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Harvesting Ballad

How come, people sometimes ask me, you never hear any ballads or folksongs about wheat harvesting? Other groups of itinerant workers on the plains—cowboys, people usually mention—generated songs about their life and work. Why, over the past sixty years of custom wheat harvesting, haven’t the custom cutters come up with their own ballads?

Surely there is more to this than the interference of noisy machinery (and radios) with singing. I suppose that although custom harvesters are proud of their trade, they generally ply it in isolated family units. They also work long hours at a hectic pace. They may not gather together enough to exchange ballads.

But here’s one. A harvester named Spike (good name for a wheat man) Jensen, from Columbus, Montana, sent it to me some twenty years ago. His father was a steam thresherman. Spike started custom combining in 1947 and evolved a route that took him annually from Fort Worth to Edmonton. He never told me just when he wrote his “Harvest Song” of nineteen stanzas, but reference to a wheat variety in stanza 1 dates it somewhat:

Started out in Texas
In the month of May
Cutting Early Triumph wheat
Day after day.

In a style somewhat reminiscent of “Old Chisholm Trail,” the ballad chronicles a year’s work from Texas through Oklahoma and Kansas, over to Colorado, up to Montana, and finally back to Texas to harvest milo maize in the fall. It makes reference to all manner of stuff that rings true in detail—trouble with state licensing, field fires, getting stuck in the mud, hail and wind, heat and thirst. The high point and turning point—literally—of the ballad comes in Montana:

We’ll go up in the High Line Country
Where Canada isn’t far
At night you can see the Northern Lights
And the Northern Star.

At that point Spike thinks about the cold nights in Canada, and decides to head back to Texas for fall harvest.

Another thing he never told me was what tune he sang his song to. I thought this over and eventually started singing it to the tune of “Irene, Good Night,” and that worked. This proved to be a good hunch, I’m sure, because here is the chorus:

Roll, combines, Roll
Roll, combines, Roll
Cut the wheat so the world can eat
Roll, combines, Roll.

I realized later why the “Irene” tune had occurred to me. That was the tune Woody Guthrie used for his ballad, “Roll On, Columbia,” and Spike’s chorus was obviously inspired by Guthrie’s. So I strongly suspect that Spike used the same tune.

So far 2007 has been a fairly good one for custom cutters, except for high fuel prices, but come end of season, they may be singing along with Spike’s final stanza:

Every year I swear
I’ll not make the harvest again
But as sure as April rolls around
I’ll be back on a Pile of Tin.

 

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