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No Sunbeams Rest on a Prairie Grave

If Teddy Blue Abbott, he of that classic memoir of the open range, We Pointed Them North, is to be believed, the song was a worn cliche among cowboys in Montana. They got sick of it; Abbott and others made up their own, new ballads to supplant it in their night-herding repertoires.

I’m talking about “The Dying Cowboy,” better known as “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” I have written of it before, proudly announcing the discovery of what I pronounced to be the earliest known text of the song. It appeared under the title, “The Dying Cowboy Away from Home,” in the Southern Standard of Tennessee in 1889. This situation made sense to me, since so many of the cowboys of the open range were southern boys, who no doubt carried their common song home with them.

All the many versions of the song--and I accumulate more of them continually, including a fine one from Grand Forks, North Dakota--they all trace back ultimately to a poem by Rev. E. H. Chapin published in a religious periodical, the Universalist Union, in 1839.

Chapin’s poem acquired a melancholy melody and circulated in the American West as a cowboy standard. Instead of “Bury me not on the deep, deep sea,” they sang, “Bury me not on the lone prairie.” Nobody knows who first adapted the oceanic lament to the western range.

Today I have to announce, however, that we are getting closer to the source. The new earliest-known text of “The Dying Cowboy” appeared in the Lincoln County Leader of White Oaks, New Mexico, 28 April 1883. Those of you steeped in Western history are thinking now of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War, but no, I find no connection between those notorious events and the ballad which appears in 1883.

This announcement comes about because the search for ballads is a work in progress. Additional digital source material comes online all the time, and at the same time, I refine my search strategies, or sometimes just stumble on things by dumb luck, then credit the discoveries to my astute research technique.

The 1883 Lincoln County text of “The Dying Cowboy” is published with no credit of authorship or details of origin. I do not think it is the original text of the song, but was captured from oral tradition and published in its early life. I say this based on internal evidence; there are certain flaws that indicate stumbles in transmission. The dying cowboy, we read, begs not to be buried,

Where no light breaks oe’r the dark low trail
And no sunbeams rest on a prairie grave
Every other couplet in the song rhymes, this one doesn’t. Then at the end we have,
Where the coyotes howl and the winds sport free
Oh, they left him to die on the lone prairie

Left him there to die? Just abandoned him? That is too grim, and it conflicts both with the earlier lines of the song and all other versions of it.

The most intriguing aspect of this text is that, unlike later versions, it does not hearken to some home back east. Rather it recalls the “cottonwood bowers / And the scenes that I loved in childhood’s hours.” Cottonwood bowers--this seems to indicate a persona born and raised in the west--and not in Montana, but in some older settlement, such as New Mexico.My assessment at this point is that this cowboy folksong, so familiar on the northern plains, in fact originated in New Mexico. That’s my story for now.

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