“Home on the Range” is a fairly simple song. It sits on a basic ¾ waltz-like beat and can be played with just four chords. While not originally written in 1870s as a “country song,” country singers have frequently recorded it. Some, like Marty Robbins, have preserved the song’s lean simplicity; others, like The Sons of the Pioneers, have embellished the vocals with elaborate harmonies; and still others, like Gene Autry, surrounded the old melody with a country swing arrangement.
It’s not uncommon for songwriters to see their work transformed by later artists. During the 19th century, however, weak copyright laws and even weaker enforcement meant that songwriters often retained little control over their creations. Brewster Higley and Daniel Kelley’s song was more vulnerable to later alterations than many others (there weren’t many copyright lawyers out on the prairie), and their song quickly passed into popular culture. Amateur and professional singers freely appropriated the song, and Higley and Kelley’s authorship was all but forgotten.
This meant that when Vernon Dalhardt first recorded the song in 1932, all sorts of songwriters came forward to take credit. William and Mary Goodwin of Arizona even took their claim a step further. Claiming that they secured a copyright in 1905 for “My Arizona Home,” a song with very similar lyrics, they sued to establish their authorship of “Home on the Range.”
The publisher holding the rights to “Home on the Range” investigated the Goodwins’ claim and uncovered several similar renditions in other states. Eventually they were led to Smith County, Kansas, where one resident showed them an old scrapbook with an 1873 entry that included Higley’s poem as copied from the Smith County Pioneer. Another resident described how Higley had shown him the poem even before it was even published. And another, Cal Harlan, provided even more dramatic evidence of Higley and Kelley’s authorship. He had been a member of Kelley’s music group, The Harlan Brothers’ Orchestra, and had helped to write the song’s chorus. By then 86 years old and all but blind, he was asked what exactly he remembered about the song. He whipped out his guitar and sang the song just as Higley, Kelley, and the Harlans had written it, and as it was recorded in the old scrapbook. Case closed.