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Orphan Boy of the Black Hills


On a February morning in 1925, there convened in Lincoln, Nebraska, a meeting of a genteel society, the Nebraska Writers’ Guild. The featured speaker was none other than the distinguished folklorist and linguist, Louise Pound.


Pound was a woman of many and varied attainments. She ranks as perhaps the greatest female athlete in the history of the Cornhusker State. She would serve as president of the American Folklore Society and as the first female president of the Modern Language Association. She held a PhD from the University of Heidelberg. And yet the newspaper just referred to her as “Miss Pound.”


Miss Pound, Dr. Pound, was a songcatcher, a collector of folksongs from the Nebraska prairies. I gather, however, she was not herself a singer, because for the meeting in 1925, she brought a pianist and singer, one Mrs. Van Kirk.


Among the songs presented was “Those Dreary Black Hills,” described as “the regretful complaint of someone who had forsaken his eastern home and come to the Hills region.” In other words, had participated in the Black Hills Gold Rush that commenced in 1876.


Stay away, I say, stay away if you can Far from that city they call Cheyenne Where the blue waters roll and Comanche Bill Will take off your scalp in those dreary Black Hills


The other songcatcher who captured the same song from the air in the early 1900s was the Texan, John Lomax, who put “Dreary Black Hills” into his book, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. It remains a fairly well known song among fans of folksong today, but oddly, no one ever has traced its origins any farther back than the collections of the songcatchers.


Until last week I did, and located what I believe stands as the earliest known text of the ballad, entitled “A Black Hills Lament” and published in the Summit County Beacon of Akron, Ohio, on 6 June 1877.


When I got to the Black Hills, no gold could I find

I thought of the “free lunch” I left far behind

Through hail, rain and sleet, nearly froze to the gills

They call me the orphan boy of the Black Hills


This is, indeed, a lament, a song of woe, speaking for the thousands of disillusioned goldseekers who failed to strike it rich and went home, lamenting.


In recent months, while investigating the origins of numerous old standards of Great Plains folksong, I have been evolving a general theory of folksong origin and spread on the prairies--you know, putting things into patterns, the way historians do. I realize now that the Black Hills Gold Rush was a disruption in the pattern I have been constructing. It was what I have come to call a super-spreader event in folksong history.


Because it seems countless Black Hills goldseekers went home singing this song, “Dreary Black Hills,” in their own versions but still the same basic song. They seeded it across the country for future songcatchers to harvest. In 1877-78 it turns up in newspapers in Chicago, Illinois; in Central City, Nebraska; and in Peru, Oskaloosa, and Fort Scott, Kansas.


I cannot say I have established the lineage of this orphan boy of the Black Hills, but we are acquainted with him now. As for that odd reference to “Comanche Bill” in the Hills, and in the song--I’ll get to that on another day.


-Tom Isern

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