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Photograph of a pond and prairie in Routte County, Colorado. The brown grass surrounding the pond is slightly longer than the short cropped grass of the recently cut field visible on the right. A cloud-filled sky stretches out towards mountains visible on the horizon.
Pond and prairie in Routt County, Colorado. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. October 14, 2015. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive, Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress.

That Lone Prairie

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Did you know that the first Saturday of June is National Prairie Day? I didn’t either, until I started looking into obscure holidays and celebrations as fodder for some of my blog posts. National Prairie Day, started by the Missouri Prairie Foundation, intends to enhance public awareness about the value of native grasslands and encourage their conservation.

The thing that immediately sprang to mind when I thought about prairies is the folk song “Bury me not on the lone prairie,” alternately known as “The Dying Cowboy.” I remembered hearing the song when I was a child, sung by Bugs Bunny in a handful of Looney Tunes cartoons, but could not remember the entirety of the song. Luckily, the American Folklife Center has digitized several recordings of the song. Some of these songs are part of the collection Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip, which grew out of a three-month tour through the southern United States and features over 300 performers. The digital presentation of this collection includes four recordings of “The Dying Cowboy.”

Landscape photograph of a cemetery on the prairie. White crosses and rectangular gravestones, some of them decorated with flowers, are half-hidden by tall prairie grass. A small stand of trees is visible at the back of the cemetery.
Scene in the wild prairie grass at the old Eastern Shoshone tribal cemetery outside Fort Washakie, Wyoming. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. August 24, 2015. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive, Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress.

The first three of these were performed by Frank Goodwyn, accompanying himself on guitar at the Galeanaz Tourist Camp in Falfurrias, Texas. Recorded over the course of two days, Frank Goodwyn provided three different lengths of the same song. The first of these ends with a skip in the record, which might point to why the song is recorded a second time that same day and once again on the following day. The second recording also cuts off before the end of the song.

The collection also includes a short performance by Georgia Ann Griffin, credited as “Mrs. G.A. Griffin,” recorded in her home in Newberry, Florida on June 1, 1939.

The original disc recordings are housed out at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) in Culpeper, Virginia, along with many other sound and video recordings in AFC’s archive. The sleeves the discs were originally stored in, however, live in the archive deck at the Library’s Jefferson building.

Disc sleeve for AFS Disc #2621, which contains a recording of “The Dying Cowboy.” Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. AFC 1939/001.

In addition to information on the song titles, who performed them, and where they were recorded, these disc sleeves often contain additional notes by the fieldworkers, offering insight into both those performing and those doing the collecting. In the case of these disc sleeves, we learn that Frank Goodwyn was the song of King Ranch’s foreman, and that Mrs. G.A. Griffin learned the song “from a dying consumptive boy.” On the G.A. Griffin disc sleeve, we also see that the alternative title, “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” is included in parentheses.

Digital scan of a paper sleeve used to protect vinyl records. A list of the songs recorded on the disc is scrawled on the sleeve, along with several notes about the performer.
Disc sleeve for AFS Disc #2695, which contains Mrs. G.A. Griffin’s recording of “The Dying Cowboy.” Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. AFC 1939/001

As “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” is often referred to as the best known cowboy song, it should be no surprise that the American Folklife Center has even more recordings of it, including one in the Captain Pearl R. Nye: Life on the Ohio and Erie Canal collection and one recorded in Pecos, Texas in 1942. The Pecos, Texas version – sung by Sloan Matthews – was originally published on a Library of Congress LP entitled “Cowboy Songs, Ballads, and Cattle Calls from Texas.”

So, what is this lone prairie that the titular cowboy does not wish to be buried on? According to National Geographic, prairies are “enormous stretches of flat grassland with moderate temperatures, moderate rainfall, and few trees.” They are one of the major biomes in the United States, and include tallgrass, mixed, and shortgrass prairies. In the United States, the grasslands biome includes North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. Because this biome is not confined by national borders, the North American prairie also includes land in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. It is a region rich in Indigenous history, as evident in collections such as Omaha Indian Music, which includes audio recordings and photographs of Omaha Indian songs, dances and gatherings in both Macy, Nebraska and as part of a Library-sponsored event in Washington, DC.

Cactus and short prairie grass stretch out across a landscape backed by mountains. Above, a blue sky and dark storm clouds shelter the prairie.
Lone cactus on the West Texas Prairie. Carol Highsmith, photographer. 1980-2010. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive, Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress.

The prairies are also central to the history of the United States’ westward expansion and homesteading era, as documented in interviews on homesteading in Kansas, South Dakota and Iowa included in the Miriam M. Maxwell family oral history collection, circa 1964-1969. Also of note are the numerous collections that feature that ubiquitous symbol of the American west, the cowboy. In addition to the song that started me down this prairie jackrabbit hole, the prairie-dominating symbol can be found in musical concerts by the Bar J Wranglers(video available below), playing cowboy music from Wyoming; video recordings of poets reading their work for Cowboy Poetry Day; or wax cylinder recordings of cowboy songs recorded in 1929-1930. Note: While a significant portion of the Omaha Indian Music collection has been digitized and is available online, researchers interested in listening to the homesteading interviews and most of the cowboy-related collections listed above must make a visit to the American Folklife Center’s reading room to access the recordings.

