Pa’s Fiddle Project, led by Vanderbilt University musicologist Dale Cockrell, is currently attempting to shine new light on each of these songs. Since 2005, the project has released three albums featuring music from the Little House on the Prairie books. The most recent of these is Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler.
Pa’s Fiddle contains 17 tracks pulled from instances in the series when Pa is recorded playing the fiddle unaccompanied. The majority of the tunes are performed by the Pa’s Fiddle Band, featuring Shad Cobb (banjo, fiddle), Matt Combs (fiddle), Dennis Crouch (bass), Matt Flinner (mandolin), Buddy Greene (harmonica), Bryan Sutton (guitar), and Jeff Taylor (accordion, pennywhistle, and piano). The album includes both familiar traditional songs, such as Buffalo Gals, Polly Put the Kettle On, and When Johnny Comes Marching Home, as well as more obscure hymns and fiddle tunes.
The album’s liner notes provide excellent background information on each song featured within this compilation. Written by Cockrell, the notes not only share the book from which the track is drawn, but also give historical information and composers of the tunes where known. This helps to give the listener a fuller perspective of each song, in addition to demonstrating the depth of Pa’s knowledge of fiddle tunes. It is interesting to note that one song on the album has been included simply on an assumption. The upbeat song Yellow Heifer is not actually mentioned in any of the books. Instead, a song named Red Heifer was mentioned in Little House in the Big Woods, and because no other record of that song exists, the producers chose to include a similar tune which was originally performed in the area close to where Pa was born.
Some songs on the album are lively dance tunes performed in an old-time style, such as Buffalo Gals and Yellow Heifer. Another is Boatman’s Dance, which includes a great bluegrass-style guitar break from David Grier and fiddle from both Matt Combs and Joe Weed. Other songs are slower, with a sweeter, more sensitive feel. Mary of the Wild Moor is a tender tune featuring the interesting addition of accordion, while Golden Years are Passing By is a very delicate and touching song. Several tunes have a Scottish background, including The Campbells are Coming, which is given a great Celtic treatment here.
Pa’s Fiddle is more than just a new album full of traditional tunes. It is a great addition to historical research on old-time music, connecting history, literature, and music in one noteworthy package. You can find more information on the album and the Pa’s Fiddle Project online. The album can be purchased from the website or downloaded from iTunes or E-Music.
The music is also featured in a new PBS special, Pa’s Fiddle: The Music of America, which will be aired during PBS’s upcoming pledge drive and available for purchase on DVD and CD on July 31.