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Saving “Home on the Range”

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From the book "Home On the Range" by Deborah Hopkinson (Putnam)

From the book “Home On the Range” by Deborah Hopkinson (Putnam)

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam/ And the deer and the antelope play. Thus opens one of the most beloved tunes of Western American folklore, a song that may have been lost forever if not for the efforts of a trio of Austinites: song hunter John A. Lomax, musician Henry Lebermann, who scored the tune from a rough field recording, and his wife Virginia, who wrote it all down.

I have to thank Lois Pattie, the former assistant of the late Lowell Lebermann (ex-City Councilman), for sending me two and half typewritten pages that Lowell’s grandmother Virginia Carrington Lebermann wrote about how she and her husband Henry transcribed the music and lyrics for “Home On the Range,” which was published in 1910 in Lomax’s massively important book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. The Lebermanns scored 25 songs in all, including “Git Along Little Dogies” and “The Old Chisholm Trail.”

Here is the recollection in Ms. Lebermann’s own words, using her punctuation:

THE STORY OF “HOME ON THE RANGE” – AS IT HAPPENED BEFORE MY EYES

One day in June 1908, Mr. John Lomax, an administrator at the University of Texas, turned up in a colored saloon beyond the Southern Pacific depot in San Antonio, Texas, lugging an old-fashioned Edison recording machine about the size of a hay wagon.

The Negro proprietor had been a camp cook and for years had sung songs up and down the Chisholm Trail. Lomax found him behind the saloon, under a tree, asleep. He punched him in the ribs and told him that he wanted to record one of his songs.

“Come back tomorrow,” mumbled the singer.

This Lomax did, and under the mesquite where he had previously found him, the first recording of “Home On the Range” was made.

Finally, Mr. Lomax’s interest in the cowboy ballad brought him to our door. He came because he had heard of the musical ability of my husband Henri Leberman (note: Virginia always used the less-German one “n” spelling of her married name and spelled Henry Lebermann’s first name in the French way.) I remember so well the day he came to our house, carrying with him a satchel full of old Edison records that he had made—not only of the old Negro’s singing, but of cowboys singing around the campfire at night while they were camped on the range.

Lomax explained to my husband that he wanted musical scores written for all these tunes, so that they could be printed in a book he was compiling called “Cowboy Songs.” The scoring was a tremendous undertaking since some of the records were badly scratched, and in some cases the rhythm of the songs was poor.

The records in those days were cylindrical in shape, and the process of recording was extremely difficult since the machine in which the blank cylinders were placed was manually operated. The recordings produced were none too good at best, and the 25 that Lomax brought to our home were worse than usual. My husband was thus not very enthusiastic about doing the work.

Mr. Lomax offered Henri a choice of royalty on the book or cash payment for his work.

My husband was a teacher in the Music Department of the Texas School for the Blind, and a very fine pianist and organist he was. To him the classics were all to be desired, for he had no interest in “hill-billy” music as he called it. I tried to get him to take a chance that the cowboy songs would some day be the folk songs of the West.

I didn’t know at the time that I would live to see “Home On the Range” become the favorite song of our President, Frankin D. Roosevelt, and one loved by all Americans.

It was now the beginning of a long summer vacation, so after much persuasion, Henri agreed to write the music. I remember the hours we spent with the records, playing the tunes over and over as my husband arranged the proper music, harmonizing chords and runs to bring out the beauty of the melody.

After finishing a phrase, he would dictate the notes to me, and I would write the manuscript. After we had worked for weeks, we finished the music of all 25 records. We had scored the most sung of all cowboy songs.

Early that fall, Mr. Lomax returned to our home to pick up the manuscripts, and he was very pleased with the results.

He, again, offered Henri a royalty from the sale of the book, but Henri refused. I urged him to take the royalty, but he couldn’t be persuaded. Although he had done a very fine piece of work, all he wanted was payment for his services. Mr. Lomax paid him and then left with the manuscripts under his arm.

After the “Cowboy Songs” book was published I called on Mr. Lomax at his home in Dallas and asked him to sell me the original manuscripts Henri had dictated to me. I wanted to place them in our Texas University Museum as a tribute to my husband. Mr. Lomax said he had many old manuscripts and a number of them had crumbled to decay, these including, possibly, the manuscript from which “Home On the Range” was printed. I came home with a heavy heart.

In November 1957, an article appeared in the Dallas Morning News written by Walter C. Hornaday of the Washington Bureau of the News. Following is a part of the article:

“’Home On the Range,’ a most famous song of the West, was saved from oblivion by the late John Avery Lomax, noted Texas collector of folklore ballads.

