Dr. Higley, an Indiana physician and lawyer, left his practice in 1871 to move to the Kansas prairie. He built a cabin on some land awarded him by the Homestead Act of 1862. It wasn’t fancy living, and Higley’s parcel of land was small. But evidently it was a beautiful place, with a creek running through it and wild animals, like buffalo, deer and antelope, roaming the landscape.
Dr. Higley seemed contented there. He was so contented that one day in 1872, he sat down on the banks of the creek and jotted down a bit of poetry he titled, “My Western Home.” It started like this:
Oh, give me a home,
Where the buffalo roam,
And the deer and the antelope play,
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.
The poem was never intended for an audience. But one day a friend named Trube Reese dropped by the cabin for a visit, found the poem and convinced Higley to turn it into a song. Higley got a fiddler named Dan Kelley to help him set the poem to music. Here are a few more of the original lines:
A home! A home! Where the Deer and the Antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, And the sky is not clouded 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.
The song was an instant hit. Before long it had taken on a life of its own. Settlers and cowboys passing through the territory heard the song and took it with them, adapting the lyrics to each new place. There was “My Colorado Home,” and “My Arizona Home.” Within five or six years, hardly anyone remembered who had written the original or set it to music.
The first commercial recording of “Home on the Range” was made by a Texas singer named Vernon Dalhardt. More recordings followed. By 1935, the song was everywhere. Then an Arizona couple filed suit, claiming they’d written the song 30 years earlier. An attorney doing research for the defense came across a copy of Higley’s poem in an 1876 edition of a Kansas newspaper. Even with the changes over the years, the poem was close enough to the lyrics to establish Brewster Higley, who’d died in 1911, as the original author.
Early in the 20th century, Texas composer David Guion did a new arrangement of the music and sometimes credited as the composer. “Home on the Range” was adopted as the state song of Kansas in 1947 and is commonly regarded as the unofficial anthem of the American West.
Want to here it sung? Here’s a link.
The version I learned in grade school is closest to the one presented by folklorist John Lomax (1910). Do you have any special memories of “Home on the Range?” Do you think children still sing it today?