The Big Roundup

John Lomax roamed the West, collecting classic songs from the cowboy era

Our knowledge of true cowboy songs would be all too meager were it not for a happy occurrence in the unlikely setting of a Harvard University classroom, circa 1906. Professor Barrett Wendell, then teaching a course on American literature, announced to his students that he had grown weary with reading essays on Hawthorne and Poe, Longfellow and Thoreau. This term he would require his students to look closer to home for inspiration: each would be responsible for preparing a thesis on the literary productions of the student’s native region.

Inspired by this challenge, one of Wendell’s older students, a middle-aged man of unprepossessing appearance but zealous disposition who was taking courses at Harvard while on leave from a teaching job in Texas, composed a letter and sent copies to a thousand newspapers scattered across the West:

To the Editor: I am a member of the English faculty of the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College on leave of absence for a year, which I am spending in the Graduate School of Harvard University. As a part of my work I am endeavoring to make a complete collection of the native ballads and songs of the West. It will hardly be possible to secure such a collection without the aid of the Press; for many of these songs have never been in print, but, like the Masonic ritual, are handed down from one generation to another by “word of mouth.”. . . Eventually it is expected that the ballads will be published in book form. An editorial request from you to your readers for copies of frontier songs will doubtless result in valuable material. . . .

Yours very respectfully,
John A. Lomax

Correspondence from throughout the West began trickling in to Lomax while he was in Cambridge and continued to find him after he returned to Texas, armed with a master’s degree and fellowship money to track down more American ballads. For the next two decades, in fact, Lomax continued to receive letters in response to this initial solicitation. In 1910, four years after completing this class project, Lomax published the first edition of his seminal Cowboy Songs collection under the imprint of Sturgis and Walton, a pair of intrepid New Yorkers who agreed to back the project after other publishers had rejected it. The book was a commercial success, but more significantly it was a landmark event in establishing the nation’s indigenous music as worthy of study and preservation.

The words and music of many of the most cherished songs of the American West were first published in book form as part of this collection. A fortuneteller near the Fort Worth stockyards provided Lomax with “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo”; a cowboy in a saloon reeled off innumerable verses of “The Chisholm Trail”—many of them unprintable at the time; an old hunter in Abilene contributed “The Buffalo Skinners.” But perhaps Lomax’s most fortuitous discovery came from Bill Jack Curry, a black saloonkeeper in San Antonio, who provided the researcher with the now famous lyrics:

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play.
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

In 1932, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt remarked that “Home on the Range” was his favorite song. Propelled by this endorsement, as well as by the appealing sentimentality of the words and the music (which a blind music teacher arranged for Lomax), a legendary bit of Americana was lodged forever in the public consciousness. But another time-honored American tradition—litigation—then reared its ugly head. In 1934 an Arizona couple, William and Mary Goodwin, claimed that they had copyrighted “Home on the Range” in 1905 and launched a legal battle to secure $500,000 in damages. But the Goodwins lost their case when further research led to the discovery that the words to the song had been published in a newspaper as early as 1873.

Like many other cherished cowboy songs, “Home on the Range” is in three-quarter time. Curley Fletcher, who published “The Strawberry Roan” in 1915, also preferred the gentle lilt of this waltz meter for his cowboy music, although this ballroom rhythm matches neither the clip-clop, clip-clop of the horse nor the up-and-down movements of the rider. “The Strawberry Roan” nonetheless became widely loved.

I was loafin’ around just spendin’ muh time,
Out of a job and I hadn’t a dime,
When a feller steps up and sez he, “I suppose,
That yore uh bronc fighter by the looks o’ yer clothes.”

Another classic, “The Streets of Laredo,” which with these two others surely ranks among the half dozen most famous cowboy songs, is also in three-quarter time.

As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a dear cowboy wrapped up in white linen,
Wrapped up in white linen as cold as the clay.

“I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy”—
These words he did say as I boldly stepped by.
“Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story;
I am shot in the breast and I know I must die.”

