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Grass Widows and Fried Rabbit

We’re happy as a clam on our claim from Uncle Sam

Though the rabbit is not always fried the best

So sang the four bachelors of the Willow Bend Quartette, Valley County, Montana, at a schoolhouse gathering on Christmas Eve, 1916. The singers were L. O. Carter, lead; Will Lloyd, bass; Raymond Sullivan, baritone; and James Lloyd, tenor.

Their song was a well-known ballad that had emerged in western Kansas during the 1880s and spread throughout the plains; I have about fifty versions in my collection of “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim,” including a good one from Emmons County, North Dakota. The boys from Willow Bend localized the song to suit their Montana situation.

Instead of the usual general allusion to sorry food, they reference whitetail jackrabbit; instead of hungry coyotes lurking about, they describe hungry bachelors in search of a feed; instead of P. T. Barnum coming to take them away for a novelty act, they warn of Sheriff C. W. Powell. And instead of just hoping vaguely for some kindhearted lass to provide feminine companionship, they specifically call for “grass widows” and “school ma’ams” as romantic possibilities.

“Grass widow” was a common term for a divorcee at the time, and its use is just one of the fine details we can glean from reports published by the Glasgow Courier. We used to consider songs like “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” to be mysterious relics of a misty past, passed down through word of mouth. It was Dr. Lousie Pound, the Nebraska scholar and songcatcher, who argued a century ago that such songs were not just the yawps of primitive peoples, but rather the works of self-conscious folk artists.

Now, with the digitization of newspapers and other sources, crusty old folklorists such as I can uncover the details of folksong origins and peep into the social situations on the frontier that gave life and currency to them. So we know who were the adapters and singers of this song in Montana in 1916; the occasion on which they sang it; and the frontier conditions of their community in its homesteading phase.

So, the editor named, and I repeated, the four singers, and the parts they sang--the parts  they sang. There was no sheet music for “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” in 1916. So L. O. Catter and company not only refurbished the words of the song to suit themselves, but also generated and performed a musical setting in four-part harmony!

Among these harmonizing homesteaders, Carter stood out as a farmer and as a man-about-town. The first newspaper reference to him is as a participant in a barn-raising. Through the years 1915-17 we read of the steam plow at work on his place and of his crops of wheat, flax, and corn. We learn that he is popular in town, with news items both praising his agricultural prowess and poking affectionate fun. He makes improvements on his place, digging a well and expanding his house. He squires schoolteachers to local events. He proves up on a half-section homestead.

The ballad reference to Sheriff Powell proves unfortunately prophetic, however. In August 1920 the sheriff stood at the front door of the courthouse in Glasgow and auctioned off Carter’s homestead to pay back taxes. At that point I lose track of him in the historical sources--but I’m singing his song.

We little thought that we’d some down to biscuits twice a day

In our little old sod shanty on the claim

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