The Lay of the Last Longhorn | Prairie Public Broadcasting

The Lay of the Last Longhorn

May 1, 2021

 

Eureka! Found it.

 

Lately I’ve been looking into the origins of all the old standard folksongs of the Great Plains. Operating with the advantages of digitization, optical character recognition, and the internet, I see all sorts of things that were invisible to the songcatchers of a century ago.

 

So there are a lot of Eureka! moments, when a pristine original text, or a savory variant text, is exposed to the prairie sunlight for the first time in generations. Like the one I’m looking at now, from Greensburg, Kansas, in 1901, published under the title, “The Lay of the Last Longhorn”--but I’m getting ahead of my story.

 

The story begins, as best I can tell, in England, sometime before 1850. There Caroline Norton penned a poem entitled “Bingen on the Rhine,” sometimes also called “A Soldier of the Legion.” It begins,

 

A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers

There was lack of woman’s nursing, there was dearth of woman’s tears

A comrade stood beside him while his life blood ebbed away

And bent with pitying glances to hear what he might say

 

Mrs. Norton was not a great poet, but she was a popular one, in more ways than one. The Irish poet and songwriter Thomas Moore said she was “the most distinguished ornament” in London society.

 

Norton is well known, too, for her marital difficulties, sparked by her alleged affair with Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. She and Mr. Norton, a barrister, became estranged. She lost custody of her children. Finding herself in financial straits, she supported herself with poetic prolificity.

 

“Bingen on the Rhine” was, so to speak, her greatest hit. It was set to a melody composed by a musician named Judson Joseph Hutchinson, a tenor who was the leader of the Hutchinson Family Singers. The Hutchinson Family Singers were a musical phenomenon, popular in their home state of New Hampshire, throughout New England, and across the country. Norton + Hutchinson added up to nineteenth-century American star power.

 

By the grace of the Library of Congress, I learn that Norton’s poem surged in popularity in the late years of the century with publication, in 1883, of a deluxe folio edition illustrated by no fewer than six commissioned artists. 

 

It’s a beautiful little book, and its appearance coincided with the rise of the open-range cattle industry in the American West. Which depended, to a good degree, on the hardiness of that North African, Spanish, Hispanic beast we know as the Texas Longhorn. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, most Americans assumed the Texas Longhorn was on his last legs.

 

Like that soldier of the French Foreign Legion who was dying in Algiers. And the American open-range cattle kingdom, collapsing like the French empire in North Africa.

 

I can tell you how Ms. Norton’s poem, transformed in the environment of the cattle kingdom, became rooted here--but I’ll have to do that next week. In the meantime, I’ll disclose that the dying soldier in the poem was, in fact, the wayward son of the distinguished bard, Thomas Moore. 

 

Next week, too, I’ll tell you how Mrs. Norton, “Bingen,” and “The Last Longhorn” made their way into the literature of North Dakota. Hint: It has to do with our first, unofficial poet laureate, James Foley.

-Tom Isern