"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 published.
And another, Cal Harlan, provided even more dramatic evidence of Higley and Kelley's authorship. He'd 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.
Brewster Higley wrote the poem that would become "Home on the Range" in his Smith County, Kansas, sod house in 1872. He provided a couple geographical markers (Beaver Creek, the Solomon River), and he referenced the climate and wildlife of the region (zephyrs, curlews, deer and antelope/pronghorns).
The song, therefore, has a very precise setting: Kansas, 1872.
The 20 years that preceded the writing of the song were tumultuous ones in Kansas. Initially, the territory had been set aside for Native Americans, but by the end of the 1840s, white settlers were pouring into the region, leading American policymakers to force the Native Americans further south and west.
Removing the Native Americans, however, didn't bring peace to the region. The new white residents were quickly embroiled in a debate over the status of slavery in their territory, and the federal government did little to resolve this debate. In fact, under the terms of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, they allowed these two territories to decide for themselves if they would be free or slave. It was a terrible decision.
Previously, the federal government had drawn lines separating free from slave territory. But now, they tossed the decision to the local residents, much like tossing two fighting dogs into the same room. The result was that the Civil War came early to Kansas. Battles between pro and antislavery residents earned the territory the label "Bleeding Kansas."
And the violence didn't end until Kansas applied for admission to the Union as a state, so this forced Congress to re-enter the picture and decide what sort of state constitution to approve. When Congress approved an antislavery constitution in 1859, most of the violence ceased. But not for long.
The Civil War started two years later, and Kansas was hit by several Confederate raids. The most deadly of these was launched against Lawrence in 1863. By the time Brewster Higley moved to Kansas in 1871, the region was ready for some peace and quiet.
It's no wonder that a little wind and a few screaming curlews didn't bother him.