Loading cattle at Joseph McCoy's stock yard, Abilene, Kansas, 447 miles west of St. Louis, Mo. One of the first western "railheads," or terminus points, allowing cattle to be shipped to eastern markets was located at Abilene, Kansas, near the northernmost point on the Chisholm Trail. The cattle trade provided the route for the song "Home on the Range" to be spread among western states by cowboys who learned it in Kansas. Prints and Photographs Division reproduction number LC-DIG-stereo-1s00053.
The complex history of the song "Home on the Range" involves the history of the American west, the struggles of the pioneers, and the working life of the cowboy. It also demonstrates the difficulty of finding the origins of a song passed on by word of mouth over time. (Listen to a field recording of the song sung by James Richardson and recored by Jonn and Ruby Lomax in 1939 at the link. Another version of "Home on the Range" sung to a different melody by Herman Meyers and recorded by Alan Lomax in 1938 is also available.)
Soon after Franklin D. Roosevelt was first elected president, he declared "Home on the Range" his favorite song. Because of this presidential endorsement, it was picked up by many entertainers, and frequently played on the radio, until it became immensely popular worldwide. As the author was unknown, it was treated as a traditional folksong.
In 1934, William and Mary Goodwin of Tempe, Arizona, claimed to have written it in 1904 as "An Arizona Home," and filed a copyright suit in the Courts of New York for half a million dollars against individuals performing the song and corporations publishing it. Until the case was settled, the popular song could no longer be performed or played on the radio. Samuel Moanfeldt, the attorney employed to defend the Music Publishers Protective Association, soon traced the song to a recording made by folklorist John A. Lomax in 1908 in San Antonio, Texas, from an African American saloon owner and former cowboy who had ridden the Chisholm Trail. A transcription of the song and the story of its collection were published in Lomax's book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads,in 1910. This is today the first documented version of the song with the familiar line in the chorus, "Home, home on the range." But although the 1908 recording suggested that it was an old song that had circulated more widely than the sheet music published by the Goodwins, these facts did not prove that the song could not have been written by the Goodwins in 1904.
This led to a nationwide search for the origins of "Home on the Range." Lomax felt that the song was a folksong from the 1800s. Because the saloon owner had learned it on the Chisholm Trail, which was no longer a cattle drive route by 1890, the song's origins could reasonably be placed before that date. In his research on the song, Moanfeldt found many people who remembered learning the song before 1880. He received letters from people who remembered different versions of the song and from many people who claimed to have written them. In addition to "Arizona Home," "Colorado Home," was found, as well as people who associated the song with Texas, but those who gave the earliest accounts of the song said it was from Kansas. Lomax also reported collecting many different versions of the song in his own research on its origins.
In his 1935 report on his research, Moanfeldt quotes from the statement of a former patient of Dr. Brewster M. Higley, a Mr. Reese, who said that his doctor had shown him an unpublished poem called "My Home in the West" in Kansas in 1873 and had expressed a wish that it be set to music, that a Dan Kelly had then composed the tune, and that it had been played by the Harlan Brothers Orchestra. Moanfeldt also wrote that he received a statement from a surviving member of the Harlan Brothers Orchestra, Clarence B. Harlan, confirming that his brother-in-law, Daniel E. Kelley, had set Higley's poem to music. Their quartet had performed it in the 1870s and called it "Western Home." Moanfeldt found references to the publication of Higley's original poem in 1874 in the Smith County Pioneer, however he was not able to locate a copy of the issue in question and the Pioneer's copy was missing. However, in response to a claim of authorship of the song by Emma Race in 1876, the Pioneer had reprinted the poem in that year to prove its authorship by Higley. This, then, is the earliest proof of authorship of the poem, as well as the first documented false claim of authorship. This evidence prevented the 1934 lawsuit from going to court. As the reprint of the poem is the only known evidence for its publication in 1874, the 1876 date is often given as the date of first publication.
John A. Lomax persisted in his belief that "Home on the Range" was a folksong whose lyrics Higley had made use of in his poem, dating to as early as 1867. But as no confirmed earlier evidence of the song has been found, and the authorship of Higley and Kelly has been substantiated by multiple sources, the song is now generally believed to have originated with them.
How did this song spread so far, become associated with so many locations, generate so many variations, and have claims of authorship by so many people? Part of the answer lies in the Chisholm Trail, a route taken by cattle drives from southwestern ranching states and territories to the railhead in Abeline, Kansas from 1867 through the 1880s. A song sung in saloons in Kansas could be picked up and sung by cowboys departing for home, quickly spreading it far from its point of origin. The song itself, which praises the virtues of the west and is sung to a melancholy tune, fits well into the repertoire of cowboy work songs. The version collected by John A. Lomax in Texas in 1908 differs somewhat from Higley's original poem in that it has additional verses, lacks some others, and has a slightly different refrain. Such variations are often the result of a song having "entered oral tradition," that is, having been passed along from one singer to another orally, with little use of writing. In such cases, the original authorship of the song is often forgotten. People may improvise their own verses to the song, and these additions are then passed along in the same way. Over time a song in oral tradition may vary so much that it becomes difficult to trace it back to the earliest known version. Singers may assume that the location where they learned the song is its place of origin.
In 1947, "Home on the Range" became the state song of Kansas.
- Mechem, Kirke,"The Story of Home on the Range," Kansas Historical Quarterly, November 1949, p. 313. [back to article]
- Mechem, Kirke, p. 314-316. [back to article]
- Lomax, John A., Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. New York: Sturgis and Walton Co., 1910, pp. 424-426. [back to article]
- Lomax, John A., "Half-Million Dollar Song," The Southwest Review, Dallas, Texas, vol31 (1945) pp. 1-2.[back to article]
- Mechem, Kirke, 317.[back to article]
- Lomax, John A., "Half-Million Dollar Song," pp. 4-6.[back to article]
- Moanfeldt, Samuel, "Report to the Music Publishers Protective Association," May 1935. Reprinted in "The Story of Home on the Range" by Kirke Mechem, Kansas Historical Quarterly, November 1949, pp. 332-339.[back to article]
- Lomax, John A., "Half-Million Dollar Song," pp. 6-7.[back to article]