The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn

The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt

by Eric von Schmidt (Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1964)

Okay. It’s time for a teensy bit of name dropping. I have this cousin who is a brilliant singer and songwriter and he’s racked up a few Grammys as well. (Do you say Grammies? I don’t think so.) If you are into good, old-fashioned bluegrass and Americana, check out Jim Lauderdale. Musicians are such great storytellers, don’t you think? Sometimes I wonder if I can pack the same amount of heart and soul into a 500-word picture book that he can in a 3-minute song.

That’s partly why I was so drawn to this book, The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn. And that was even before I realized that there were all kinds of connections to song. That title begs to be picked and strummed, right?

The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt

I purchased this book a while back from Elwood and Eloise on Etsy. The owner, Mallory, also runs an excellent illustration blog, My Vintage Book Collection (in blog form), which is an incredible archive of gorgeous out of print materials. Thank goodness she sells some of her collection, cause I’ve added some sparkle to my own thanks to her shop. (Also, the images in this post are courtesy of her post here.)

This is the story of Jeremy Sneeze. Where he fails as a farmer he succeeds at making children laugh. (Which is to say by wiggling his ears.) He replaces fallen birds nests and makes pictures and poems. And so, of course, the elders of his town denounce his slack and shifless ways. A town meeting. A crow. A spell is cast. A sneeze. A surprise.

The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt

This book’s design is reminiscent of a song. Here’s what I mean. That color—washes of analogous color in oranges and yellows and greens, those are the harmonies to the stark black’s melody. It’s steady and rhythmic like the downbeats of an upright bass. Unless they are splashed and chaotic like a mandolin’s intricacies.

The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt

On top of stellar bookmaking, the story itself is a sweeping epic wrapped up in the short pages of a picture book. Listen to some of its lines:

Just about then he would get to puzzling about other things like “How high is up?” or “Who plants the dandelions?” or “Where do the stars go during the day?”

And every year all Jeremy had to offer was a big weedy field filled with assorted brambles and unchopped briars, bounded by dirty broken boulders.

Flap-flap, past bats that watched with eyes like razors, past lizards, toads, and laughing spiders, down past rats and rattlesnakes and monkeys dreaming evil dreams of moons.

We have specials today on stars that dance or boiling oceans, and a bargain rate for setting mountains into motion.

He hurled himself at the brambles and flung himself at the weeds with such speed you couldn’t tell which was hoe and which was crow.

True enough he is a sorry farmer. But in his head dwell pictures and in his heart are poems.

The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt

The listen-ability, the meter, the storytelling grumble. It’s all here. What a gem.

P.S.—A bit of poking around online still left me slightly confused about the history of this book and the similar-ly titled song. Did the book inspire the song? Did the song know about the book? I think the song inspired the nitty-gritty backstory of the young man who wouldn’t hoe corn. I can’t really tell, so I’ll just be sitting here enjoying both. Hope you are too.

ch

6 Comments

  • Posted October 22, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Hi Carter!

    Thanks for the great post on my father Eric’s book! It’s funny how you say it sounds like a song; did you know he was also a musician? If you google his name you’ll see all kinds of info. I’ve wondered myself whether there was a connection to the song; I didn’t know about it till after he died so I couldn’t ask. Since the song’s been around for ages, I’d say he must’ve heard it.

    He wrote two other pictures books as well, both of which are really great (not that I’m biased!) – The Ballad of Bad Ben Bilge (in which my sister and I appear) and my favorite, Mr. Chris and the Instant Animals. He also illustrated a lot of other people’s books as well as doing illustrations for Cricket Magazine.

    Anyway, thanks again! I love seeing people take notice of his books!

  • bingobangoman
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Hi Caitlin! So lovely to hear from you! Apologies for the long, long delay, but I am just so happy that you saw this.

  • Juergen P. Ramos
    Posted February 13, 2015 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Dear Carter,
    beforehand: sorry about my bad English.

    I also do not know if the book inspired the song or vice versa. Anyway: it is one of my favourite songs since the day I heared it for the first time on Radio Paradise, performed by A. Kraus & Union Station. The song is great not only because of the music genre – bluegrass!, brilliant – but also because of the story, the song tells. You posted a you-video of Alison Krauss, thank you. I also recommend the performance of the song from the movie The Broken Circle Breakdown. Finally I want to remark how much I value the music genre bluegrass! Greetings from Konstanz at the Lake of Constance, Juergen (postscript: I found a copy of the picture book “The young man…” in a german antiquarian bookshop for 170 dollars; quite a lot but maybe a x-mas present for my kids :-)

  • Posted September 11, 2015 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Love your website- Was just gonna say I live in Nashville and see Jim Lauderdale around town occasionally. I don’t know him personally, but have enjoyed some Music City Roots that he hosted.

  • carterhiggins
    Posted September 11, 2015 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    That’s so cool! And welcome!

  • Anon
    Posted September 3, 2016 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Amazing song, I’ve had the Dan Tyminski versions on repeat for a few days now, one word: Wow!

    Apparently it’s an old folk ballad, check out this on the history of it: http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/LH13.h

    Earliest record of the lyrics date back to 1905.

    If you search around a bit, swap “boy” for “young man”, focus on the “hoe corn” you’ll find many older recordings online, with very different vibes to them.