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Hell in Texas

There were a lot of great ballads that originated in points south on the Great Plains and somehow made their way to North Dakota. Bismarck’s renaissance man, George Will, collected folksongs from his father’s seed company employees more than a century ago, and one of the first songs he reported was “The Texas Rangers.” The expansion of the range cattle industry was the context for the migration of many such ballads north.

The story is different, and later, for “Hell in Texas.” This ballad made its North Dakota debut in the Bismarck Tribune of 1 August 1916 and soon after was picked up by the Jamestown Alert. It came here courtesy of a special correspondent of the Tribune who was at Camp Llano Grande, near Mercedes, Texas, with the 1st North Dakota regiment. President Wilson had called the North Dakota boys to service as part of the hunt for Pancho Villa and the general revolutionary turmoil on the border.

“Hell in Texas” in 1916 already was a song long associated with military service along the Rio Grande. The ballad recounts an encounter with the environment of the South Texas brush country, a recognized and thorny ecoregion. The brush country of the border is a land of “impenetrable shrubland,” according to the forest service of Texas A & M. Its wildlife is beautiful, bizarre, and inclined to bite or sting.

Until this year the origins of “Hell in Texas” were either considered unknown or mistakenly attributed. Now we know the first recorded text was in the National Tribune of 4 August 1892. This is a good clue: the Tribune was a newspaper for American veterans. The editor published the song with the notation, “Written by a Soldier in Southern Texas.” So, under what circumstances, before 1892, did American soldiers encounter the South Texas brush country and produce a song about it?

The apparent point of origin for “Hell in Texas” was Fort Brown, Texas, on the Rio Grande. Fort Brown was a military post established during the Mexican War, garrisoned by Confederates during the Civil War, and retained as a federal post for border protection after the war. Thus soldiers were stationed there throughout the late nineteenth century. One of them, or some of them, wrote “Hell in Texas” during this time.

A New York correspondent visited Brownsville in 1907 and wrote a genesis story for the ballad, which somehow got published in the newspaper in Gotebo, Oklahoma. “Many years ago,” he recounts, “a private belonging to the United States Sixth Cavalry, while stationed at Fort Brown, wrote a poem entitled ‘Hell in Texas.’ The poem was printed on slips on the old army press at Ft. Brown and attained a wide private circulation among the soldiers on the Texas frontier. A copy of it was recently resurrected here.” And the Gotebo newspaper published this version of the song.

Which is, almost precisely, the text published in Bismarck and Jamestown in 1916. It begins,

The Devil, we’re told, in hell was chained
And a thousand years he there remained
He never complained, nor did he groan
But determined to start up a hell of his own

Which “hell” was, of course, South Texas, where,

The rattlesnake bites you, the scorpion stings
The mosquito delights you with buzzing wings
The sand-burrs prevail and so do the ants
And those who sit down need half soles on their pants.

We have to wonder whether guardsmen recently dispatched to South Texas by Governor Burgum had similar impressions — maybe even sang the same song, “Hell in Texas.”

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