PLAINS FOLK: Music, American culture explored
The great historian of country music in America has to be Bill Malone, who published the pioneering work in the field, Country Music U.S.A., in 1968.
I just finished reading his new book of collected essays, Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music.
One of Bill’s key interpretive points about country music is that we may have overestimated the importance of southern, mountain music in shaping the field.
He finds, for instance, that many of the early country hits originated from Tin Pan Alley, as popular music, and were adopted into the country canon.
Bill devotes a whole chapter to the composing career of William S. Hays, “The Bard of Kentucky,” a writer of popular tunes, including the old standard, “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.”
Now this is what got me interested in the story of William Hays: his “Little Old Log Cabin on the Lane,” published in 1871, traveled west as and was adapted to life on the plains.
Indeed, as the historian Malone says, “’Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane’ may be one of the most parodied songs in history.”
Charles W. Fry, the first bandmaster of the Salvation Army, lifted the tune and used it for his hymn, “The Lily of the Valley.”
I have found a friend in Jesus,
He’s everything to me,
He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.
The cowboy singer Jack Thorpe converted Hays’s song into a tragic cowboy ballad, “Little Joe the Wrangler.”
Now it’s Little Joe the Wrangler,
He’ll wrangle nevermore,
His days with the remuda they are done.
‘Twas a year ago last April
He rode into our camp,
Just a little Texas stray and all alone.
In Australia, they sing another song, “The Freehold on the Plains,” spun off from the Hays composition.
The parody of Hays’s song that spread throughout the Great Plains of North America, however, was “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.”
More than 10years ago, I investigated the assertion that the author of this anthem of the plains was one Everett Calvin Motz, of Selden, Kan.
The basis of the claim of authorship was that descendants had a cabinet card photograph of old Everett depicting him in front of his sod house, and on the back were printed the stanzas to “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.”
This was not exactly definitive evidence.
I give no more credence to the local claim that Henry A. Ball of Walsh County, N.D., wrote “Little Old Sod Shanty” in the early 1880s.
Problem is, there are many versions dating from a decade or more earlier in other parts of the plains.
Now, well into the 21st century, I return to the investigation of the origin of this Great Plains folksong, with new information systems at my disposal.
Over the next few weeks I will share some findings about that “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.”
Note: Tom Isern is a professor of history at North Dakota State University and co-author of the Plains Folk column.