Clover’s Literary Corner: Our Cowboy Anthem

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Dr. Brewster M. Higley (1823-1911)

How many of us learned to sing “Home on the Range” in elementary school? Its soothing melody and cozy, welcoming lyrics have long been an easy and memorable introduction to music for American youngsters. But I’ll bet few of us have seen an antelope play or buffalo roaming—unless you’ve been lucky enough to visit Yellowstone National Park and other wild places in Wyoming and Colorado. As we celebrate America’s birthday, this song reminds us of both the joys and costs of 19th century westward expansion. While not overtly patriotic, “Home on the Range” is inextricably linked with the American West and the pioneer dream.

This classic western folk song—often called the “cowboy anthem”—is about home, freedom, and the beauty of wild places. The lyrics were originally written in 1871 by Dr. Brewster M. Higley (1823-1911) as a poem titled “My Western Home,” which was published in the Smith County [Kansas] Pioneer in 1873. They were later set to music by his friend Daniel E. Kelley (1808-1905), and in 1947 became the state song of Kansas. Higley, an otolaryngologist, had moved to Kansas from Indiana under the Homestead Act of 1866 and expressed his love for his new home on the West Beaver Creek. In the poem, Higley paints a picture of freedom, open spaces, and hope—the “discouraging words” of criticism and doubt have been left to the city dwellers. It celebrates the beauty and wildlife of the prairie and captures a sense of belonging and the universal longing for home. Kelley’s haunting melody evokes the simplicity and serenity of life on the frontier—the song doesn’t mention the dangers or hard work involved.

The song soon became a favorite of cowboys as they drove cattle along the “range” from Texas to Kansas, among other routes. It was published by John and Alan Lomax in their collection Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910), and became a nostalgic favorite in the 1930s and beyond, recorded by such greats as Bing Crosby (1933), Gene Autry, Frank Sinatra (1946), and Willie Nelson (2009). President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared it his favorite song. Attaining the status of a folk song, the lyrics were often altered—for example, “twinkling stars” became “glittering stars,” and “the sky is not cloudy all day” was popularized as “the skies are not cloudy all day”—and gained various additional verses. The version printed here is close to Higley’s, but even the chorus added “on the range” to the original poem. It celebrates the Wild West when it was still wild—as did writers such as James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), Zane Grey (1872-1939), and Louis L’Amour (1908-1988)—recalling the early days of America’s westward expansion when immigrant pioneers overcame great hazards to tame the wilderness and pursue the American Dream. A silly, animated film by this name was released in 2004.

The buffalo, or American bison, once roamed North America in vast herds, but are now confined to a few national parks and reserves. The original 60 million buffalo became nearly extinct in the 19th century by a combination of commercial hunting and slaughter, but conservation efforts have restored their number to 31,000. In fact, no true antelope is native to North America, but the pronghorn of the American plains, because of its resemblance to the African antelope, has been commonly called that since first seen and recorded by Lewis and Clark. Crozet resident Lois Whitehead remembers seeing buffalo roaming the prairie in northern Canada where she was born, and her father’s taking her to Kiwanis events where all the men would stand and sing this song.

As you watch the fireworks fly, you can hum this lovely tune in your head and think about the wide open prairie, the westward pioneers, and home. 

Home on the Range

By Dr. Brewster M. Higley and Daniel E. Kelley

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day. 

Chorus:
Home, home on the range,
Where the Deer and the Antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day.

Oh! give me a land where the bright diamond sand
Throws its light from the glittering streams,
Where glideth along the graceful white swan,
Like the maid in her heavenly dreams.

Chorus

How often at night when the heavens are bright
With the light from the twinkling stars
Have I stood here amazed and asked as I gazed
If their glory exceeds that of ours.

Chorus

I love the wild flowers in this bright land of ours,
I love the wild curlew’s shrill scream;
The bluffs and white rocks, and antelope flocks
That graze on the mountains so green. 

Chorus

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