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Songs of Yesterday: Home on the Range

The favorite old song "Home on the Range" is one that has a rich history, from the experiences of its author to the combined efforts of dedicated band members to create just the right music to carry the words to the public. Here we examine how the song evolved and was adapted over time to remain a part of the American west to the present day.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Jean Hibben
Word Count: 1865 (approx.)
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Editor Note: Hear author perform The Western Home (Home on the Range). To order the complete CD, see Songs of the American West.

Going West seemed to be a persistent trend for many of our ancestors. Certainly, many were content to stay in the East, but those who came to America to experience the openness, the freedom to do as they pleased, and, in the 1840s and ‘50s, the opportunity to seek for riches in the gold fields of far off California, the phrase "Go West, young man," was more than a line in a newspaper. Originally penned by John Soule in 1851 and popularized (and often credited to) Horace Greeley (Goldberg), this encouragement no doubt inspired many a pioneer.

Kansas doctor, Brewster Higley, was no stranger to this philosophy. Living in a makeshift home on the plains, Dr. Higley spent his non-doctoring time writing poetry. In 1873, he penned a set of lyrics that, though published in local newspapers of the time period, did not create any notoriety for the songsmith until part-time musician Daniel E. Kelley took on the task of putting the words to music (Silber, p. 221). The original verses might not exactly inspire folks to join Dr. Higley in his rough lifestyle on the Kansas plains, but the good doctor had much to celebrate in his humble lifestyle, a far cry from what he left behind in Indiana (Lingenfelter & Dwyer, p. 442).

I remember singing this song from my earliest years, crooning while my father accompanied me on the piano that had been in the family since the early 1900s. Of course, I sang only the first verse and chorus as I had yet to learn to read! And I really didn't understand the words, I'm afraid. But it was such a fun one to sing with others, and it seemed that everyone knew about the "home on the range." What a shock to learn there was more to the lyrics than just a home where buffalo roamed and antelope played – probably quite a literal situation for the composer, living in a dugout, as some alleged he did when he first arrived in Kansas (Silber, p. 221). However, there is some discrepancy about the actual abode in which Dr. Higley made his home: the limestone cabin that is allegedly his original Kansas home on the range still stands near Athol, Kansas (Sharpe).

Brewster Martin Higley, VI (b: 30 November 1823; Rutland, Meigs County, Ohio) obtained his medical degree in 1849 from La Porte Medical College in La Porte, Indiana, where he specialized in otolaryngology (treatment of the ears, nose, and throat). He began his first official practice in Ohio, but then returned to Indiana, eventually heading to Kansas in the early 1870s to take advantage of the land ownership opportunities under the Homestead Act of 1862 (Wikipedia). It was there, in his personal "home on the range" that the doctor found himself reflecting on the sights and sounds around him, writing the poem that would capture a nation. On the banks of nearby Beaver Creek, Higley found himself immortalizing his surroundings (Lickteig). The result, originally titled "Oh, Give Me a Home" (Harlin) according to some, and "My Western Home" (Lickteig), according to others, was printed in 1873 in a Kansas newspaper (Sharpe) – the Kirwin Chief (Lingenfelter & Dwyer, p. 445) – but it was a copy of the poem he had in his cabin that caught the attention of Trube Reese. Reese obviously saw something of potential mass interest in the words, which needed much adjusting before the piece was eventually embraced by the public, and he convinced Dr. Higley to transform the poem into a song (Lickteig).

Fiddler Daniel E. Kelley lived in nearby Gaylord, Kansas, and it was his services that the doctor enlisted to help create a vehicle that would bring his words to the public. Kelley had been part of the Harlan Brothers Band, and it was that medium that first introduced fellow Kansans to Higley's vision of their state (Norris, "Pictoral History"). Kelley took Higley's challenge and created the basic tune, then took it, with the words, to the home of his fellow band members. As a team, brothers Clarence and Eugene Harlan, with Kelley, worked the lyrics and tune together, eventually creating a chorus (at the urging of the family patriarch, Judge John Harlan); the song was born. The Judge's granddaughter, Virgie, at the ripe age of nine years, picked up the song (especially the chorus) and sang along with the older folks, suggesting that they have a party and surprise everyone with the new creation. This is exactly what happened on a Friday evening in April 1873: Virgie presented the song in the Harlans' Kansas home to the young folks of the community (Harlin).

As often happens in a situation like this – where a piece of literature is transmitted via oral tradition and carried across the nation as fast as the Pony Express – variations on the original theme emerged. People wanted to make it "their own," and adapted the words to their fondness of Colorado and Arizona (Lickteig). As we might well expect, soon the legal system got involved as people claimed entitlement to the lyrics. A great deal of effort was expended to track the origins of the piece back to Higley and Kelley (and, of course, the Harlans). Recordings and remnants of documentation, including the recollections of an aged Clarence Harlan, resulted in the termination of all lawsuits. At that point, with no legal entanglements, the state of Kansas adopted the song as its own and, in 1947, "Home on the Range" became the official song of the 34th state (Harlin).