In addition to an incredibly diverse ecosystem that includes grasses, sedges, native wildflowers, bison, pronghorns, prairie dogs and much more, the prairie is home to much of America’s agricultural industry and features prominently in the country’s aeronautical history – an ironic twist, considering so many of the United States’ prairies are often referred to as “fly-over states.” Examples of both of these industries are highlighted in several collections in AFC’s Occupational Folklife Project.

Large white wind turbines stretch out across a field in Iowa, a vivid blue sky and clouds visible above them.
“Wind farms” filled with giant wind turbines have become a familiar site on actual American prairie farms, including this one in Franklin County, Iowa. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. August 17, 2016. Highsmith (Carol M) Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Boeing Aircraft Factory Workers in and around Wichita, Kansas collection documents the occupational folklife of “workers in Boeing’s massive aircraft manufacturing and maintenance facilities in Wichita, which were in the midst of being shuttered after 85 years of being a major regional employer.” Agricultural Aviation: Crop Dusters in Rural America takes a look at the work experiences and perspectives of agricultural pilots living and working along the Missouri-Kansas border, along with representatives from the National Agricultural Aviation Association. Recent Immigrant Workers in Iowa’s Meatpacking Industry documents 19 workers who came to the United States as refugees or recent immigrants, settled in Iowa, and took jobs in the meatpacking plants of Iowa and Illinois. In this collection, the interviewees “discuss their jobs, which are often hazardous and physically demanding; explain how they found work in Iowa’s meat processing plants; and discuss their new communities and new lives in the American heartland. Many also reflect on how they are being reshaped by the state’s work culture and community life as well as how their presence is reshaping Iowa’s local and regional culture.” Taken together, these three collections provide insight into the role airplanes and agriculture have played in the development of the U.S. grasslands.

A large, wide puddle is visible in front of a migrant camp of tents. Three children stand in the center of the frame, a wagon cart visible behind them. To their right, the rest of the family is posed at the entrance to their tent. Smoke from the wood stove drifts over their heads.
Migrant pea pickers camp in the rain. California. Dorothea Lange, photographer. February 1936. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Prints & Photograph Division, Library of Congress.

Of course, no exploration of prairies and folklife would be complete without mention of one of the most notorious disruptions of North America’s prairie ecosystem: the Dust Bowl. An economic and environmental crisis that arose from a complex combination of adverse weather conditions and the catastrophic effects of over-farming and grazing on the natural prairie ecosystem, the Dust Bowl exacerbated the Great Depression and saw a mass migration from the prairie states. Many of these individuals headed for migrant camps in California in hopes of finding work and a reprieve from the choking dust storms back home. It was in these migrant camps that Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin recorded the music, stories, and personal experience narratives of migrants. Among these recordings — included in the digital presentation for Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941 — are first-hand accounts of the dust storms that drove so many people west.

Listening to these interviews brought me full circle back to the lyrics of “The Dying Cowboy,” which had kicked off my wandering through AFC’s prairie-related holdings. Specifically, the chorus:

“Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie
Where the coyote howls and the wind blows free
In a narrow grave just six by three
Bury me not on the lone prairie.”

The song may not have been written about the winds that kicked up such disastrous dust storms, but one cannot help but wonder if the people fleeing the ecological crisis of the Dust Bowl made a connection between the prairie wind in the song and the ones that were burying so many of their homes on that wide open plain.

A wire fence separates the road from a wide open prairie devoid of much of its grass. A hand-lettered sign cautions readers about wildfires.
Sign cautioning care in use of matches and cigarettes on the prairie. Near Marfa, Texas. Russell Lee, photographer. May 1939. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress.

Further Reading

Plan your visit to the American Folklife Center Reading Room to view collections featuring folklife from prairies:

  • Michael Taft collection of interviews in Saskatchewan (AFC 2016/027)
  • Mock thy neighbor: bawdy masquerades on the great Canadian prairie, 1989 May 10; lecture by Michael Taft (AFC 1989/033)
  • Prairie Home Companion Folk Song Book program with Jon and Marcia Pankake, 1989 January 10 (AFC 1989/001)
  • Alan Lomax collection of Woody Guthrie recordings (AFC 1940/007)
  • John O Rosser recordings of the Roans Chapel Singers and the Magnolia Five (AFC 1941/034)
  • John W Allen recordings of “La guiannee” and Illinois folk music (AFC 1950/034)
  • Willard Rhodes 1947 field recordings collection (AFC 1947/012)


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