And the cowboys now as they roam the plain
For they marked the spot where his bones were lain
Fling a handful of roses o’er his grave
With a prayer to him who his soul will save
Recently I sang this stanza in a public performance of the classic cowboy song, “The Dying Cowboy,” better known as “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” It took a while: the standard version of the song, the Lomax text, runs to thirteen stanzas, plus choruses. That line about flinging roses onto the lonely grave is just one of many exceedingly poetic passages.
The songcatcher John Lomax put “The Dying Cowboy” first in his 1910 collection, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. That placed it right following the handwritten letter of endorsement from former president Theodore Roosevelt.
Lomax was a Texan, but do not conclude from this that “The Dying Cowboy” is just a Texas song. It is one of those cowboy ballads that ranged up and down the plains. The Jayhawk songcatcher Myra Hull found versions in western Kansas. I recently found interesting versions coming out of Montana and North Dakota.
And, this week surfaced what I think is the earliest known text of “The Dying Cowboy,” published under the title, “The Dying Cowboy Away from Home,” in a Tennessee newspaper, the Southern Standard, in 1889. Until I find something earlier, this stands as the prototype for what we know as “The Dying Cowboy.”
Backtrack a little farther, then - I have spoken and written elsewhere about how the song is descended from a poem, “The Ocean Buried,” by Rev. E. H. Chapin. Published in the Universalist Union in 1839, the stanzas gained currency among seagoing men sung to a melancholy tune that partakes of dirge and chanty. An unknown adapter then changed the scene from an ocean burial to a prairie interment and the song entered another oral tradition.
The ocean song spoke of sea snakes. The cowboy narrator, recalling his sweetheart back east, intones,
Those locks she has curled will the rattlesnake hiss
This brow she has pressed will the cold grave kiss
For the sake of her who has wept over me
Oh bury me not on the long prairie
The cowboy song was circulating before the 1889 publication that I discovered, but that text is quite interesting. It retains much of the oceanic verbiage, with the cowboy dying on a “couch,” as in a ship cabin.
Twenty years later, in 1909, reading that Prof. Lomax was looking for cowboy ballads, a Mrs. George Reynolds brought her local editor in Culbertson, Montana, a version with some sublime lines - northern references such as, “Where the cold wind sweeps and the grasses wave / No sunbeams rest on a prairie grave.” The “handful of roses” phrase, too, I am convinced, Lomax got from this Culbertson text.
Over east, an unknown party in 1910 gave the editor of the Grand Forks Times another fine text, which it appears was the source of additional choice lines in the Lomax compilation.
It seems many poets and many preservers were involved in giving us this treasure of a folksong. A handful of roses to every one of them.