April 29, 2002
-- When Dr. Brewster Higley sat down on the banks of Kansas' Beaver Creek in 1872 and jotted down the lines that would become "Home on the Range," he had little notion that his words would reverberate well into the next century.
By the time he died in 1911, the rest of the country had little idea of the song's true origins. As it trickled across America, on its way to the Oval Office and the Rocky Mountains, the legacy left to Dr. Higley by his most famous contribution to American culture was one of anonymity.
Higley settled in Kansas in 1871, on a small plot of land. Though he had made a living as a physician in Indiana, he came to Kansas to stake a claim as part of the Homestead Act of 1862.
As part of Present at the Creation
, NPR's Steve Lickteig reports for Morning Edition
that Higley's plot, on which his cabin still stands, probably looks much the same as it did some 130 years ago.
The blue skies, endless prairie, and abundant wildlife inspired Higley, who wrote the original poem, "My Western Home," in the fall of 1872 without intending it for an audience.
Oh, give me a home,
Where the buffalo roam,
And the deer and the antelope play,
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.
A local man named Trube Reese found the poem while visiting Higley's cabin and convinced him to turn it into a song. Higley got fiddler Dan Kelley to help him set the poem to music.
Higley's fellow homesteaders took an immediate liking to the result.
"I think the big appeal of the song is there's a longing for a fairer place and for home at the same time for all these settlers," says Tom Averill, a Kansas scholar and writer.
The song quickly took on a life all its own. Due in part to the settlers passing through the territory, and cowboys constantly on the move, "Home on the Range" spread across the country. The universality of its lyrics made it easily adaptable to each new locale.
"Everybody changed the words to suit the place they were from. So it became 'My Colorado Home' and 'My Arizona Home,'" Averill says. "The fact that Dr. Brewster Higley wrote it and the fact that Dan Kelley set it to music was completely lost probably within four, five or six years."
Some of the modifications stuck, and changed the song forever. The words, "home on the range" never appear in Higley's original lyrics.
Averill explains, "His line is: 'I would not exchange my home here to range forever in azure so bright.' In other words, it's a verb. I wouldn't range anywhere else. And then the cowboys get it, and you know how cowboys like to sing about home. It's the most rootless job you can have. And they're thinking about a home on the range."
When Texas singer Vernon Dalhardt made the first commercial recording of the song, it was a hit, and several other singers recorded the tune over the yeas. President Franklin Roosevelt even declared it his favorite song in 1932. By 1935, "Home on the Range" was everywhere.
People identified with the personalized versions the same way they felt attached to their own homesteads. Some may have identified so strongly that they felt they themselves had created it. In 1935, a couple in Arizona filed suit against NBC Radio and several publishing companies. The couple claimed they had written the song 30 years earlier. The song was yanked from the airwaves.
One of the defendants hired a lawyer to confirm the song's origins. He traveled through every state west of the Mississippi until a tip led him to Kansas, specifically to the Kirwin Chief
, a Kansas newspaper. In an 1876 edition, he found a copy of Higley's original poem "My Western Home" with words that closely matched the lyrics to "Home on the Range." That discovery closed the case. Brewster Higley was now officially the song's author. And it went back on the radio.
Higley's song is still popular today, serving as the state song of Kansas and as an immediately recognizable slice of American folk music.
Karen Panter, who takes care of the cabin that still stands on the site where Higley first wrote his famous words, says that this probably would surprise the doctor.
"He probably thought he hadn't anything special written down," she says. "It was just something he was thinking through at the time when he was sitting there."
Read the lyrics to three versions
of "Home on the Range."
Learn more about Dr. Brewster Higley and Daniel E. Kelley
Read more about the history
of "Home on the Range."
Tour the log cabin
where Dr. Brewster Higley wrote "My Western Home."
Learn more about Kansas history at the Kansas State Historical Society