Such ballads did little to capture the true rhythms and sounds of a cowboy’s daily activities. Even the stories told were not beloved for their realism. Sentimental and humorous accounts and the mythic adventures of lawmen and desperadoes were especially popular with cowboys, and these tales figured prominently in songs such as “Jesse James,” “The Old Chisholm Trail,” “The Dying Cowboy,” and “Red River Valley.” Most of the stories in these songs were only loosely connected with the realities of life on the range, and for good reason. They came from somewhere else. “The Streets of Laredo,” for instance, with its odd imagery of fife and drum (“O beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly”), actually draws from an old Irish song. “Red River Valley” originated among British troops in Manitoba, the Red River Valley of the North. Whatever the origins, though, the cowboys adopted these songs as their own. In a process familiar to ethnomusicologists, these foreign elements were assimilated and became adapted to their new environment, just as traditional English ballads, chanties, and other folk idioms traveled and put down new roots in locales far distant from their places of origin. When compared with the later cowboy music of Hollywood invention, the songs that Lomax collected stand out as paragons of authenticity.

The songs of the West were just like the people who sang them, most of whom were recent arrivals from distant lands. The cowboy vocation, which looms so large in the consciousness and mythology of America, was extraordinarily short-lived. True, precedents and rough equivalents existed elsewhere: the gauchos of Argentina, the llaneros of Colombia and Venezuela, and most notably the vaqueros of Mexico (whose name inspired the word buckaroo). And the word cowboy itself long predated the Europeans’ settlement of the West. It was adopted during the Revolutionary War to refer to marauders who stole cattle from the colonialists, and earlier usages can be found in the Old World. But none of these predecessors predicted the new character that emerged west of the Mississippi during the middle decades of the 19th century. He took on the dress and accoutrements of a Mexican vaquero, the homespun practicality of a Yank, the firearms of a soldier, the outdoor savvy of a traditional herder, and the manners and personal hygiene of a prospector. But he added to all of these a spirit of independence and devil-may-care brashness. This is our cowboy, the one studied and celebrated later by Lomax and so many others.

The American cowboy’s authentic music shows strong affinities to shepherds songs—a tradition dating back at least to Theocritus, Virgil, and, indeed, King David that continues in many parts of the world today. This should come as no surprise: the occupation of the “cow boy” represents, in many ways, the final, most romanticized evolution of the lives of cattle herders. Little has been made of the links between the pastoral music of shepherds and the open-range songs of cowboys, but even a casual listener can hear the similarities, sometimes musical but more often emotional. A plaintive, nostalgic quality often appears in the music of both livelihoods. A pronounced lyricism, missing in many work-song traditions, characterizes both cowboy and pastoral music. The stronger rhythms of digging and hammering songs are rarely heard in these songs, which instead tend to have a more stately sense of internal momentum. Perhaps the most striking and surprising connection is the prominence of yodeling in both groups of songs. The yodeling cowboy migrated into early commercial country music in recordings by Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, and many more.

By the early 1930s, the American cowboy was also disappearing from the Western plains–although his music would be more thoroughly documented later than that of his Mexican antecedents. His demise had little to do with the hostile forces chronicled in Western movies and books–the varmints and bad men, gunslingers and tribes on the warpath. More subtle changes marked his departure. The first cars went west as novelties, driven by insurance salesmen, land agents, and other suspicious characters in soft occupations. But around the time Lomax’s Cowboy Songs was published, motor vehicles started replacing horses in greater numbers as the preferred means of personal transportation. Commercial freight moved increasingly by railroad, limiting the need for herding cattle for the long drive to far distant markets. Also as cultivation spread west, many ranch hands worked part-time as farmers, supplementing their income as cattle hands, or they abandoned herding entirely in favor of the agricultural life.

Inevitably, as the economic basis of the cowboy life declined, the westerner’s lifestyle and trappings likewise changed. Shoes supplanted boots. Denim jeans, impeccably made by San Francisco clothier Levi Strauss & Co., were substituted for chaps. The cowboy hat stayed around far longer, but it soon became more of an affectation, a sign of deference to a tradition, than a functional accessory. In short, little would soon remain but an image—a powerful, haunting image nonetheless—supplemented by some history, much folklore, and a few songs.

And so, John Lomax documented a dying tradition even during the early years of the 20th century, a couple of decades before Hollywood’s singing cowboys sounded the death knell for authentic cowboy music. But that was only part of the challenge facing folklorists of the Wild West. Despite the well-meaning help of correspondents and academics, Lomax frequently encountered indifference or outright resistance from the cowboys themselves, who put little stock in Harvard degrees and prestigious fellowships. “To capture the cowboy music proved an almost impossible task,” Lomax lamented in his 1947 autobiography Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. “The cowboys would simply wave away the large horn I carried and refused to sing into it! Not one song did I ever get from them except through the influence of generous amounts of whiskey, raw and straight from the bottle or jug.”

