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Plains Folk

The Transformation of “Home on the Range”

 

One evening in April 1933, in Crosby, in the northwest corner pocket of North Dakota, a seventeen-year-old farm boy named Raymond Semingson, the son of Norwegian immigrants, got up and sang “Home on the Range.” 

Raymond was a Lutheran kid, but this performance did not take place at a church function, nor at a barn dance, or any other simple social gathering. No, “Home on the Range” was his contest song, by performance of which in the category of “boys’ low solo,” the lad qualified out of the Border League for the upcoming state music festival.

 

The song appeared in the contest program identified simply as “Home on the Range, Texas Song.” Since the ballad hunter John Lomax published it in his 1910 book, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, the song had been considered as belonging to the state of Texas.

 

Which was the case with a lot of Great Plains folksongs, I can tell you. In the history of folksong there is a great sucking sound coming out of Texas, whereby songcatchers working that beat convinced Americans that the Lone Star State was the point of origin not only of the long drive and Texas fever but also of every prairie ballad you ever heard.

 

The same year that young Raymond was the hit with his “Texas Song” at the music festival in Crosby, President Franklin Roosevelt declared “Home on the Range” was his favorite song. Not long after that attorneys scrapping over royalties for the song discovered that it had originated with Dr. Brewster Higley and the Kelley Brothers orchestra of Smith County, Kansas, in the 1870s. 

 

Late to the party, Kansas laid claim to “Home on the Range” by designating it the state song in 1947.

 

But what about young Raymond in North Dakota? How did he even know there was this native waltz of the prairies that he might perform? And where would he get a musical score for his accompanist? 

 

The answer is a fellow named David Wendell Guion, a composer who combined classical training with a love of folk music and an affection for his native state of Texas. Guion commenced the composition of musical settings for songs like “Goodby, Old Paint,” “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” and, of course - “Home on the Range.” He wrote orchestral arrangements, choral arrangements, and vocal solos with keyboard accompaniment.

 

Using a new database indexing newspapers, I searched North Dakota references from the 1930s and found that commencing in 1933, “Home on the Range” appears in public musical programs in town after town: wedding anniversary celebrations, school assemblies, college concerts, Farmers Union meetings. In August 1940, far away from either Texas or Kansas, for the funeral of a Badlands ranch woman named Mrs. H. C. Short, the pallbearers all dressed in cowboy regalia, and at graveside, a robed choir sang - “Home on the Range.” David Guion was the reason. 

 

Some forty years ago I finished a folksong performance at a nursing home in Pratt, Kansas, with “Home on the Range.” Suddenly one of the residents sprang from her chair, trotted over to the piano, and declared, “I’ll show you how we used to do it at the literary!” She then performed the “Give me a land where the bright diamond sand flows leisurely down the stream” verse, with its high musical phrases, and taught me how to sing it.

 

As a country singer, I called it the “bridge” of the song. It is, in musical fact, a tessitura, an artistic flourish inserted into the song by its arranger, David Guion. Now we know.

-Tom Isern

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