O, Singing Pioneer.
My mother’s friend once invited me to lead a sing-along for the Pioneer Homestead Society at the Minnesota State Fair. “She’s looking for someone young,” my mom said, which should have been a tip-off right there that the event was doomed. Did you ever notice how you can say no to your mother, but you can’t say no to your mother’s friend? I imagined this musty room of old people and some fellow dupe in an arm garter accompanying me on an upright piano. I, singularly qualified thanks to my nineteen years, would stand in front to keep the songs going while the old folks took a break from the August sun and reminisced. Harmless and brief, it couldn’t be that bad, I figured.
So I started brushing up some sure-fire winners like “K-K-K-Katie!” and “Down by the Old Cherry Orchard.” I learned some old-time favorites with lyrics like “Put on your old gray bonnet/ with the blue ribbons on it/ while I hitch Old Dobbin to the shay!” My mom exhumed a dress that looked like a cross between Laura Ingalls’ smock and a Lanz nightgown, and her friend pledged a bonnet.
It is possible I put my hair in braids. With my sweaty list of songs in my apron pocket, I was good to go.
Arriving at the fair with my mother and littlest sister in tow, I found no musty room awaited me. Indeed, no. There was not even an enclosure. Certainly no piano player had been corralled to accompany me, and worst of all, no old folks had been assembled. My mother’s friend pointed me to a tuffet-shaped, waist-high structure on a triangle of parched grass in front of a barn. She indicated that I was to stand on the tuffet and, presumably with my youth and bonnet, entice people to come over and sing pioneer songs with me.
Streams of cheerful, pre-drunk Minnesotans in search of corndogs were passing on the sidewalk. Tie-dye was big that year. The Midway rides with their whirls and blares were one block over. I stood beside my tuffet, sweating and mortified, and I’ll tell you frankly, getting strangers to sing pioneer songs with me was not something I could do. It was not something anyone could do. Or should, for that matter.
My sister’s pity made her wise. She retreated to the shade. My mother’s deluded friend sat on the tuffet, smiling at me encouragingly, and my mother sat beside her. An old lady wandered out of the barn looking for the bathroom, and my mother’s friend made her sit, too.
“Okay! Go ahead,” said my mother’s friend, pointing proudly to me. She dreamed perchance even then that the passersby secretly longed to join our little sing-along.
They did not. But I, in my bonnet, I sang pioneer songs.