Concerts and Lectures by Tom Isern

Tom maintains an active schedule of personal appearances in North Dakota and across the region, presenting concerts, lectures, readings, and workshops for a variety of groups. For recent and upcoming dates, see the weblog, Travel on the Gravel. Tom speaks on a variety of topics having to do with the history and folklore of the Great Plains of North America and with life in the region, in many cases writing or adapting a presentation specific to the group and the occasion. Among his standard, off-the-shelf topics are the following.

"Nowhere Over the Rainbow: The Great Plains in Folksong"If Kansas was so dismal that somewhere, anywhere over the rainbow had to be better for young Judy Garland, then what does that say about those of us who live in level country and like it? Who sings for us?

We sing for ourselves. The Great Plains of North America possess a splendid legacy of folksong that documents the joys and heartbreaks of regional life.

This presentation, a mix of song, commentary, and discussion, treats the Great Plains experience in folksong. A singing historian, Dr. Isern not only renders well-known classics but also presents less familiar folksongs discovered through his own research. The presentation is never twice the same; it evolves through adaptation for and interaction with the specific audience.

30 min. to an hour. Facilities and equipment required: not much. The more intimate the setting, the better; this is not an auditorium-style concert. I like to work without any PA system, get close to people, and be able to walk around a little. If the situation requires PA, then I need two microphones--one for voice, and one for guitar.
"The Promise of Life on the North American Plains"The Great Plains of North America are a hard country. Their climate is severe, their topography humbling. The social cost of space and the economic disadvantage of distance make life a perennial challenge.

Dr. Isern, a native of western Kansas and a lifelong resident of the Great Plains, has labeled the past forty years on the plains--his own lifetime--the "Last Picture Show Generation." This is the time when regional society failed, when residents despaired and nonresidents questioned the sustainability of civilization on the plains.

The plains remain, nevertheless, a land of possibilities. A place where unparalleled quality of life lies in reach. A country with a future for those who wish it.

What is the promise of life on the North American plains? And how may it be attained?

30 min. Suitable for presentation to small or large public groups. No equipment requirements other than PA system, if needed.
"The Great Plains: A Romance of the Landscape"This lecture is a manifesto by a scholar who has devoted his career and spirit to the study of life on the Great Plains of North America. Dr. Isern explains how a scholar of the humanities works, the nature of the documents he searches out and uses; confesses to having the soul of a Romantic; and talks about how regional folk acquire the sense of place. Landscape + human experience = place, he says. Finally, through a sequence of literary excerpts and projected images, he goes on to evoke the sense of place deriving from human experience with the Great Plains landscape.This lecture is a fairly serious essay suitable for public groups with an interest in life on the plains or for academic groups. As a fairly confessional piece, it is more apropriate for a group under 100 than for a large crowd. It requires a slide projector and screen, and if the group is large, an appropriate PA system.
"Talking Among Ourselves: A Plains Folk Reading"Since 1983 Tom has co-authored (with Jim Hoy) Plains FolkTM, the newspaper column and radio feature devoted to life on the Great Plains of North America. In this presentation Tom talks about this form of writing as a means of discovering and communicating with the people of the plains. He also reflects on his series of columns (more than 400 now) as a core sample of a literary life, recording the geology of the mind and the times. He then goes on to read a selection of Plains Folk columns selected for the particular group being addressed. Selections may range from how to bake bierocks to how to catch a paddlefish; they may proclaim the joys of prairie community, or question the viability of Lutheranism as a religion for the plains.This presentation is suitable for groups with general or literary interests. The reading is a rather intimate affair, and so the audience probably should not exceed a hundred, and if necessary, an appropriate PA system should be provided. No other equipment necessary.


Tom is available for more sustained and interactive appearances in the form of workshops ranging from two hours to two days. These deal not only with history, folklore, and life on the plains but also with how to study and appreciate these things. Workshop topics are under revision, and so feel free to discuss your needs with Tom. In addition, certain workshops can be operated as extramural courses for credit via NDSU, pending university administrative approval of the specific offering. To find out about these, visit Tom's website at NDSU.


Tom's standard fee for a routine concert or lecture in the region is $300, plus travel (mileage and lodging, if necessary, but not meals). If special preparation is required, the fee is adjusted to reflect such. The fee for a workshop ranges from $500 to $1000, depending on the duration of the workshop and the preparation required, plus travel. For credit courses, tuition is collected at continuing-education rates (minimum 10 enrollment), and Tom's fees and expenses are covered from tuition revenue. An exception to the remarks on fees above has to to with occasional appearances at local schools.

North Dakota Humanities Council

Local groups desiring to schedule Tom for a speaking enggement may wish to consider seeking sponsorship by the North Dakota Humanities Council. He is listed with the Speakers Bureau of the NDHC.


To discuss an engagement, you can call Tom on his cellphone (701-799-2942) or send him an e-mail.