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Plains Folk

The Boys on Duck Creek


Don’t ask me my name, an old bachelor I am And I bet all the same I’ve an elegant plan You’ll find me out west on the Duck Creek plain Starving to death on a government claim


I’m back on the trail of that iconic and ironic folksong of the Great Plains, “Starving to Death on a Government Claim,” a.k.a. “The Lane County Bachelor,” a.k.a. “A Homesteader’s Lament,” and now, from the standpoint of southwest North Dakota in 1910, “The Government Claim.”


Previously I tracked this lively anthem of weary homesteaders to its first known appearance in print, in the Emmons County Record in 1894. Well, as settlement spilled west across the Missouri River, so did the song, to be embraced and re-localized in new places.


That reference to “the Duck Creek plain” - Duck Creek is an intermittent tributary of Cedar Creek; Duck Creek Township of Adams County is northeast of Hettinger.


As the editor of the State-line Herald - a newspaper published in Lemmon, but on the north side of town, and thus not in South Dakota but in North Dakota - explained, when he published the version from his locality, “Printed by request. It is a sample of what the boys used to like three years ago but it’s all changed now.” From this we gather that the song was circulating in Adams County, North Dakota, in 1907, when “the boys” were having a hard time on their homesteads, but that things are “all changed now.”


Evidently by 1910 the boys were willing to forgive the US government and the Milwaukee Railroad for bringing them to what seemed like hell on earth, but they did not wish the grasshoppers, bedbugs, drought, and starvation of the earlier time to be forgotten. The boys evidently were settlers hailing from Indiana, since their final chorus goes,


Farewell to this country, farewell to the west I’ll travel back east to the girl I love best I’ll stop in old Hoosier and get me a wife And live on corn dodgers the rest of my life


A generation ago an eminent scholar of American folklore, Jan Brunvand, published an exhaustive study of the song I’m talking about in Heritage of the Great Plains, a journal published by the Center for Great Plains Studies, Emporia State University. Brunvand had two main conclusions.


First, that the song originated in Lane County, Kansas, probably during the 1880s, although not published until later. From there the song drifted south to produce hardy offshoots in Oklahoma. This is so. I agree that the Kepner text, written down in the 1890s and deposited in the library of Fort Hays State University, is the source closest to the song’s origins.


Second, Brunvand argues that the literary history of the song was mucked up by amateurish folklorists who grabbed traditional texts, messed with them, then sang and published them, interfering with the folk tradition. What Brunvand doesn’t point out is that the folklorists believed they were working with settled literature; they did not understand the frontier still prevailed on the plains, and they were messing with living folk tradition.


Brunvand fails to consider the possibility that the song might have migrated north as well as south with settlement, which it did - I have other versions from the northern plains, too - or that some northern smart-aleck with the advantages of optical character recognition and digital communications would come along to second-guess his meticulous research.


-Tom Isern

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