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James Whitcomb Riley

Author John Cech
Air Date 10/9/2000

James Whitcomb Riley Transcript

Just recently, Indiana celebrated the birthday of James Whitcomb Riley, the famed Jossier writer, who was born in a log cabin in Geenfield, Indiana, on October 7th, 1849, and who became, by the time of his death in 1916, the most famous poet in America, and America’s children’s poet. As a boy, Riley found he had no talent for school. One teacher is supposed to have said that Riley didn’t “know which is more, twice ten or twice eternity.” Nor did Riley have the inclination to follow his father’s footsteps into a small town law practice. Instead, Riley did a little of this, a little of that — he was a front man, stirring up crowds with music and songs for a travelling “Miracle Medicine Show,” a sign and house painter, an itinerant actor. Everything gelled when he landed jobs with the Greenfield and later the Indianapolis newspapers, and soon began publishing his poem in them. His verses caught on quickly. Many were based on childhood experiences, like his memories of a hired man who worked for the family, “The Raggedy Man,’ that became one of his most famous poems. It’s written in a mid-western country dialect with a homespun rhythm that delighted the audiences that Riley alter performed his poems for on the lecture circuit. Today it gives us a glimpse of a unique kind of American story-teller who has vanished, except in Riley’s lines:

An’ The Raggedy man, he knows most ryme

An’ tells ‘em, ef I be good, sometimes:

Knows ‘bout Giunts, an’ Griffuns, an’ Elves,

An’ the Squidgicum-Squees ‘at swallers the’rselves:

An’, wite by the pump in our pasture-lot,

He showed me the hole ‘at the Wunks is got,

‘At lives ‘way deep in the ground, an’ can

Turn unto me, er ‘Lizabuth Ann!

Er Ma, er Pa, er The Raggedy Man!

It’s autumn, and the nights are getting cooler, and Riley has a poem for that, too — “When the Frost is on the Pumpkin.” Here’s one of the verses, set to music, by Ted Jacobs and David Vidal. I think Riley would have liked it set this up-tempo country way:

Brief sound clip 

Posted in Authors, Poetry