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Songs of the Iron Men

Steam farming poems become folk music

| May 2009

I'm sure that many of you don't know that I'm a folk musician in my spare time. Over the last three years, I've recorded and released five albums of original country/folk music, and recently had the unique opportunity to combine my interest in folk music with my interest in old iron.

While looking through issues of Iron-Men Album from the 1950s and ’60s, I came across several poems written by actual steam farmers, threshermen and their wives reflecting on their experiences with steam farming. Farmers are often characterized as tough and stoic, so I was struck by how romantic and funny these poems are. And in addition to being well-written accounts of a fascinating chapter of American history, I also thought they’d make pretty good songs. So, I chose 12 of my favorites and set them to original music.

To give the album a uniquely old-time American feel, I used instruments unique to American folk music including banjo, washtub bass, steel resonator guitar and autoharp. I played all of the instruments myself and recorded the album in my bedroom studio. From start to finish, the album only took me about two weeks, mostly because it was very easy to fit the words to music. These poems were written from the heart so they already carry a certain kind of tune. All I had to do was read each one a few times before matching the words with the tunes in my head.  

Though the album is focused on steam farming, the sentiment behind the poems and the music is something that everyone with nostalgic feelings toward the good old days of farming can relate to. In the technology age, it's easy to lose sight of how we used to things five years ago, much less 100 years ago. Many folks believe that when steam farming disappeared, so did the romantic view of farming. And while farming is definitely quicker and more efficient than it's ever been, the close relationships that farmers once had with each other and the land have been replaced by mega-capacity combines operated by one person in an air-conditioned cab. These poems help us remember that at one time, things were different.

As you can see from the album cover, Farm Collector coordinating editor Jeannine Snyder put the finishing touches on the project with an outstanding album design and layout that complements the music perfectly. The photo that Jeannine used for the cover features a Waterous steam engine threshing crew, and was provided to us by John F. Spaulding. You'll find more photos like that one in the book he put together with Dr. Robert T. Rhode, Steam Tractor Encyclopedia, available in the Farm Collector store.

As for the music on the album, here's a taste of what you'll find. This song is called "Smoke on the Prairie," and was written by Chas. L. Genter:


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