Wednesday, September 01, 2004

June 16, 2004 - continued

I stopped at the Wellness Center today to thank Starr Jacobs for the opportunity to ride the combine on Monday night. She told me what she'd forgotten to tell me - that I should go see the "Home on the Range" cabin north of Athol. She'd grown up in that area, she said, and her mother still lives out that way. The cabin is nine miles north of Highway 36 on Highway 8, then a mile west.

You think you're going to see an historical site and all of a sudden the road ends and you're driving into somebody's yard. The stone has fallen over, the one that says "Home on the Range Cabin <---." I turn in the driveway, pass the house, park alongside the cabin that's just a few steps down the hill.

"Home on the Range Cabin - 1872" a sign on the rough old building says. Some of the original logs of the cabin are showing. In some places there is more chinking between the logs than actual logs.

A plaque standing at the end of the building states: "On this site circa 1873 Dr. Brewster M. Higley wrote the words to 'Home on the Range' - Adopted as Official State Song of Kansas June 30, 1947 - Marked by Sarah Steward Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1997."

In marble, attached directly to the end of the cabin, another marker: "Panel by Stambachs" it says. "Erected 1954" it says. It says: "In 1873 Dr. Brewster Higley wrote the words, Dan Keley supplied the music, and the Harlan Brothers Orchestra started the new song 'Home on the Range' on its way from the heart of the nation to the nation's heart." Even the music is carved into the marble, in the key of 1-sharp, in 3/4 time, the words beneath the notes. The song title is "My Western Home." The words: "A home - a home - where the deer and the antelope play. Where never is heard a discouraging word, and the sky is not clouded all day."

The sky is clouded today. There is a Kansas wind blowing. A black dog comes down to the cabin from the house, to check me out. I'm not very interesting, so he wanders away. There's a jet plane rumbling overhead, 35,000 feet above where the deer and the antelope play and where we live out our lives.

I step into the cabin. There is a sign tacked to the wall: "Give the world the best you have and the best will come back to you." I wonder if this has been posted because someone believes it, or because it's the sign they had? I like to think it's the former; my sense of how the world is suggests it might be the latter. In either case, the call to excellence is appropriate here, now, in this place.

There's a book in which to register my visit, so I add my name and address to a very long list - a binderful of notebook paper half an inch thick. Just since May 1st the cabin has been visited by people from Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, California, Arizona, Washington, Connecticut, Rhode Island, North and South Carolina, and Alaska.

There's a box with pamphlets in it, 15 cents for the "Story of the Origin of Home on the Range." I leave a quarter and take one.

The pamphlet says Dr. Higley was an exceptionally talented surgeon. He had practiced in Michigan and Indiana before he came to Kansas in 1871.

Higley was married five times. The first three of his wives died, the fourth marriage was unhappy and reportedly "caused the doctor to take to drink and come to Kansas." Once that unhappiness had been dissolved, Higley married more happily in Smith Center.

Apparently Higley's words for the song had gotten tucked away in a book and were found when Higley was treating a gunshot wound. The fellow who brought the gunshot victim to Higley was paging through the doctor's books and the piece of foolscap with the words on fell out of one of them. "Why, Doc, this is plum good!" the fellow is quoted as saying.

The rest, as they say, is history. Dan Kelley set the words to a tune, the Harland Brothers Orchestra performed it, the song soon was sung far and wide. "Several other writers copied it," the pamphlet reports, "making slight changes in their versions. The song lost its identity with the county of its origin."

That President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it was his favorite song renewed interested in it, and soon enough it was played near and far. That came a halt, however. "The sudden success of the song, which was being played on every radio station in the land, caused William and Mary Goodwin of Tempe, Ariz., to bring suit for infringement of copyright.... They claimed that Goodwin had written the words of a song entitled 'My Arizona Home' and Mrs. Goodwin the melody and that the copyright had been registered on February 22, 1905."

Samuel Moanfeldt, a New York lawyer, was hired by the Music Publisher Protective Association to ascertain the truth of the matter. His investigation brought him to Smith County, Kansas, where he found printed versions of Higley's words in a Smith Center paper from 1873 and from the Kirwin Chief in 1874. He also found Clarence "Cal" Harlan, earlier of the Harlan Brothers Orchestra and now 86 years old and nearly blind. Could he still sing the song? "Mr. Harlan brought out his guitar and played and sang the song from memory," Mr. Moanfeldt reported.

"The result was that the Goodwins lost their lawsuit," the pamphlet states, "and the old cabin on Beaver Creek became a place of historical importance."

To be continued....



It is only partly about place, isn't it? The rest of it is about the beauty of the ordinary. It has taken me this long - now that I am fifty-one years old - to recognize what I am about. I look back and I see an effort to explore and celebrate the ordinary. It is not of great men making great falls that I would write, not the classical tragedy. It is not the obvious great themes I would explore - Truth, Justice. It is the ordinary - its beauty, its truth, its rightness. It doesn't have to be New York, you guys, it can be Wisconsin. It doesn't have to have great pain and suffering, the ordinary variety is plenty interesting enough. So that is my task, eh? In this journal, in my poetry, in my essays and other explorations, the chore is to celebrate the ordinary. To turn over the stone and find what shines bright and glittering on the other side. I am the Iowa farm boy, I am making fence, the wire I've just pulled taut wants to sing, the sun is warm against the back of my neck as I turn to hammer a staple into the post, to hold that fence forever. The posts are set straight and true, the wire is tight, the way it should be, the good job is done. Its beauty exists in that moment, exists as long as that fence stands, exists in my mind so long as I live, exists forever because it has changed the world irrevocably, if only in a small way. That's why I write.

It is a cool, moist morning. I should write hymns of praise, I should sing them from the roof tops. Let the blackbirds gather on the powerline, I don't care. A faint, grey haze, I don't care. Good morning, good morning, good morning. Good morning, you sea gulls in the field.

In a single day, the field corn turned tremendously. That day was yesterday. The change in the beans is considerable too. Just that quick, it is autumn. From one day to the next, the change is clear.

In one sense, of course, nothing has really changed - where it was is what brought it to where it is. In another sense, everything is different - these crops are no longer "growing."

Hosannah! I feel so good I could sit in the solace of my own shade.

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