But this indifference pales beside the outright hostility shown to Lomax by other song collectors and writers who disparaged his methodology, questioned his honesty, and derided his results. Austin Fife, a meticulous gatherer of songs and folklore of the West, in his 1969 anthology Cowboy and Western Songs refers to the “pretentious Lomax books,” which were “based on relatively small and fragmentary field resources,” and faults the author for his “subjectivity and limited historical perspective.” D. K. Wilgus, in his 1959 study, Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898, minimizes Lomax’s achievement. Wilgus categorizes his efforts as part of the pejoratively named “Local Enthusiastic Tradition” in fieldwork, and laments the fact that the published versions of songs were often composites, drawn from many different source documents that Lomax combined based on his own judgments. Jack Thorp, another respected collector of cowboy songs whose work predated Lomax’s, was peeved at the latter’s greater fame and by his belief that Lomax had borrowed from his collection without acknowledgment. Curley Fletcher, author of “The Strawberry Roan,” sent a heated two-page letter to Lomax when he was not credited in the first edition of American Ballads and Folk Songs (although Fletcher was placated when he was later mentioned in the enlarged edition of Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads).

True enough, Lomax was neither the first nor the most obsessive gatherer of cowboy material, and in his publications he could be silent about the specific sources of songs, which sometimes came to him in the mail rather than from the mouths of wranglers. True again that, contrary to today’s practice, Lomax combined different texts of songs into finished versions relying only on his own taste—cutting, juxtaposing, and fixing non-metrical lines in the process. In general, he played fast and loose with copyright and intellectual property issues, matters critically important nowadays when millions of dollars are at stake for songs as successful as “Home on the Range.” Lomax stands guilty as charged on all these counts.

But give the man his due. No one did more than Lomax to bring authentic cowboy music to the attention of the broader public, as well as to spur others into efforts to preserve American vernacular music. In 1925, Moe Asch discovered a copy of Lomax’s Cowboy Songs at a bookstall in Paris, and the excitement with which he read it contributed in no small degree to his later decision to found the Folkways record label, an operation that did more to foster and preserve traditional music than any other company of its time. Lomax’s efforts also garnered the support of Harvard academics, publishing houses, former President Teddy Roosevelt (who penned an endorsement for the Cowboy Songs volume), the Library of Congress, and a host of other individuals and organizations. But perhaps John Lomax’s most important legacy was his son Alan, born in 1915, who at age 18 began helping his father collect songs. Alan spent some 70 years meticulously documenting traditional music in all its varieties and forms. Between the two of them, the Lomaxes did more to promote and preserve the vernacular music of the Americas than any institution or archive, any university or government agency.

John Lomax made an impressive contribution to the traditional music archives, although he was almost 40 years old when he began his preservation efforts in earnest and so devoted only half his career to them. As for Lomax’s alleged borrowings from Thorp, folklorist John O. West has gathered the facts and concluded that a “jury evaluating the evidence would have a difficult time agreeing beyond a reasonable doubt that John Lomax ever saw a copy of the little book Jack Thorp published in 1908. Almost no piece that Thorp published turned up in precisely the same form in Lomax’s printing—words, phrases, punctuation, and even titles were different.” It is not going too far to suggest that Thorp himself was motivated by a zeal to compete with Lomax when he expanded his cowboy-song collection in a followup edition. So even when making enemies, Lomax contributed to progress in the field. Certainly Lomax’s success made publishers willing to issue and promote books of cowboy songs and folklore by other authors. Many of his harshest critics were undoubtedly beneficiaries of his efforts.

Although Thorp’s Songs of the Cowboys predated Lomax’s publication by two years, he was neither the first to research nor the first to publish cowboy songs. Even if we exclude publication in newspapers and circulation on printed single sheets (known as broadsides), precedence goes to Clark Stanley, whose 1897 pamphlet, Life and Adventures of the American Cow-Boy, included some cowboy songs. John A. Stone, who published what were known as songsters in California in the aftermath of the Gold Rush, included songs of cattle drivers, and Joaquin Miller (1837-1913), “the poet of the Sierras,” wrote poems later set to music. But perhaps the most interesting document from the 19th century comes from Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, who in 1893 noted in his diary that he had “come upon a unique song.” Wister then transcribed the now famous words to “Git Along Little Doggies”:

As I walked out one morning for pleasure,
I met a cow-puncher a-jogging along.
His hat was thrown back and his spurs was a-jinglin’,
And as he advanced he was singing this song.
Sing hooplio get along my little doggies,
For Wyoming shall be your new home.

