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Center for Great Plains Studies


TALES OUT OF SCHOOL
October 2003
HOME ON THE RANGE–A Lesson on our State Song

Jim Hoy and Tom Isern

“Home on the Range” is the state song of Kansas. The legislature of Kansas voted to make it the state song on April 8, 1947. There are three reasons why it is a great state song and worth studying.

1. “Home on the Range” is a folk song.

A folk song is a song made up by ordinary people. They pass it along by singing it. In a folk song, people say what they really think. A folk song, then, makes a good state song because it comes from the people of the state and says what they think.

The ordinary fellow who wrote the words to “Home on the Range” was a country doctor named Brewster Higley. He lived on the frontier in Smith County, Kansas. He probably wasn’t a good doctor, because people said he was a drunk. But in 1872 he wrote a poem about the place where he lived . At first people called this poem “Western Home.” Another man, Dan Kelley, made up a tune for Dr. Higley’s poem. Kelley was a musician who played with a band at local dances. People in Smith County, who were mostly farmers, liked the song written by Higley and Kelley.

Cowboys, who brought herds of cattle from Texas to Kansas, learned the song in Kansas. They took it back to Texas with them. They kept singing it, and as they did, the words of the song kept changing. After a few years people forgot that the song came from Kansas. They thought it came from Texas. A man named John Lomax, a professor from the University of Texas, wrote down the words to the song in 1910. By this time the song had a new name: “Home on the Range.”

After this “Home on the Range” became quite popular. It was a hit record. When the song became popular, many people claimed to have written it. They wanted to be paid for all the records of “Home on the Range” that had been sold. Lawyers looked into this and they found that “Home on the Range” was a folk song from Kansas. It belonged to all the people, not to any one person.

2. “Home on the Range” is good poetry and good music.

A great state song has to have good words and good music, and the words and music have to go together. The words of “Home on the Range’ are a fine poem. The way that Brewster Higley wrote them, they were not so good. Many of his words were awkward and some of them you just can’t understand. But as people passed the song along, they left out the bad parts and changed the song for the better. If you listen closely to the words of “Home on the Range,” you can almost see the antelope grazing on the hills, or the stars glittering in the night time sky. That’s good poetry.

The melody fits the words perfectly. It is simple, easy to sing, but it moves along the scale enough to be interesting. The time of the melody is important, too. The song is in 3/4 time; that means three beats to the measure; you count the rhythm one-two-three, one-two-three. It’s hard to say just why, but this musical time is right for this particular song. “Home on the Range” is a song about living on the Kansas plains, and the 3/4 time reminds people of the rolling plains countryside.

3. “Home on the Range” teaches us about the environment of Kansas.

The environment of Kansas is our natural world. It is made up of the land, the climate, the plants, and the animals. Our environment today is different from what it was when Brewster Higley wrote about it. His song tells us what the environment was like then.

The Kansas environment of Brewster Higley was grassland, or prairie. The prairie environment includes grasses, wildflowers, and many kinds of animals. Some of these animals are gone from Kansas today. That’s because not much prairie remains in Kansas. Fields of crops such as corn and wheat cover most of the state. The prairie is gone forever. We are lucky that Brewster Higley put it into his song before it was gone.

On the next two pages you will find the words to “Home on the Range.” The first set of words is under the title, “Western Home.” These are the words that Brewster Higley wrote in 1872. The second set of words is under the title, “Home on the Range.” These are the words that John Lomax wrote down in 1910.

After the words to the songs are some questions to help you study them.

“Western Home”

Oh! Give me a home where the buffalo roam,

Where the Deer and the Antelope play,

Where never is heard a discouraging word,

And the sky is not clouded all day.

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 a maid in her heavenly dreams.

Oh! Give me a gale of the Solomon vale,

Where the life streams with buoyancy flow;

On the banks of the Beaver, where seldom if ever,

Any poisonous herbage doth grow.

How often at night, when the heavens were bright,

With the light of the twinkling stars,

Have I stood there amazed, and asked as I gazed,

If their glory exceeds that of ours.

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.

The air is so pure and the breezes so free,

The zephyrs so balmy and light,

That I would not exchange my home here to range,

Forever in azures so bright.

“Home on the Range”

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 skies are not cloudy all day.

Home, home on the range,

Where the deer and the antelope play

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,

The breezes so balmy and light,

That I would not exchange my home on the range

For all of the cities so bright.

The red man was pressed from this part of the West,

He’s likely no more to return

To the banks of Red River where seldom if ever

Their flickering campfires burn.

How often at night when the heavens are bright

With the light of the glittering stars,

Have I stood here amazed and asked as I gazed

If their glory exceeds that of ours.

Oh, I love these wildflowers in this dear land of ours,

The curlew I love to hear scream,

And I love the white rocks and the antelope flocks

That graze on the mountain-tops green.

Oh, give me a land where the bright diamond sand

Flows leisurely down the stream;

Where a graceful white swan goes gliding along

Like a maid in a heavenly dream.

Then I would not exchange my home on the range,

Where the deer and the antelope play;

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Some words to learn from the songs:

glideth = glides, or swims

maid = young woman

gale = strong wind

vale = valley

buoyancy = freshness, energy

herbage = plants

exceeds = is more than

zephyrs = gentle, playful winds

balmy = warm and comfortable

azures = blue skies, or heaven

leisurely = slowly, not in a hurry


Some questions about the songs:

1. Make a list of the prairie animals that Brewster Higley wrote about.

Use an encyclopedia or book about wildlife to find out about these animals in Kansas. Which ones are you still likely to see here? Which ones are gone (except in zoos)?

What if you wanted to write a song like Brewster Higley did? What animals would you put into it? These have to be the animals you commonly see, on the way to school or driving around the area. List three.

Are any of these animals the same as what Brewster Higley saw on the frontier?

What does this exercise tell you about environmental change in Kansas? What are the important changes in the environment since the time of Brewster Higley?

2. Rivers and water were important to the early settlers of Kansas. In his third verse, Brewster Higley mentions two streams of Smith County. What are they? These streams did not flow in Texas. So when people sang the song in Texas, what stream did they put into the song? What rivers and creeks flow through the county where you live?

Early settlers were always concerned with their water supply, whether it came from surface water–streams and springs–or from wells. What is the source of water for your home or town today? Who provides the water from this source?

3. The songs talk about antelope grazing on mountains. Are there any mountains in Kansas? Where in Kansas are there areas someone might call mountains? Name one place.

4. According to the Texas words of “Home on the Range,” someone else besides the wild animals had to move out when the settlers came in. Who was this? Write the line of the song that tells you.

5. Did Brewster Higley consider Kansas a windy state? Which part of the state has the most wind?

6. Because “Home on the Range is a folksong, it changed as it was passed along by word of mouth from Kansas to Texas. Look at the two versions of the song; how are they different, and how are they the same? Think not just of little words and phrases, but also of key ideas and points of view.

7. Reviewing some ideas

Who decided what the state song should be? What is a folk song? Why do we call “Home on the Range” a folk song? What is the “environment?” What is a prairie?

Additional Information

Websites:

http://www.ku.edu/heritage/kssights/range.htm

http://www.50states.com/songs/kansas.htm

http://members.aol.com/letterboxr/usa/hotr.htm

http://www.lewis-clark.org/bison/bison_song.htm

http://ksphototour.8m.com/rangecab.htm

http://www.ibiblio.org/folkindex/h07.htm

http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/homeontherange/index.html

“The Story of ‘Home on the Range’” by Kirke Mechem, a reprint from the Kansas Historical Quarterly, November 1949. Published by the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas.