‘Little House on the Prairie’ Theme Song Was Snagged by Michael Landon from a 1971 ‘Bonanza’ Episode

Little House on the Prairie remains an iconic television series in the hearts of many nearly 40 years after it aired its final episode. While the series is popular for various reasons, from its rural setting and memorable cast, to its wholesome family values. However, its theme song remains as iconic as the show itself. That theme, composed by David Rose, was borrowed from star Michael Landon’s previous gig at Bonanza. 

What is ‘Little House on the Prairie’? 

Based on the autobiographical book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie was a look inside the lives of those who grew up in rural America not to be cowboys, but as simple farm folk who did what they needed to do to survive. While the series was about the Wilder family as a whole, it focused on Michael Landon’s Charles Ingalls and Karen Grassle’s Carolin, the family’s parents. 

The Ingalls and their four children Laura, Mary, Lindsay, and Sidney, were a far cry from the Cowboys that still dominated the small-screen. Furthermore, it didn’t portray them all as country bumpkins, as many comedies from the era tended to do and continue to do to this day. No, it was a standard, dramatic, sweet-hearted show about the prairie’s monotony and how a man like Charles raised a family of his own. 

While based on the books, the series tackled many subjects, from loss to triumph and everything in between. To this day, it is one of the most successful television series of all time, and its theme song, in particular, remains a huge part of this. 

Music of the prairie

Life on the prairie was monotonous, but that, in and of itself, is part of the appeal. What does a family do when it doesn’t have a vibrant, bustling city around them to keep things occupied? Every week, whether it was a barn fire or a trip to nearby town steads, the Ingalls family went on adventures that were less about gunfights and lawmen and more about the cost of making a living in a time before technology. 

The show had laughs and a whole lot of cries. According to producer Dean Butler, the latter of these emotions was a testament to Landon, who was also the show’s creative force on top of being its star, and Rose, whose music helped audiences know the tone of a given scene. He spoke about this with a fan blog in 2008. 

Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls on 'Little House on the Prairie'
Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls on ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

“I think it was David Rose who made audiences cry most of the time,” he told the blog. “David Rose wrote these beautiful melodies—these gorgeous, romantic, lyrical melodies that absolutely carried people away week after week after week. It was this wonderful cathartic experience. We had sadness but it was not desperate sadness. It was heartfelt sadness.”

Rose’s music was just as much a part of the series as farmsteads, nature, and family. While Rose did marvelous work throughout the series’ run, however, his theme song remains his magnum opus to this day. However, that theme came from his work with Landon on another successful show set in rural America, Bonanza. 

Borrowing from an old friend 

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In 1971, three years before Little House premiered, an episode of Bonanza, “Top Hand,” featured familiar music that sounds awfully like the former’s theme music. The show, which ran for 15 years, focused on many characters, but Landon’s Joe Cartwright was one of the breakout stars. Landon was on Bonanza for 14 years.

During that time, he became an active, creative force behind the scenes and a star in front of them. When Little House was given the green light, Landon even brought over many of the same actors to fill the roles of townspeople and guest stars. When it came to music, however, he wanted David Rose. Rose composed many iconic songs for Bonanza, but his music for this episode went mostly unnoticed until Landon asked to use it for the theme. 

It worked out for everyone. Rose became the show’s composer, winning two Emmys for his work on Little House. To this day, it is some of the best music ever put on television. As for its iconic theme, however, that was a leftover from a bygone series.