Behind the Meaning of the Cowboy Classic “Home On the Range”

The cowboy classic, “Home on the Range,” a tune that leisurely lopes along with a whistle and a hum, is one that has long soundtracked the American West. Evoking images of sprawling prairies and cowpoke-clad horses, the song has become a simplistic anthem to a past that still whispers today.

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The Origins

“Home on the Range” was born from a poem, titled “My Western Home.” It was written by otolaryngologist Dr. Brewster M. Higley in the early 1870s after he had moved from Indiana to Smith County, Kansas. He was inspired by his new surroundings and penned an ode to his new home.

A friend of Higley’s, David E. Kelley, developed a melody to go along with the words. The original poem was the merely framework for what would become the western standard, and did not even contain the phrase “on the range.” Ranchers, cowboys, and settlers across the West adapted the lyrics accordingly as the ditty spread across the country.

The song was put to paper in 1925 and published as sheet music. However, by that time, the song’s origins were obscure, having been known under several names and passed down by so many. The Kansas Historical Society explains it wasn’t until the 1930s that Higley and Kelley were recognized as the tune originators.

The Lyrics

Since its poetic beginnings, the song has been used in all facets of pop culture and has been sung by countless acts, including Roy Rogers, Willie Nelson, the band Kansas, and even Porky Pig. But the first known official recording of the frontier ballad was by Vernon Dalhart in 1927.

The song opens with the iconic lines, Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam / Where the deer and the antelope play / Where seldom is heard a discouraging word / And the skies are not cloudy all day.

The tune goes on to paint an idyllic landscape with lyrics like, Where the air is so pure, and the zephyrs so free / The breezes so balmy and light / That I would not exchange my home on the range / For all of the cities so bright. Each verse sings of the natural beauty of a home, a home on the range.

However, the lyrics also point to a disgusting reality that came with westward expansion. The red man was pressed from this part of the West, plays an early verse that has since been scrapped from modern-day versions of the song. He’s likely no more to return / To the banks of Red River where seldom if ever / Their flickering camp-fires burn.

After using a racial slur and then shedding light on the horrors that took place in order to obtain this home on the range, the song proceeds to paint a picturesque life.


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