Plains Folk

Song of Memory


Spread before me, on the dining room table, are eighteen previously un-studied texts of that classic folksong, the anthem of the plains, “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.” Call me a nerd, but this is a little exciting for me. I can now draw new some conclusions about the history of the song. All this courtesy of the digitized newspaper index, Chronicling America, administered by the Library of Congress.

“Little Old Sod Shanty” is a parody of the minstrel song, “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” published in 1871 by the Kentuckian, Will Hays. Early versions of the sod-house parody published out west often include a notation something like, “AIR – “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” for the guidance of singers.

I find versions of the song appearing in prairie papers commencing in 1883. Since the versions exhibit variations in text, I believe the song was in oral circulation before that, likely from the 1870s.

All versions are closely similar in form and wording, however. So the verbal DNA evidence argues against what a folklorist would call polygenesis, that is, multiple authorships. Some person, or local ensemble, came up with this song, and it spread from that common origin.

Just where was that particular origin? I cannot say. The song springs into newspaper circulation simultaneously in both Dakota Territory and Kansas, with outliers in Montana, Minnesota, and other prairie places.

I find a note in the Interocean magazine of 1883 claiming the song originated with one F. E. Jerome, a newspaperman, in Smith County, Kansas, in 1878, but I have not confirmed this. It bears investigation, but I am skeptical, as many others have claimed authorship. On the other hand, the newspaper in Wakeeney, Kansas, supports the attribution to Jerome.

It is evident that the song, “Little Old Sod Shanty” had two lives. It circulated first on the broad homesteading frontier of the Great Plains. It exhibited variations, both local and random. One Dakota version includes a reference to “sloughs,” and a Minnesota version refers to the “valley of the Sioux.”

Quite a few versions allude to the showman P. T. Barnum, expressing the fear that if Barnum were to see how the singing homesteader was living in his sod house, he would make him into a sideshow.

The most elaborate publication of the song took place in the Thomas County Cat of Colby, Kansas. This paper published a standard text, in the voice of the homesteader; a reply, in the voice of a sweetheart left back east, who professes to be enjoying life there and declines to move west and live in a soddy; and a reply to the reply, wherein the homesteader says never mind, he has made a fortune on town lots, and now has plenty of other options for female companionship.

The second life of the song took place post-frontier, in old settler picnics and chautauquas. Individuals rendered the song as a remembrance, often with audiences joining in, indicating they were familiar with it. This memory function for the song appears to be a North Dakota phenomenon, with ritual singing at gatherings in the state as well as at North Dakota reunions in California and Oregon.

So now we know a lot more about the “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim,” but thank goodness, mysteries remain to be investigated.

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