Dr. Brewster Higley, a La Port, Indiana, doctor who went to the Kansas frontier, wrote the words.

The doctor’s poem was first published in the Smith County Pioneer in 1873, about a year after he wrote it. The tune was written by Daniel E. Kelly, a miller at Gaylord, Kansas.”

In “Cowboy Songs,” Mr. Lomax acknowleged my husband’s part in making “Home On the Range” a success. Hundreds of congratulatory letters poured in.

We felt happy that Mr. Lomax publicly acknowleged that it was Henri’s music that led to “Home On the Range” being a success.

I think Henri was very pleased, but being a very humble man, would never acknowledge that he had done anything great.

-Virginia Leberman, circa 1960

The Lebermann family circa 1935. L-R Lowell Sr., mother Virginia, daughter Virginia, Henry and Jeanne.

The Lebermann family circa 1935. L-R Lowell Sr., mother Virginia, daughter Virginia, Henry and Jeanne.

I met Ms. Pattie, an Australian native, in 2009 when I was writing a profile of Henry Lebermann, her former boss’ grandfather, for a series called “The Secret History of Austin Music.” As a music teacher at the Texas School For the Blind since 1901, Henry Lebermann mentored such future giants as Leon Payne, who wrote “Lost Highway” and other country classics, and whistler Fred Lowery. But the sightless visionary Lebermann had the most fascinating story of them all.

Before he was a teacher at the Texas School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann was a student there, enrolled in 1883 at age 10 and graduating in 1894. At that time, the school was located at the University of Texas “Little Campus” in what is now known as the Arno Nowotny Building next to the Erwin Center. The current location was built in 1917 on 73 donated acres.

During his time as a student, Lebermann benefited from the leadership of Superintendent Frank Rainey, who emphasized musical training as a way for the blind to make a living and appealed to the board to spend money on instruments. Rainey also encouraged innovative instructional methods and was overjoyed when one of his young teachers, Elizabeth Sthreshley, invented a Braille typewriter called the punctograph in 1890. Four years later, she married noted Congress Avenue photographer George Townsend and would assist him in his work with new X-ray technology. This is all cool Austin history stuff that I had to argue into the story about an influential unknown musician.

Besides music, Lebermann had a lifelong passion for growing and tended a vibrantly colorful garden until his death from congestive heart failure at age 68 in 1941. After graduating from the blind school, Lebermann moved to Alvin to become a farmer. But when his father and brother were killed in the 1900 Galveston hurricane, with Henry barely surviving, he moved back to Austin to carry on the work of his father, a noted composer and orchestra leader. Records show that Lebermann gave a classical music recital at the school in January 1901 and lectured on the life and work of Chopin in March of that year.

The Lebermann-led school orchestra was one of the finest in Austin and was hired in 1904 to play a concert at Central Christian Church welcoming new students to UT. There, a 33-year-old Lebermann met an 18-year-old church member named Virginia Carrington, whose father, Leonidas, owned the prosperous L.D. Carrington and Co. retail business on Congress Avenue.

After a year’s courtship, Henry and Virginia were married. Son Lowell Sr., who would become a doctor in Commerce, Tex., was born in 1906, with daughters Virginia and Jeanne soon following. As the family grew, the Lebermanns moved out of a house at 902 Manor Road and into a bigger place at 906 E. 23rd St., where they lived for almost 20 years. Both houses were torn down when the university expanded east.

John A. Lomax, the ballad hunter.

John A. Lomax, the ballad hunter.

It’s believed that Lomax visited the Lebermanns when they lived on Manor Road. Virginia Leberman (1886-1968), was a progressive thinker and painter who spent summers at the Taos, N.M., artist community as early as the 1930s. She also co-owned the successful Christianson-Leberman Photography business at a time when female entrepreneurship was rare. Among the subjects she photographed were Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers.

“We are perhaps more properly balanced than most married people,” Virginia Leberman told The Dallas Morning News in a 1925 profile of her husband with the headline “Blind Genius at State Capital.” “Each approves so entirely of the actions of the other that there is no friction in our home.”

Such balance was also evident in their work together, as Virginia became strong at the things Henry couldn’t easily do. He listened to the records Lomax dropped off with earphones and called out the notes to Virginia. They worked side-by-side like this for hours every day.

But their work was not forgotten. “The original cylindrical record of the song has crumbled into dust,” Lomax wrote of the tune a black San Antonio barkeep sang for him after he sobered up. “But the music that Henry Lebermann set down from the record I made still survives.”

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