Background on Charles Ingalls
Throughout the widely read children’s book series “Little House on the Prairie” and the autobiography “Pioneer Girl” Laura Ingalls Wilder painted a portrait of her father, Charles “Pa” Ingalls (1836-1902), as a fiddler who played a wide variety of music for all occasions. Born in Cuba, NY, by the time he was eight or nine, his family loaded up their wagon and headed west. Pa ended up in Elgin, Illinois (Kane County) on the Fox River around 1844-1845. As a teenager, he attended monthly dances upstairs at the Garfield House Inn/Tavern. Pa moved in 1853, following the Fox River north from Illinois to Wisconsin, settling in Concord, (Jefferson County) just west of Milwaukee, on the north banks of the Oconomowoc River.
There he met and courted his neighbor Caroline and took her to dances. They married, and left by 1863 for Pepin, Wisconsin.
At this point, some of these dates may look different to the reader. Laura needed to rearrange dates and eliminate details in order to make The Little House on the Prairie books work for a children’s book series. This is one reason the book series is considered historical fiction.
Laura was born in Pepin in 1867 and headed with her family to Kansas in 1869 for new land. It turned out to be land that was still owned by the local tribes, so Pa headed back to Wisconsin in 1871 and lived in Pierce and Pepin Counties until 1874.
Pa moved the family west to Minnesota; in Feb 1874, they crossed Lake Pepin on the ice and ended up in Lake City. They then traveled to New Ulm, Minnesota where Pa played the fiddle by campfire at night, and finally settled in Walnut Grove, Minnesota (by Plum Creek) that summer. An historic grasshopper invasion drove them out and they spent the summer of 1876 in the township of South Troy, Minnesota camping along the Zumbro River before heading to a job in Burr Oak, Iowa. After an unsatisfactory year of working in Burr Oak, they returned to Walnut Grove in 1877. They continued west in 1879 to Dakota Territory, where Charles remained for the rest of his life. He died in 1902, in DeSmet, South Dakota.
Pa attended dances as a teenager at the Garfield House Inn/Taver Elgin, Illinois and courted his future wife Caroline at dances in Concord, Wisconsin. This is most likely where he learned the popular tunes of the day, including those that Laura mentions while in Wisconsin and Minnesota – tunes such as Arkansas Traveler, Auld Lang Syne, Buffalo Gals, Devils Dream, Irish Washerwoman, Money Musk, The Campbells are Coming, and The Girl I Left Behind Me
Pa knew Irish tunes as well. In her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, Laura wrote about a dance in Pepin, Wisconsin that was not included in the children’s book series held at their Irish neighbor’s, Mr. Thomas Huleatt’s house. Ma (Caroline) danced at the party and Pa played his fiddle part of the time. “Sometimes he stood by the wall and played it, and sometimes he danced, keeping right on playing. There were other fiddlers there too and a banjo.”
Laura does mention a number of Scottish tunes in her books, such as Devils Dream, Haste to the Wedding, Miss McLeod’s Reel, Money Musk and The Campbell’s are Coming. While it is unknown as to whether they were played at an Irish dance, these tunes were documented as being well known by fiddlers of the day.
In Pioneer Girl, Laura writes that while living in Walnut Grove, Minnesota between 1877-1879:
“On stormy winter evenings, Pa loved to play his violin and he took great pains to teach (sister) Carrie and me to dance together nicely all the round dances. With him playing and watching our steps to see that we did them right, we learned to waltz, schottische and polka. Pa had taught me some of the steps before, but I had to dance alone. Now Carrie was big enough to dance with me, we became quite expert, and were often called on to dance when someone came in for the evening.”
The type of dancing that Laura refers to is the house party that was popular in the Upper Midwest until the advent of the automobile.
Pa would have played in the old-time style, meaning that he would have been the lead and would have played the tune for the entire time, usually the length of the dance or song. He probably only played with one or two other musicians, and it would be whoever showed up and was available. He might have varied his tunes a little each time they were played, but not a complete improvisation. It would be historically inaccurate to call his style Bluegrass, Appalachian or Ozarks music.
To better understand Pa’s fiddling, I looked to other fiddlers who may provide clues to the music of the area. Here are some that I feel represent a similar fiddling style.
* Iva Dingwall
* Leonard Finseth
* Francis O’Neill
* Kenneth Wendell “Windy” Whitford
* Elmo Wick
The tradition continues
For folks who want to learn how to fiddle like Pa or would like to listen to the traditional tunes he might have played, here’s a short list of the traditional fiddle tunes that Laura mentions in her books that are still sometimes played by Upper Midwest fiddlers today.
Here are some additional suggestions from various tune books for fiddle music played in Wisconsin and Minnesota during Pa’s time there (1853-1879). While not a fiddler, music historian Leroy Larson has had a significant impact on preserving this music. I’ve included some tunes from his collection that I feel fit Pa’s era.
There are likely many, many more tunes, and as the research into Upper Midwest fiddle music continues, this list will continue to grow.
But what about “The Red Heifer?”
This tune continues to be a mystery; Laura mentions this fiddle tune more than once in her writings, but historians have considered this tune as lost. Some have suggested that it was an Irish tune called the Yellow Heifer or The Red Cow, and Laura simply confused the title. Since Laura was unable to recall any of the other Irish tunes Pa played, it seemed unlikely that she was persistent on recalling this particular one, especially since, to a non-fiddler, so many Irish tunes sound very similar.
However, another influence that Pa would have had is exposure to Jewish immigrants near Milwaukee, so it is possible that The Red Heifer, a significant Jewish symbol, is a klezmer tune (however, not the tune currently on YouTube written by Andy Stratman, New York, NY, 2014.)
It would have likely have had a very distinctive sound, much different than the other tunes that Pa played, making it more realistic that it stuck in Laura’s memory. If the tune was collected and written down, it was likely written in Hebrew, so it wouldn’t have showed up in previous searches. Clearly, this is simply a theory at this point, but one that warrants further exploration by an experienced Klezmer musician.
My thanks to Jason Busniewski, Kathy Cole, Charlie Knuth and Walter Sigtermans for their assistance and contributions to this article. References for this summary are detailed in the attached full article.