An Anthem

For more than a hundred years the American bison has been enshrined as a symbol of the American West in the first line of a song—possibly the only American song—known around the world, "Home on the Range."

The author of the words was Brewster Higley, a saddlebag physician and homesteader in Smith County, Kansas, which lies between the Solomon and the Republican rivers, just off the overland trail along the Platte River, and more than three generations and 200 miles remote from Lewis and Clark and their "trail." His poem was published in the county newspaper, the Pioneer, in December of 1873.

Dan Kelley, a member of a popular musical group in nearby Gaylord, Kansas, conceived the tune. The song quickly became a favorite up and down the Solomon Valley, and it bummed around the rest of the West on its own for another 35 years. In 1908 it was recorded by folklorist John Lomax, as sung by a black saloonkeeper in San Antonio, Texas, and published in the first Lomax collection of cowboy songs in 1910.

By the early 1930s it was popular enough to have warranted at least ten different sheet-music editions. In 1933, on the eve of his election as the 31st President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt let it be known that the song with the "wistful words and plaintive melody" was his favorite, and for the rest of the decade and well into the 40s it was basic radio fare. You can still take your pick from among the 55 interpretations available on CD, from Gene Autry to Frank Sinatra to Too Slim and the Taildraggers.

On the one hand, the song expresses a withering irony. The "range" Higley and Kelley sang of was nearly gone by 1873, and the home they hymned was the very instrument of ecological conquest. The buffalo herds were already diminished, the deer and antelope scattered and wary, the pastoral lifeways of the Indians extirpated, and the territory that alternately awed and exasperated the Corps of Discovery had been plunged into the first in a succession of profound changes, end over end.1

The "words" were to grow still more discouraging. The year of the song's first appearance, Elliott West points out, "coincides with the start of the 'great hunt,' the mass slaughter of bison triggered (so to speak) by the development of a new process that opened a vast commercial market for green hides." Within another decade there would be no more buffalo to roam.

On the other hand, this song is not a homily. It's just a song. What if the prosody is now and then awkward? What of the poem's bizarre incongruities? What of its nostalgic sentimentality? What if we can't even remember the words beyond the first two lines? It is still a "medicine" song, an unaccountably magical anthem, a simple lilt of notes enfolding the passionate dream of a Peaceable Kingdom in the Garden of the West.

One of three slightly different regional versions, and possibly the best known:

1. 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.

Chorus: 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 camp-fires burn.

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

5. Oh, I love these wild flowers 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.

6. Oh, give me a land where the bright diamond sand
Flows leisurely down the stream;
Where the graceful white swan goes gliding along
Like a maid in a heavenly dream.

7. 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.

Futher Reading

Jim Bob Tinsley, He Was Singin' This Song (Orlando: University Presses of Florida, 1981).

Austin E. and Alta S. Fife, Cowboy and Western Songs: A Comprehensive Anthology (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1969).

1. For an engaging and sensitive account of the events that changed the land, animals, people and culture of Higley-Kelley country, in the heart of the old Louisiana territory, read The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains, by the distinguished historian Elliott West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995).