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A Searchlight for Cowboy Ballads

If you’re a regular listener to Plains Folk, then you know that I am on the hunt for the folksongs of the Great Plains, which produced an amazing efflorescence of balladry in the generations of the original Euro-American settlers and their children.

It is an old prairie trail that I follow on this quest, one blazed by the songcatchers of the early twentieth century, foremost among whom was John Lomax. I have his autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, and who knows, perhaps some blessed Christmas Dr. K will gift me with a first edition of Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.

Although I prize texts of ballads I have collected word-of-mouth, right now I am expanding the literary base exponentially by going digital, gillnetting the digital archives of prairie newspapers for forgotten folksongs, versions, and stanzas. Imagine my surprise and delight when one day recently, my path crossed that of the eminent Professor Lomax himself.

In the early twentieth century, historical researchers of all sorts were severely limited by the logistics of travel. To cover any extent of ground you had to go by rail, and the railroads only went where they cared to, generally along east-west lines. Lomax was at Texas A & M University, College Station. There was no way he could extend his collection of western folksong to the northern plains--except through correspondence, and the cooperation of those fixtures in all prairie towns, the newspapers.

So here I am perusing the pages of The Searchlight, the newspaper of Culbertson, Montana, way out in the Hi-Line Country, and who should I meet but Professor Lomax--in the person of his circular letter, received and published by the Searchlight on 8 January 1909.

“For several years,” writes Lomax, “I have been endeavoring to make a complete collection of the native ballads and songs of the West, particularly those known as Cowboy Songs. It will hardly be possible to secure such a collection except through the aid of the press.”

Such songs, he writes, “deal with frontier episodes, the deeds of desperadoes like Jesse James and Sam Bass; the life of the ranger in pursuit of Indians or desperadoes; the experiences of the cowboy going up the trail; the trials of the Forty-niners, buffalo hunters, stage-drivers, and freighters--in short, they are attempts, often crude and sometimes vulgar, to epitomize and particularize the life of the pioneers who people the vast region west of the Mississippi River. Such pioneer ballads do exist.”

Yours very respectfully, John A. Lomax, Associate Professor of English

The editor of the Searchlight gleefully agrees to shine his beam on the subject, asking readers to send in their contributions. First, from Mrs. W. S. Evans, comes a lengthy compilation of stanzas entitled, “At a Cowboy Dance,” which opens,

Get yer little sage hens ready / Trot ’em out upon the floor . . . /

Stop yer cussin’, Casimero [sic] / ’Fore the ladies. Now all set

Then, from Mrs. George Reynolds, comes a sublime version of “The Dying Cowboy”:

“O bury me not on the lone prairie. . . .”

And then, mirabile dictu, from A. A. Phillips in Circle, Montana, comes a set of stanzas with the heading, “Buffalo Home," but we know them as “Home on the Range.” This contribution, along with another text about the same time from Grand Forks, North Dakota, constitute firm evidence of the currency of this lyric classic on the northern plains.

All right, I’m done for today. I’ve got to get back to the hunt for ballads.

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