Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009
K-State experts for Kansas Day:
STATE SONG OF KANSAS, 'HOME ON THE RANGE,' ONE OF THE BEST KNOWN AND MOST BELOVED COWBOY SONGS, SAYS K-STATE PROFESSOR WHO RESEARCHES THE GENRE
MANHATTAN -- Whether it's referred to as the cowboy national anthem or the "million dollar song," "My Western Home" or "Home on the Range," the official state song of Kansas is one of the best known and most beloved cowboy songs, according to a Kansas State University professor.
Jana Fallin, professor of music education, is an expert in cowboy music and cattle drive folklore. She said "Home on the Range" is a prime example of cowboy music and a song whose popularity didn't disappear with the cattle drives.
"The cowboy era is certainly when it was written," Fallin said. "It would have been sung on the trail."
It was the favorite song of both Presidents Roosevelt, Theodore and Franklin Delano. NBC was even sued for playing the song on the radio when an Arizona couple sought royalties by claiming to have written the song, earning it the moniker the "million dollar song." Fallin said that research by the network's attorney found that the song was indeed written by a Kansan, Brewster Higley of Smith County.
Some of the lyrics may leave modern Kansans scratching their heads, Fallin said. But a verse that mentions swans isn't off base at all, Fallin said, noting that there were native swans in Kansas. The state even has a river and town named after them, Marias des Cygnes and LaCygne, respectively.
Although "Home on the Range" is the Kansas state song, its simplicity helped it spread beyond the state's borders.
"It's a simple but lovely melody," Fallin said. "It's very singable."
Fallin said many traditional cowboy songs are old folk tunes adapted with new lyrics. The melody of "The Streets of Laredo," for instance, is an old Irish folk tune brought to the United States by immigrants.
When cowboys on the trail repurposed these folk tunes, Fallin said they spiced up the songs with their own bawdy lyrics, full of double entendres. She said one song, "The Old Chisholm Trail," gathered more than 100 versus as cowboys kept adding lyrics about their everyday experiences.
"Some of the men on the trail were only 14 or 15 years old," Fallin said. "And it was a dangerous three months on the trail."
On the Chisholm Trail, cowboys drove the cattle from Texas northward to Abilene, Kan., to catch the railroad, where they could fetch much higher prices. Fallin said the cowboys would move the cattle at a leisurely pace, allowing them to graze and fatten up as they went along.
"They went along slowly and didn't have anything to do," Fallin said. "They sang out of boredom, but also to calm the cattle. Cattle drives were one of the last such vocations in which music was a part of the job."
Hollywood's singing cowboys like Gene Autry didn't get it quite right, Fallin said. Real cowboys rarely if ever would have had a guitar, which would have been too much to carry along the trail. She said they occasionally might have played a banjo or fiddle, but most often the songs were sung a cappella or with a harmonica.
Fallin said she hopes people become more interested in preserving the historically accurate lore of the singing cowboy.
"I don't want us to lose this history," she said.