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Two Guys in a Dugout

The first public notice I have of Frank E. Jerome is a newspaper article from January, 1873. The writer posts the claim that Jerome is “the swiftest compositor in Kansas,” that he had set 2600 ems (a printer’s term, essentially pieces of type) in an hour. This is to say that Jerome was a printing professional who set type for a living. Such people were numerous on the newspaper-rich prairie frontier, and they were legend, for various reasons.

Jerome also was, as people say, a legend in his own mind, as he claimed to be the author of “John Brown’s Body,” the Civil War anthem that would become the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Reporters and literati of the time laughed at this claim from a man they considered a tramp printer, but I am not entirely sure about that. Jerome’s detractors don't seem to be able to clinch who, then, exactly, did write “John Brown’s Body.” So I leave it as an open question.

What I can tell you, though, with certainty, is that Frank E. Jerome, the English-born printer scratching out a living on the Kansas frontier, was the original author of the anthem of the plains, “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.” Only the original title he gave the piece was “Little Old Sod Dugout on the Plains.”

Which is what threw me at first as I attempted to trace the origin of the ballad to its headwaters. In addition, there was a disconnect between Jerome’s original song, which he wrote and published in 1880, and the song as it would be known from 1883 on.

The circumstances described and theme developed in the 1880 song were different from those of 1883--but they are undeniably the same song, reconfigured to changing circumstances. Those circumstances included a sojourn in Dakota Territory, where unknown parties, in the folk tradition, worked over the song and, arguably, broadened its appeal, so that it would become, as I keep saying, the anthem of the settler society on the prairies.

After rattling around from one newspaper and town to another, Jerome settled for a while in Smith County, Kansas, where he went to work for Will Jenkins, publisher of the Smith County Pioneer. Here the evidence gets a little thin, but it appears Jerome and Jenkins took up batching together on a homestead.

From this experience came “Little Old Sod Dugout on the Plains,” first published in the Pioneer on 12 March 1880. The song had legs and soon was being reprinted all over the state of Kansas. It also traveled, folk fashion, to other points on the plains, such as Dakota Territory.

The appeal of the song was limited, however, in that its stanzas described a particular situation not necessarily applicable to broad classes of settlers. Jerome’s ballad is a buddy song, built upon the common experiences and fond memories of himself and Jenkins as old settlers. In fact, Jerome directly addresses Jenkins in the ballad.

I thought I’d write, dear Billy,
Of the days not long ago.

The ballad is full of self-deprecating humor of the pair’s common experiences--getting flooded out of the dugout, fighting grasshoppers, cooking flapjacks on a spade, suffering disasters in bachelor cookery. Yes, these might be general things on the frontier, but the song packages them as the bonding experiences of the two men (who, I might mention, were both married, with kids back east).

The ballad closes, too, with a ringing redemption of the reputation of Kansas, fixing the song in that place. And yet it traveled to Dakota, and then morphed into a song for all the prairies. That’s a story to come.

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