Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie

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O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie

The song, one of the most well-known cowboy ballads, is also known as The Cowboy’s Lament and The Dying Cowboy.

The song grew from a sea song called The Sailor’s Grave or The Ocean Burial, which began “O bury me not in the deep, deep sea.”

Here is a rendition by Carl T. Sprague of O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie which walks the line between triumphant and sorrowful.  Simple guitar strumming and nuanced fiddle makes this version the most haunting, ethereal, yearning of any recorded version.  The sea of salt water has been replaced by a sea of grass.  But what’s the difference really?

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The Ocean Burial

The Ocean Burial is thought to be written by Edwin Hubbell Chapin and published in 1839, and put to music by George N. Allen. Although, to talk of origins is folly; because of course this song could be, and probably is, derived from an earlier song which was derived from an earlier song, ad infinitum………

In the two links below you can see the transformation of this song through time.  The first, the overly wordy The Ocean Burial, to the second; concise and powerful, Bury Me Not in the Deep Blue Sea.  It shows the way the folk process pares a song down to its essence, to its essential form.  The people have spoken.

The Ocean Burial
Words published in 1839 by Rev. Edwin H. Chapin [1814-1880] and set to music in 1850 by George N. Allen [1812-1877].

Bury Me Not in the Deep Blue Sea
This variant was collected in 1960 from Leonard Hulan of Jeffrey’s, NL, by Kenneth Peacock and published in Songs Of The Newfoundland Outports, Volume 1, pp.151-152, by The National Museum of Canada (1965)

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The Ocean Burial, sung by Eugene Jemison on a Smithsonian Folkways album from the year 1954. The album, called Solomon Valley Ballads, contains songs about the life of Kansas settlers in the Solomon Valley.  Jemison was a college art teacher and did some really amazing and artwork for the album.  Another post is needed to show the album and his artwork.

Here are Jemison’s liner notes to the song with lyrics

Like most of the other folksongs sung in Kansas, “The Ocean Burial” was brought from back East. Though it eventually adapted itself to the environment of the western plains and became a cowboy song, “Oh, Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie, ” it continued to live on in Kansas in its earlier form. The text of the song first appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger V, pp.6l5-6l6, 1839, under the name of Rev. E. H. Chapin. The music was copyrighted in 1850 by George N. Allen and appeared in the Shilling Song Book, p. 126, published in Boston in 1860. The version sung here was widely known around Wichita, Kansas in the early days.


Oh, bury me not in the deep dark sea,
These words came faint and mournfully,
From the pallid lips of a youth who lay
On his cabin couch, where day by day

He had wasted and pined, until o’er his brow,
The death sweats had slowly passed, and now
The scenes of his fondly loved home was nigh,
And they gathered around him to see him die.

Oh bury me not in the deep dark sea,
Where the billows shroud shall roll o’er me,
Where no light can break through the dark, cold wave,
Or the sun shine sweetly upon my grave!

Oh, it matters not, I have oft been told
Where the body is laid, when the heart grows cold,
But grant ye, oh, grant ye this wish to me,
Oh, bury me not in the deep dark sea!

And there is another, whose tears might be shed,
For him who lies low in the ocean’s bed,
In hours that it pains me to think on now,
She has twined these locks, she has kissed this brow.

The hair she has wreathed will the sea snake hiss,
The heart she has pressed will the wild waves kiss,
Oh, bury me not in the deep, dark sea!

She has been in my dreams … And his voice failed there,
And they gave no heed to his dying prayer.
But they lowered him slow o’er the vessel’s side,
And above him closed the solemn tide.

Where to dip her wings, the seagull rests ..
Where the blue waves dash with their foaming crests,
Where the billows do bound, with the winds sports free,
They buried him there in the deep, dark sea

Illustration from the liner notes to Solomon Valley Ballads
Illustration from the liner notes to Solomon Valley Ballads

 

Exegesis

The sea is just another form of prairie.

Oceans, prairies, forests, parking lots, fields, the moon…….

Sailors, cowboys, lumberjacks, miners, soldiers, astronauts…….  All people marooned on these seas, all lost.cowboy

What is it about this song which appeals to these adventurers away from Home?  Bury me not where I have spent my days, bury me not away from home, bury me not all alone……..

He is a young cowboy, a boy forced into a man.  and all men are still boys, and real cowboys are boys who have traded in their toy guns for real ones.

He doesn’t want to be buried in the cold ground, he is a boy who has lost his mother, lost his place.  He just wants the warm embrace of home, maybe a part of him even believes death may bring that warm embrace. The nights are long and dark and the earth is cold.

He longs to return home in his dying, to his mother and father and to atone for his rough and rowdy ways

I wish to lie where a mother’s prayer
And a sister’s tear will mingle there.
Where friends can come and weep o’er me.
O bury me not on the lone prairie.

He would rather die than be forgotten, and he will die to be remembered.  He would cease for the illusion of a taste of eternality.

After insisting again and again “Bury me not on the lone prairie”, the dead cowboy is buried on the lone prairie.

DSC03613 copyThere are versions of this song which oddly enough say to please do “bury me out on the lone prairie.”

The other cowboys do not honor his wishes. Why not?
Too difficult to carry his body back?  Too callous?
They know that they too long to be buried back at home and it is accepted by all that their companions will do the same to them and bury them right there on the lonely prairie?  They have an unspoken understanding, that they all lament and wish to be buried with the normal people in a quiet churchyard yet all the cowboys know this cannot be.  They let each other dream an unattainable dream.

Perhaps the lone prairie is not so lonely

Other Versions

Tex Ritter

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Jules “Verne” Allen

Vernon Dalhart

O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie

“O bury me not on the lone prairie.”
These words came low and mournfully
From the pallid lips of the youth who lay
On his dying bed at the close of day.

He had wasted and pined ’til o’er his brow
Death’s shades were slowly gathering now
He thought of home and loved ones nigh,
As the cowboys gathered to see him die.

“O bury me not on the lone prairie
Where coyotes howl and the wind blows free
In a narrow grave just six by three
O bury me not on the lone prairie”

“It matters not, I’ve been told,
Where the body lies when the heart grows cold
Yet grant, o grant, this wish to me
O bury me not on the lone prairie.”

“I’ve always wished to be laid when I died
In a little churchyard on the green hillside
By my father’s grave, there let me be,
O bury me not on the lone prairie.”

“I wish to lie where a mother’s prayer
And a sister’s tear will mingle there.
Where friends can come and weep o’er me.
O bury me not on the lone prairie.”

“For there’s another whose tears will shed.
For the one who lies in a prairie bed.
It breaks me heart to think of her now,
She has curled these locks, she has kissed this brow.”

“O bury me not…” And his voice failed there.
But we took no heed to his dying prayer.
In a narrow grave, just six by three
We buried him there on the lone prairie.

And the cowboys now as they roam the plain,
For they marked the spot where his bones were lain,
Fling a handful of roses o’er his grave
With a prayer to God, his soul to save.

 


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