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I Claim Authorship!

In December 1916 an old farmer from Cando, Kasper F. Ebner, made a startling declaration in the columns of the Nonpartisan Leader, newspaper of the Nonpartisan League: he claimed to be the author of the anthem of the plains, “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.” “I claim authorship and copyright to this song and its title,” he wrote, “other claims of it to the contrary notwithstanding.”

I like this fellow Ebner, who came to Dakota Territory in 1884 as a bachelor homesteader. At some point he attended North Dakota Agricultural College—perhaps just the winter short course for farmers--and in 1908 would write a fond reminiscence in verse of a college friend, Norman B. Powell, and publish it in the NDAC Spectrum. He prospered, married, raised sons, and hired multiple farmhands. He led a Methodist Sunday school. He organized his neighbors in gopher control campaigns.

Ebner was an agricultural innovator and a keen observer on the land. He developed a labor-saving method of putting up prairie hay, with a binder, rather than pitching it loose. He planted dent corn in 1908, long before others dared to try it. He made notes on the ground squirrels of Dakota that were used in a bulletin of the US Biological Survey. He obtained cans of pike and trout from the state hatchery and released them in local waters.

And he was a poet of sorts, but—did he really write “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim”? I think not. Perhaps he thought everyone else who might know better had died or forgotten, perhaps his memories were wishful, or perhaps—and this was common among balladeers on the prairie—in his mind, he came to own the song by learning it, then reworking it until he convinced himself he was its author.

Studying his stanzas, I see Ebner did make his imprint on the song. He incorporates idiosyncratic details and devises a whole new chorus exhibiting defensive Dakota rhetoric:

Where the summers have fair weather and the winters quickly pass
Here the seasons are of joy an endless chain
When one scents the fragrant posies that are nestled in the grass
’Round the little low sod shanty on the claim.

Late in the song a spasm of evangelical rapture grips Ebner as he envisions himself and all the other persistent denizens of sod shanties elevating from the prairies to be “ransomed to the sky.”

Return, though, to Ebner’s chorus, with its reference to a “little low sod shanty on the claim.” Not a little old sod shanty, but a little low sod shanty. Rhetorical details matter; they can be the DNA by which the lineage of a song can be established.

Ebner says he first encountered the song in question in 1880, when he was still in Iowa, in correspondence with one J. J. Nierling at Jamestown—on the James River, of course, locally and familiarly known as “the Jim.” This background undermines Ebner’s claim of authorship, but it also is an important assertion. As detailed in a previous essay, the origins of the song were in Smith County, Kansas, its true author being the poet-printer, F. Frank Jerome.

Ebner is telling us that in the year of its birth, the song, originally known in Kansas as “Little Old Sod Dugout on the Claim,” had traveled folk-fashion to Dakota—where it was localized and sung as “My Little Low Sod Shanty on the Jim.”

This assertion by Ebner I believe, and I’m going to proceed from it to describe how after its migration to Dakota, “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” erupted to become the anthem of the settler society on the plains.

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