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In the West

There is something that has always bothered me about the first verse of the classic homesteading ballad, “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.”

I am looking rather seedy now while holding down my claim
And my victuals are not always served the best
And the mice play slyly ’round me as I lay me down to sleep
In my little old sod shanty on the claim

No, I’m not afraid of mice—what troubles me is the failure to rhyme. Prairie balladeers were insistent rhymers, and “claim” does not rhyme with “best.” For years I thought we are missing something; there must be an earlier text of the song that celebrates a “little old sod shanty in the West,” in order to rhyme with “best.”

So now I find—thank God, because this has really bugged me over the years--there is such a text, in the National Tribune of 12 April 1883. Wherein,

The mice play slyly around me as I lay me down to sleep
In my little old sod shanty in the WEST! [emphasis added]

The stanza was sent to the Tribune by a writer with initials J. R., from Pierre, Dakota Territory. But wait, there’s more--JR closes his verse this way:

I’m happy as a clam on these lands of Uncle Sam
In this rich and fertile valley, all for Jim

So JR, whose given name must be James, is acknowledging the blessings of God and Uncle Sam in setting aside the rich and fertile valley of the Missouri River for him.

But this is an inside joke, and I get it. The ballad, “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim,” has been circulating since its origin in 1880 in the valley of the James River, Dakota Territory, as “Little Low Sod Shanty on the Jim”—as detailed in a previous Plains Folk essay. JR just makes the “Jim” reference in the ballad about him, not the James River.

I’m picking over details, I know, but there is a larger issue at stake: how “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim,” written by Frank Jerome in Smith County, Kansas, in 1880, localized to the Jim River of Dakota Territory by 1883, somehow erupted into mass circulation to become the anthem of the plains. I’ve finally put the pieces together.

The song died out in Kansas between 1880 and 1883—languishing because its plotline, involving two specific men batching on a homestead and sharing inside jokes—was too idiosyncratic for general circulation. Folk revisers of the ballad in Dakota, however, fixed the problem. They rewrote the lyrics to embrace the general situation of every homesteader—at first, just every homesteader in the valley of the Jim. After that the Jim dropped out of the stanzas, and the song took root in every locality of the plains. To do that, first it had to travel back to its place of origin, Kansas.

The two homesteaders batching in Kansas were Jerome and his newspaper boss and sodhouse buddy, Will Jenkins. They shared their fond and specific recollections of hardship and persistence on a claim together. Their ballad was an old-settler bromance.

As the song resurges from Dakota Territory in 1883, the singer is a lonely chap on a claim who wishes his wife back east would come out and join him. He envisions himself and his bride as an Edenic couple, peopling a new civilization on the prairies. In one more essay about this signal ballad of the settler society, I’ll tell you about that.

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