The Leadville Connection: “Home On The Range”
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
When it comes to music, Leadville has other mountain towns beat in some unusual ways. It’s not about drawing in popular headliners, the chart-toppers. And it’s not about the big, impressive venues. No, when it comes to mountain music it’s always The Leadville Connection that runs through the melodies and lyrics. So in honor of “April is Leadville History Month,” here is Mountain Music: The Leadville Connection, Part One.
“Oh give me a hill,
And the ring of a drill!
Oh the rich silver ore
In the ground!
Where there’s always the proof,
With a run of the sluice
Where the bright yellow gold can be found!”
Sound familiar? It should. It’s one of the little-known verses to “Home on the Range,” an American trail song that has kept things moving along in the West for years. Beloved by many, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s avid affection for the tune that made it an international sensation and to this day, one of every troubadour’s favorite sing-along songs.
While the origins, and authors, of the song have been long debated, Leadville Today has secured papers from “The Kansas Historical Quarterly” that may finally put the issue to rest. While this mid-western state’s Dr. Brewster M. Higley is often credited with the lyrics, based on his poem “My Western Home,” and the music attributed to his friend Daniel E. Kelley, there is more official evidence that points to the contrary. And it’s time Leadville took back its rightful place on the musical hits list.
In today’s music world, copyrights are fiercely protected and technology makes it easy for attorneys to shake down any violators faster than you can say iTunes. However, during the first part of the 20th century, as this lighthearted campfire tune was soothing the WWII troops overseas, as well as Admiral Byrd’s isolation at the South Pole, the gaping genesis of “Home on the Range” established a media free-for-all with everyone taking full advantage of its royalty-free status.
However, at the height of the song’s popularity, the attorneys descended in 1934 with the first copyright infringement lawsuit filed in New York, naming some 35 individuals. Eventually, the defense of the lawsuit was taken over by the Music Publishers Protective Association (MPPA) which hired lawyer Samuel Moanfeldt to investigate the claimants and to discover, if possible, the origins of the words and music.
The documentation of Moanfeldt’s 3-month journey, traveling “nearly every state west of the Mississippi,” is fascinating. His interviews with poets and songwriters, newspaper reporters and any neighbors or kin willing to talk and share old photos and clippings are worthy of a song or musical in themselves. Each person having touched the melody or verse at some point, making it their own “Home on the Range,” as the song traveled throughout the American West.
It’s not hard to imagine Moanfedt singing the catchy tune as he traveled hundreds of miles on rails and trails to track down the true home to this range of melodies. It would become the musical earworm he just couldn’t shake, as he whistled it over coffee in the morning and hummed it quietly into another fading sunset.
The music venues of their day, Leadville’s gambling and dance halls featured local musicians, some of whom wrote “Home on the Range” during their stay in America’s highest city!
However, it’s clear in Moanfeldt’s final report to the MPPA dated February 15, 1935, that his trail of discovery ends in the mining camp of Oro City, and what is known as America’s highest city, Leadville, Colorado. Home on the Range!
Meet Bob Swartz, Bill McCabe, Bingham Graves, and Jim Fouts, four inseparable companions. They were prospectors by day and musicians by night, playing local gambling and dance halls. Their song presently-known as “Home on the Range” is now verified as having its origin in Leadville and is recorded as such on the Congressional Record of 1945.
In addition, that same year Sigmund Spaeth, nationally known as the “tune detective,” confirmed those findings in an article which appeared in the Rotarian (Chicago):
In the middle 1880s a group of prospectors, headed by C.O. (“Bob”) Schwartz lived in a cabin which they called the Junk Lane Hotel in Leadville, Colorado. All musical, they fill their evenings with friendly and often improvised harmony. On a night early in 1885 they worked at a melody and set words to it, to create the song which the world now sings as “Home on the Range.” However, they called it “Colorado Home.”
Additionally, Spaeth’s article in the Rotarian continues, a letter from Bob Schwartz to his “Dear Folks” dated February 15, 1885, describes the event and gives the complete words and music which are almost identical with those of “Home On The Range” as it is known today. There are slight differences in the melodic line and it was only later that the text acquired a definite cowboy slant. But the song is all there, in the faded yellow letter which Bob’s sister Mrs. Laura M. Anderson discovered among her belongings in 1930. . . . I have nothing yet that would cause me to desert the Swartz story.”
So there you have it, The Leadville Connection to one of everyone’s favorite sing-alongs: “Home on the Range.” It should be in every local musician’s repertoire, along with the story if its Leadville origins!
Be sure to stay tuned for Part Two of Mountain Music: The Leadville Connection. Until then, make it a great day, carrying this special song in your Leadville heart!
Colorado Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, LLC, a media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lake County High School Performing Arts Choir