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 survived changing times due to the efforts of famed “ballad hunter” John A. Lomax and blind musician Henry Lebermann.
Lomax first heard “Home on the Range” in 1908 from a black man in San Antonio who had been a camp cook on the Chisholm Trail. Lomax recorded the barkeep with an old Edison wax cylinder machine, then took the first-ever recording of the song to Lebermann, who, according to Lomax’s notes, “used earphones and played the record over and over again until he felt he had captured the music as the Negro saloon keeper had rendered it.” As Lebermann listened, played the piano and dictated, wife Virginia Leberman wrote the notes on sheet music.
“The original cylindrical record of the song has crumbled into dust, but the music that Henry Lebermann set down from the record I made still survives,” Lomax wrote. The Lebermanns scored 25 songs for Lomax’s landmark Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910) including “Git Along Little Dogies” and “The Old Chisholm Trail.” The book sparked a national fascination with cowboy music and folk songs.
Around 1960, a widowed Virginia Leberman typed up a three-page account of the summer she and Henry worked with Lomax: “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…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.”
Henry Lebermann (b. 1873) was a fine classical pianist and organist, who “had no interest in the ‘hill-billy’ music, as he called it,” wrote Virginia, who convinced her husband to give these cowboy songs a shot. She foresaw that they could one day be standards. Henry died in 1941, but not before “Home on the Range” (FDR’s favorite song) became the anthem of the American West. Jefferson’s Vernon Dalhart became the first superstar of country music when his 1928 recording of “Home on the Range” sold over a million copies.
Henry was the son of noted Galveston composer and music professor Heinrich August Lebermann, but even blinded at age 7 from meningitis- the son surpassed the high standard set by his father.
As a music teacher and orchestra leader at the Texas School for the Blind from 1901 to 1938, Lebermann had a positive influence on such students as San Antonio singer-songwriter Leon Payne (“I Love You Because,” “Lost Highway’), Fred Lowery, “the King of the Whistlers” of the Big Band era and legendary sheriff Pat Garrett’s daughter Elizabeth Garrett, who would go on to write the state song of New Mexico.
East Texan Lowery, who was blinded at age 2 by scarlet fever, came to the school in 1917 at age 7 and took to the musical training with dreams of becoming a concert violinist.
In his autobiography, Whistling In the Dark, Lowery recalls a “long, fatherly talk” he had with Lebermann about the steep odds facing a blind classical musician. “Here at the Blind School we can make music together because we use a system designed for the sightless,” Lowery quotes Lebermann (blind musicians received their cues from the tapping of the leader’s baton). “Sighted musicians are trained in a different system. They play by sight, reading the score, watching the conductor. Their system and our system won’t mix.”
Although the reality check was discouraging, Lowery credited Lebermann with sending him on the path of being a big-band whistler. Having noticed Lowery songbirding around school, Lebermann asked him to stay after band rehearsal one day. “I think we could use your whistle in the orchestra,” Lebermann said. Lebermann said he heard tones that suggested Lowery could mimic the sound of a piccolo, which the orchestra didn’t have. Lebermann craved a piccolo sound on the John Philip Sousa marches that were crowd favorites.
Lowery went on to a great career as a whistler, making his name in the 1930s with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, whose arranger was a trombone player named Glenn Miller. Perhaps best known for whistling the theme to “Lassie” and his TV duets with Bing Crosby, Lowery was a virtuoso who perfected the double-note whistle and performed such complex material as “The William Tell Overture.”
Seven years younger than Lowery was Leon Payne from the Northeast Texas town of Alba, who entered the School for the Blind in 1922. Under the tutelage of Lebermann and other teachers, Payne became proficient in guitar, keyboards, trombone and drums and joined Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys for a short spell just three years after graduating in 1935.
Payne wrote the oft-covered “I Love You Because” (Al Martino, Jim Reeves) for his wife Myrtie, a San Antonio native and former classmate at the School for the Blind he reconnected with and married in 1948. Although Payne began his career as a performer, he’s best known today as a songwriter, penning big hits for Hank Williams (“They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me”), Jim Reeves (“Blue Side of Lonesome”), Carl Smith (“You Are the One”) and many more. Elvis Presley recorded “I Love You Because” at his first session with Sun Records.
Payne’s stepbrother was fellow hit songwriter Jack Rhodes (“Satisfied Mind,” “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”), and the pair had a band based in Mineola called the Lone Star Buddies. They gigged all over East Texas in the ‘40s and were regulars on The Louisiana Hayride. One of the last songs Payne wrote in 1968 was the novelty number “Psycho,” originally recorded by Eddie Noack and covered by Elvis Costello, among others.
Payne died of cancer at age 52 in San Antonio in 1969 and was inducted into the Nashille Songwriters Hall of Fame the next year. But he received his greatest honor in 1971, with the LP George Jones Sings the Great Songs of Leon Payne.
Leon Payne and Fred Lowery were the best-known students of Lebermann, but hundreds more got lessons not only in music, but in carrying themselves without regard to disability. As a conductor of music and life he led in the most meaningful way — by example.
This was an excerpt from “Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music” (TCU Press) by Michael Corcoran. Illustrations by Tim Kerr.