Friday, March 18, 2011

James Foley - Poet Laureate of North Dakota

First, a bit of explanation:  I've been digging through a box of school papers that were carefully put away in the 1930s. 
In the days of township schools, there were County Declamation Contests. These days even the word, declamation, has fallen into disuse. It means a speech or oratory offering, usually memorized, and not necessarily something one needs to believe. It is written and performed for dramatic effect.
One of the declamations that I found was a Poem by James W. Foley. That brought back memories.

North Dakota Hymn Written by James W. Foley
Composed by Dr. C. S. Putnam
North Dakota, North Dakota,
With thy prairies wide and free,
All thy sons and daughters love thee,
Fairest state from sea to sea;
North Dakota, North Dakota,
Here we pledge ourselves to thee.
Here thy loyal children singing,
Songs of happiness and praise,
Far and long the echoes ringing,
Through the vastness of thy ways;
North Dakota, North Dakota,
We will serve thee all our days.
Onward, onward, onward going,
Light of courage in thine eyes,
Sweet the winds above thee blowing,
Green thy fields and fair thy skies;
North Dakota, North Dakota,
Brave the soul that in thee lies.
God of freedom, all victorious,
Give us Souls serene and strong,
Strength to make the future glorious,
Keep the echo of our song;
North Dakota, North Dakota,
In our hearts forever long.

In 1926 Minnie J. Nielson was North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction. She asked Poet James Foley originally from Bismarck and now living in California to write lyrics for a song about North Dakota. Foley wrote the poem to be sung to the tune, The Austrian Hymn. Dr. C. S. Putnam, conductor of the North Dakota Agricultural College Band, now North Dakota State University in Fargo, arranged music for the project. The first time the hymn was presented in public was in 1927 at the Bismarck City Auditorium.

I doubt that there is a student in the of the state of North Dakota since 1927 that has not been assigned to sing, read, review or memorize the words of James W. Foley. The North Dakota State Historical Society has a photo of our esteemed poet laureate taken after he moved to California for health reasons.
My research found a couple of free online books of his poems. I enjoyed the prologue poem in the book Friendly Rhymes.
The title is Technique and you can visit the book by clicking on the title of the poem. It will appeal to anyone who has ever tried to arrange letters into meaningful text or rhyme.
But back to declamations.
Grandpa Sonny, as a young student memorized the James W. Foley poem "Chums" for the County Declamation Contest.
 Mr Foley, raised in North Dakota, wrote for The New York Times and The Saturday Evening Post. I imagine a busy teacher copying the text by hand from a borrowed copy of a publication. Each student would compete and there were no copy machines in North Dakota or anywhere during the 1930s.
My grandmother saved the teacher's efforts which also has evidence that the teacher did not know how to spell the poet's name.
 But let us forgive her for that, whoever she was, because we know how hard every teacher had to work to gather appropriate poems and essays. There was no doubt much midnight oil burned in the process. The poem is written in uneducated English, and the teacher has copied it exactly as written by the author. I respect her effort and am reminded of my own dependance on my computer for spelling accuracy.  
The declamation reminds us of the changes in language usage and common perceptions of children in America, but brings us this very modern message: 
 Be kind to all and never a bully.

by James W. Foley

He lives a'crost the street from us and ain't as big as me,
His Mother takes in washin' 'cuz
They're poor as they can be;
But every night he brings his slate
an' then I do his sums,
And help him get his lessons straight,
'Cuz me and him is chums.

His clo'es ain't quite as good as mine,
But I don't care for that;
His Mother makes his face 'ist shine,
An' I lent him a hat.
An' every morning, 'est by rule,
W'en nine o'clock it comes,
He takes my hand an' goes to school,
'Cuz him an' me is chums.

Nobody better plague him, too,
No matter if he's small,
'Cuz I'm his friend for tried and true
An' 'at's th' reason all.
The boys don't dare to plague him, 'cuz I 'ist wait till he comes,
An' he walks close to me, he does,
'Cuz him an' me is chums.

He fell an' hurt hi'self one day
The summer before last.
An' 'ats s'at makes him limp 'at way
An' don't grow very fast.
So w'en I get a piece of pie,
or maybe nuts or plums,
I always give him some, 'cuz I
Get lots and we is chums.

An' w'en it's nuttin' time, we go,
an' I climb all th' trees,
'Cuz he can't climb -he's hurt, you know-
But he gets all he sees
Com' droppin' down an' my! he's glad;
An' w'en th' twilight comes,
He says w'at a fine time he had,
Cuz him an' me is chums.

But my! his mother's awful queer;
'Cuz w'en we're home again,
She wipes her eye -a great, big tear-
an' says:  "God bless you Ben!
Th' lord will bless you all your days
W'en th' great judgement comes."
But, I say I don't need no praise,
'Cuz him an' me is chums.

Shakespeare wrote:  "A friend is someone who knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow." 
But for a boy in GriggsDakota, it was enough to understand "Chums."


  1. I was glad to find this blog, and to be able to read more about Mr Foley after coming across mention of and a photograph of him in a Library of Congress collection from ND.
    I had hoped to find his poem "Letter Home", which the blurb said was one of his favorites, as well as one of his most popular.

  2. I too would like to see Foley's poem "Letter Home: