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Agricultural life has connections to folk culture

Agricultural life has connections to folk culture

Little did I know when I signed up for Mr. Lumpkin’s course in Folk Music and Literature at the University of Colorado 55 years ago that he would influence my appreciation for farm culture.

On the first day of class Mr. Lumpkin, who had a doctoral degree in literature but eschewed the title of “Dr.,” assigned all the students into a seating arrangement which he recorded. Students who had questions had to raise their hands, and when called upon, they had to stand. Most students were afraid of Professor Lumpkin.

I learned that folk music, which now is largely labeled as country music, descended from Scotch and Irish immigrants who brought their musical instruments, such as banjos, with them to America, as well as their traditional songs.

Something which has always stuck with me is that the words, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” in the Simon and Garfunkel tune, Scarborough Fair, were condensed by the often illiterate, but otherwise accomplished immigrants, into something like, “Every rose grows merry with age and time.” Understanding matters like this were important to me because I enjoyed playing the guitar and singing contemporary folk music at all sorts of events.

When I raised my hand to ask about the cultural significance of growing up in a German Catholic agricultural area of Western Iowa, Mr. Lumpkin asked me to sing and play a tune and to tell a story that I had learned as a youngster.

As I prepared for my upcoming recital, I remembered a ditty that Emil, a local farmer, told me I should learn to play and sing, “Ist Das Nicht Ein Schnitzel Bank.”

I also recalled a folk story I acquired as a youngster. Mr. Lumpkin submitted it to the Midwest Folklore Journal, where it was published. I don’t remember who told me the story; it goes something like this:

“When St. Boniface Church, was built in the western Iowa Catholic community of Westphalia during 1881-82, the steeple was the last and most important feature to be constructed. As local farmers and craftsmen raised the last timbers of the 126 ft. steeple, one of the carpenters at the top lost his grasp. As he fell, he yelled out. His brother, 80 ft. below him, held out an axe. The falling gentleman snagged and thrust the axe into a rafter as he descended. He hung onto the axe until he was rescued and saved from almost certain death.”

Most anyone can detect why this might be a folk story. I know the supposed names of the two long-deceased heroic brothers and their descendants, which makes the story juicier and only slightly more plausible, but I will say no more.

A few years after 1882, the neighboring community of Earling constructed their church steeple 5 ft. higher than the “mother” community of Westphalia that spawned four nearby parish communities. No one in my community has forgotten this affront.

New farming communities, whether Protestant or Catholic, constructed churches with tall steeples. Usually they were about five miles apart so that farm residents could see the church cross at the top of its steeple and hear its bell.

Another shaping experience about the culture of agricultural people occurred in 2001. Dr. Lynda Haverstock, a psychologist who was appointed the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan and the representative of the Queen of England, deserves the credit.

John Reed of Australia and I were principal speakers at a conference in Saskatoon, Sask., to help the Canadian government develop support services for distressed farm people. After a long day of presentations and discussions, John and I shed our suit coats and ties to loosen up before the dinner event by taking a walk to stretch our legs.

No, we didn’t visit any taverns, but we were perspiring from our vigorous exercise as we arrived back at the hotel.

A polished black limousine pulled up to the hotel entrance and the aide-de-camp escorted a regally gowned woman into the hotel. John blurted, “I hope she’s not going where we’re supposed to be heading.”

Yup, John and I were seated on the dais next to Dr. Haverstock in our open-collared and sweaty garb. I spilled pasta sauce on my white shirt.

Dr. Haverstock took everything in stride during her address. “The ‘culture’ part of the word, ‘agriculture,’ is more important to understand than the ‘agri’ part of the word when assisting farming people with their mental health, as my two compatriots from Australia and the United States demonstrate. A farm girl myself, I understand.”

Dr. Haverstock’s pronouncement became a cornerstone principle of agricultural behavioral health. Understanding the culture of agricultural producers and their unique backgrounds are key to acceptable assistance from providers of professional service, whether it’s counseling, business expertise, agronomic advice, or something else.

Participants in “agri-culture” owe much to the expressions of our way to life through music, literature, dance, painting, photography, and other artistic forms. Folklore exhibits our culture. 

Dr. Mike is a farmer and psychologist at Harlan, Iowa. Contact him at

Dr. Rosmann lives on a family farm near Harlan, Iowa. He is a psychologist who has directed behavioral health programs in response to disasters of all types, Contact him at

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Dr. Mike Rosmann is a clinical psychologist and former farmer/rancher offering advice and commentary on agricultural behavioral health.

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