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Whose Song Is This, Anyway?

It was the very eve of the Dust Bowl era, the darkest time in the history of EuroAmerican settlement on the Great Plains, when the Greeley County News (that’s on the western tier of Kansas, smack on the Colorado line) chose to reprint the full text (eight stanzas plus chorus) of a ballad dating from the 1880s: “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.”

This was as if to say, sure, we are entering into a horrific drought that is an existential threat to our civilization — but let’s all sing a song about overcoming hardship and anticipating a happy future.

Oh, then we’d be content for the years that we have spent
In our little old sod shanty on the claim

Just a few years earlier, in 1926, Mrs. A. D. Anderson, formerly of Bismarck, North Dakota, wrote home from Bellingham, Washington, to her friends on the plains. She announced that her fellow expatriates in the northwest had formed a North Dakota Club and chosen, as their club song — “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.”

And we’d forget our trials and our troubles as we rest
In our little old sod shanty on the claim

Good times and bad, wherever you go, this is the song that keeps surfacing to voice the settler experience on the Great Plains. Listeners know that I am a great lover of the folk masterpiece, “Home on the Range,” and have declared it the greatest piece of lyric folk poetry ever to grace the culture of the North American Plains.

But — “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Plains” is the people’s choice, the anthem of the settler society on the plains. Its origins have, until recently, been obscure, and disputed. Indeed, Nebraska’s larger-than-life folklorist, Roger Welch, who passed away during the year just closed, joked that every town he visited, someone would come up to him and say he knew who wrote the song. And it was always somebody different.

I have experienced similar disclosures. In 1991 a great granddaughter of a German immigrant from Pennsylvania named Everett Calvin Motz asserted he was the true author of “Little Old Sod Shanty.” As proof she produced a cabinet card of Motz standing on his homestead claim, with the text of the song printed on the back.

Somewhere in heaven, perhaps, Herr Motz is arguing with Henry A. Ball, a Civil War veteran who came to Walsh County, Dakota Territory, where he not only became affectionately known as “Baldheaded Bill,” but also, he claimed, wrote a song--“Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.” According to Roger Welsch, Motz and Ball might find a Nebraska homesteader, Emery Miller, eager to intervene in the argument, because HE was the true author! Or perhaps on a cloud somewhere, all the alleged authors of the anthem of the plains have formed a choir to sing the stanzas in unison and reminisce about the early days, in the eternal fashion of old settlers.

Two years ago I became conscious of the potential of digitized, indexed pioneer newspapers of the prairies to solve this sort of mystery. Using the database Chronicling America I quickly accumulated dozens, scores of variant texts of the ballad from all parts of the plains. I determined that western Kansas was ground zero for the propagation of the song, but I lost the backtrail in 1883. The ballad seemed to emerge at that time, unattributed, in multiple sources.

Since then I have taken the search into the larger database, Newspapers.com, and cracked the case. I believe I can tell you who wrote the ballad, under a different title, in Smith County, Kansas, in 1880. I also believe the song traveled to Dakota Territory, and after metamorphizing on the northern plain, returned to Kansas in 1883 and sprawled all over the plains from there. Stay tuned, and I’ll sort this out.

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