Why would a doctor from Ohio (and then Indiana) choose to abandon civilization to live in a land where the buffalo roam? Let us take a brief look into the pre-Kansas life of Dr. Brewster Higley. Between his medical school graduation and 1864, Dr. Higley had experienced the tragic ends of three marriages (the first and third, which made him a widower, and the second, which is rumored to have ended in divorce). These unions produced at least three children, so it was logical that he should marry a fourth time in order to provide a mother for the offspring. This he did in 1866. However, his union with Mercy Ann McPherson was less than satisfactory (Wikipedia) and allegedly drove the doctor to drink and, eventually, to Kansas in 1871. He arranged for his children to be cared for by relatives in Illinois and, in 1875, secured dissolution of his marriage to his fourth wife. Once divorced, Higley was married for the fifth, and last, time to Sarah Clemens. Who secured their marriage license? None other than, Judge John C. Harlan (Norris, "Brewster Higley"). Higley passed away on 9 December 1911 in Shawnee, Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma (Wikipedia), and is buried there in Fairview Cemetery where a historic marker identifies the deceased as the author of the beloved "Home on the Range" (Sharpe).

The phrase, "Home, home on the range" – the familiar beginning of the chorus – was never part of the original poem by Higley. The chorus, written by Kelley and the Harlans, began, "A home, a home, where the deer . . ." etc. According to historian Tom Averill, the original phrase that included the word "range" did not use it as a noun, but as a verb: "I would not exchange my home here to range [italics added] forever in azure so bright." But the song gained popularity with those whose home was the open range – the cowboys (Lickteig), and the oral tradition of "the folk process" (changing the words over time to adjust to the singers and culture) no doubt was engaged.

It should also be noted that the territory that was the subject of the verses by Higley had undergone much transformation by the time the song was conceived and perhaps the doctor was expressing a yearning for times gone by. The encroachment of civilization on open space had already diminished the herds of deer and antelope, and the buffalo that once roamed so freely were being slaughtered by the settlers (Mussulman). Other verses also mention qualities of the fast-disappearing West.

The original lyrics mention the local rivers in Kansas: the Solomon and the Beaver feature prominently in the song. And the openness of the skies, unpolluted by city lights (which probably already affected star-gazing opportunities in cities like Wichita and Topeka, as well as Kansas City) are in some of the verses that still remain. The mention of the pure air and "breezes so free" give us the sense that this may well be one of our first songs extolling the virtues of ecological kindness. Since most of us have no idea what a "curlew" is (it's a river bird), and would not think of "poisonous herbage" as being something that threatened early settlers (though it most likely did), the verses with these elements have been virtually lost to history (or at least for modern singers of the song). But original copies of the poem (sans chorus) and earlier versions of the song are easily found on the Internet (see the References section here), so the ideas that Dr. Higley had as he sat on the banks of the Beaver to compose these lyrics will be forever retained, thanks to modern technology.

So here we have examined the life of this composer, along with the circumstances that brought him to the Kansas frontier; the evolution of poem to song, and the various performers who affected that process; and the adjustment and relevance of some of the lyrics. Did your ancestors sing this song? Did they experience the Kansas wilderness and so relate to the verses? Did they read the original poem in the Kirwin Chief? The answers to these questions may not be obtainable, but next time you hear (or sing) this composition by Higley and Kelley (and the Harlans), perhaps you will remember all the background of these families and their combined efforts to create a lasting picture of a time and song of yesterday.

References

Goldberg, Brad. Go West Young Man! An American History Webquest on Western Expansion, June 23, 2003. Accessed May 8, 2010, from http://bkgoldberg.tripod.com/gowest/.

Harlin, Cal. "The Official Story of ‘Home on the Range.'" "Home on the Range" website. Accessed May 8, 2010, from http://www.kansasheritage.org/kssights/home/official.htm.

Lingenfelter, Richard E., & Dwyer, Richard A. (Eds.) Songs of the American West. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1968.

Lickteig, Steve (Reporter). "Home on the Range." NPR, April 29, 2002. Accessed May 8, 2010, from http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/homeontherange/.

Musselman, Joseph. "An Anthem." Discovering Lewis & Clark. Accessed May 8, 2010, from http://www.lewis-clark.org/content/content-article.asp?ArticleID=459.

Norris, Mary Barr. "Brewster Higley, Author of the Poem ‘Home on the Range.'" "Home on the Range" website. Accessed May 8, 2010, from http://www.kansasheritage.org/kssights/higley.htm.

Norris, Mary Barr. "Pictoral History of the Harlan and Barr Families." Harlan Family History from Smith Center (Harlan) Kansas. Accessed May 8, 2010, from http://www.kansasheritage.org/kssights/home/harlan.htm#marye.

Sharpe, Barry. "Dr. Brewster M. Higley." Find a Grave, September 29, 2002. Accessed May 8, 2010, from http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6810840.

Silber, Irwin (Compiler & Editor). Songs of the Great American West. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.

Wikipedia. "Brewster Higley, VI," Wikipedia, April 14 2010. Accessed May 8, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brewster_Higley_VI.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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