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The Railroad Corral

Where does a folksong come from? When I was a folkie, way back in the last century, we were pretty definite about being indefinite about that. A song like “The Cowboy’s Lament” or “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” was a feral thing. Nobody owned it.

Ballads and folksongs were anonymous, gifts from the misty past, products of some mysterious genesis. So we thought.

Well, that innocence is ruined now, because we can tell you where most of our prairie ballads came from--who wrote them, where they were sung, how they spread across the country. My partner Jim Hoy is the guy who pinned down the origins of the greatest of all dying-cowboy songs: it’s for sure, Frank Maynard wrote “The Cowboy’s Lament” and set the piece in Dodge City, Kansas.

Just like as of a couple months ago, I can say for sure that in 1878 Frank E. Jerome wrote “Little Old Sod Dug-out on the Claim” about homesteading in Smith County, Kansas, and the song evolved into “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” in 1883. And that in 1894 George Ryckman rewrote the ballad to localize it to Emmons County, North Dakota.

Folksongs, it turns out, come from folk artists, not from rustic rubes. Folk transmission of the songs, however, often obscures original authorship. As was the case with one of the great lyric cowboy songs, “The Railroad Corral.” It’s such a sweet song.

We are up in the morning ere dawning of day
And the grub wagon’s busy and flap-jacks in play
While the herd is astir over hillside and swale
With the night-riders rounding them onto the trail

Come take up your cinches and shake up your reins
Come wake up your bronco and break for the plains
Come roust those red steers from the long chaparral
For the outfit is off for the railroad corral

There follow three more fine stanzas, chronicling the day’s drive to a shipping point through midday, afternoon, and dusk. The piece is so poetical and so symmetrical, you know there was a poet involved in its writing, and there was: Joseph Mills Hanson, of Yankton, South Dakota.

Hanson was the son of true pioneer stock in Dakota Territory, and his folks were well-off, but he worked hard on their place along the Missouri River. Still, young Hanson was well educated and had the writer’s muse. He published multiple books of poetry, history, and juvenile fiction. In my opinion, he never wrote anything better than “The Railroad Corral.”

It was so good Hanson published the poem right away in 1904 in a national magazine, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly. The poem had legs and soon was sung and published across the West. Often without credit to the author. The songcatcher John Lomax collected the song somewhere and published it in 1910 in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Lomax truly believed the song had originated in a cow camp. In fact it was the composition of a proud poet.

I have traced how knowledge of authorship lapsed. Right away in 1904 and 1905 “The Railroad Corral” was reprinted in newspapers in Wichita, Alamogordo, Guthrie, Kansas City, Casper, Calgary, as well as in Burlington, Vermont, and Boston, Massachusetts. Most of them credited Hanson as author--but a couple of them just attributed the song to “Exchange”--meaning they copied from other papers, without noting the author.

Fifty years ago I, too, sang “The Railroad Corral” without credit to its author, Joseph Mills Hanson. But now I know better.

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