Another Look at Mental Health on the Prairie

Michael Martin Murphey's "Wildfire"—A Sodbuster Loses His Crop and His Reason

Posted Aug 24, 2020

Matt W. Wolff
The author as: Faux sodbuster being menaced by a (plastic) hoot owl.
Source: Matt W. Wolff

Turning just once more (dash it all, I make no promises!) to the topic of mental health in the
“olden days” on America’s frontier, Michael Martin Murphey’s chart-topping 1975 hit song, “Wildfire” is another work that dovetails with the ever-present prairie madness trope in the creative arts.  The song’s protagonist is a 19th century homesteader who seems to spend a lot of time perseverating about a woman he’s never met and her disobedient horse.

She comes down from Yellow Mountain

On a dark, flat land she rides

On a pony she named Wildfire

With a whirlwind by her side

On a cold Nebraska night

They (whoever they are) say she died in some previous winter on a fateful evening after running out into the “killing frost” after that very pony, who had “busted down its stall”.  (The importance of sturdiness of frontier livestock enclosures can never be overstated.)

When not pining over whomever that she is (or more likely, was), our plainsman is having quite a hard time of it.  He plants day and night, but an early snow wipes him out.  He laments this occurrence awfully hard, and sitting around with nothing to do in his claim shanty, he seems eventually to slip into a rather worrisome state of neurosis.  He begins to experience delusions of reference—a “hoot owl” outside his window in the night  is an omen—and becomes fixated on the notion of joining the dead woman on a mythic horse that will take them both away from the empty plains.  Any frontier psychiatrist might have been a bit concerned.  (Sidenote:  the mid-20th century Canadian comedy duo Wayne and Shuster once did a bit called “Frontier Psychiatrist”—featuring one “Sigmund Earp”-- that was in 2000 used as the jumping off point for a song of the same name by the Australian electronic music group The Avalanches.  Videos for both iterations are out there somewhere on YouTube.)

A further hint of pathology might at first seem be found in the line “by the dark of the moon I planted”.  It sounds a little dodgy if the listener feels moved to mounting some sort of armchair diagnosis.  But actually, this practice has a fairly solid backing in folklore and superstition.  But nonetheless, it must be hard to keep your rows straight when you’re plowing a rock-hard field not really designed by nature to grow grain crops.

He’s clearly losing the bet with the government that Pa Ingalls often alludes to in the Little House on the Prairie novels.  That “bet” was essentially that under the Homestead Act of 1862, would-be pioneers could apply for a land grant of 160 acres, the terms of which would be fulfilled if they could stay on that land for a period of five years, and demonstrate improvements (farming, clearing land, construction of a dwelling) and not go broke or starve before the time limit.  If a homesteader failed, the government was the winner, regaining ownership of the land.

Perhaps his hopes for a realization of the joyous chorus is all that keeps him going as he settles back into trying to make the stubbornly unyielding land conform to his hopes and dreams.

On Wildfire we're gonna ride

We're gonna leave sodbustin' behind

Get these hard times right on out of our minds

Riding Wildfire

Most songs are always open to interpretation, and this one perhaps especially so, written as it was by the one-time “cosmic cowboy”.  It is left to the listener as to whether the narrator left sodbustin’ behind, or stayed and scrabbled out a living from the hard, dry ground.  Going by period accounts, actually leaving sodbustin’ behind often meant just moving on to sodbustin’ somewhere else further west and perhaps more inhospitable, or alternately, returning back east nearly destitute.

Image by Gameloft, MECC
Screenshot from popular 80s computer game Oregon Trail
Source: Image by Gameloft, MECC

 “Wildfire” is one of those songs that people of a certain age (mine and above) tend to sing at the top of their voice when alone in a car.  This is probably good for the lungs.  Singing also (alone or in groups), according to many studies, tends to have a positive impact on mental health.

According to the UK nonprofit, the Sing Up Foundation, “when people sing, endorphins and oxytocin are released by the brain which in turn lowers stress and anxiety levels.” A range of positive physiological benefits are also attendant when the voice is raised in song.

If that fellow in the song had a good song to warble, he might have been a good bit better off.  Michael Martin Murphey, for example, has been singing almost constantly for half a century and is still going strong at 75.  Although he probably sings for an audience of one a lot these days, as live music remains still largely on hold.  It’s likely he reaps all the benefits of singing even if he is by himself.  Those of us who also spend more time in seclusion than we like would perhaps also get a boost from doing the same.

Heed the words of the wonderful song “Sing” written by the great Joe Raposo for Sesame Street and later made even more popular by The Carpenters,

Sing, sing a song

Make it simple to last your whole life long

Don't worry that it's not good enough

For anyone else to hear

Just sing, sing a song

Pretend you’re all by yourself in your car if you have to!

References

Theorell T. The effects and benefits of singing individually and in a group. In: Welch GF, Howard DM, Nix J, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Singing. Oxford University Press; 2019:919-933.

Williams E, Dingle GA, Clift S. A systematic review of mental health and wellbeing outcomes of group singing for adults with a mental health condition. European Journal of Public Health. 2018;28(6):1035-1042. doi:10.1093/eurpub/cky115