Andy Adams in his 1903 book, The Log of a Cowboy, refers briefly to the same song, only quoting two lines

Ip-e-la-ago, go along little doggie,
You’ll make beef steer by-and-by.

John Lomax substituted “Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little doggies” and provided the form in which the song would become widely known. Whether drawing on better sources, or exercising his editorial skills, Lomax served here as midwife to the birth of another American classic.

Although Jack Thorp was not the earliest researcher to document cowboy music, he was the first to collect the songs in a systematic manner and publish them in book form. Even more than Lomax, who was a Texan and grew up (as he liked to point out) beside a branch of the Chisholm Trail, Thorp was an unlikely advocate for the music of the Wild West. A native New Yorker, born in 1867, he was the son of a prominent family and received a polished education at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, something few cowboys could match. Instead of attending college, Thorp headed to New Mexico, where he traded in horses and soon began hunting down cowboy songs. “Songs of the range had a special appeal for me,” he later wrote. “I was a singin’ cowboy myself, by adoption.”

Like Lomax, Thorp struggled with the subjects of his studies. In 1889 and 1890, Thorp traveled on horseback through New Mexico and Texas, covering 1,500 miles in his effort to collect the songs and ballads of the cowboys. In all that time, he claimed, he never heard a cowboy with a good voice. The ones who could muster a melody, he complained, never managed to remember a whole song.

“It is generally thought that cowboys did a lot of singing around the herd at night to quiet them on the bed ground,” Thorp wrote in his autobiography, Pardner of the Wind, published posthumously in 1945. “I have been asked about this, and I’ll say that I have stood my share of night watches in 50 years, and I seldom heard any singing of that kind. What you would hear as you passed your partner on the ground, would be a kind of low hum or whistle, and you wouldn’t know what it was. Just some old hymn tune, like as not—something to kill time and not bad enough to make the herd want to get up and run.”

Margaret Larkin reached a similar conclusion while researching her 1931 book, Singing Cowboy: “Very few melodies were original; it may be that none of them were. Some were so wrenched out of shape by the demands of their new words as to be nearly unrecognizable. . . . ‘I’ve heard a thousand, but Lord, I kain’t sing,’ says the Old Timer when you ask him for a song.” Louise Pound offered an even harsher critique in her 1959 study, Nebraska Folklore, in which she attempted to distinguish “genuine cowboy pieces” —those “related very closely to the life of the communities which originated and preserved them”—from songs that reflect outside influence or were borrowed from other occupations and settings. Pound concluded that the “real” cowboy songs were more likely to be “crude and nearly formless, without literary quality or individual touch.” In other words, the closer one got to the essence of cowboy music, the uglier it sounded. In our day, when “authenticity” is held up as the ultimate compliment for traditional music making, this is a bitter truth to embrace.

Perhaps these obstacles and embarrassments should not surprise us. The nature of the cowboy’s labor—unlike, say, that of the agricultural worker—made it all but impossible for cowboys to sing together while at work. “Working cowboys sang and still sing for recreation,” writes Guy Logsdon, a former professor at the University of Tulsa, in his essay accompanying the Smithsonian Folkways recording Cowboy Songs on Folkways. “Since their work is non-rhythmic, they did not and still don’t sing much while they work.” The songs that Thorp encountered were always sung by an individual, never a group. Even when the cowboy’s life kept him on the ground in one place, the vocation elicited little on-the-job singing. Standing workers will sing. Those sitting at work will sing. Even a walking worker is likely to carry a tune. But once a worker is moving at a rapid pace on a horse or steam engine, or at a machine, the work song begins to lose its organic connection to physical labor, its ability to organize the behavior of limbs and torso, its links to productivity, and, above all, its ability to impart vitality and energy to an undertaking.

Yet the image of the singing cowboy would become lodged as a symbol in the American psyche. When Eck Robertson, the first documented rural southern musician to be recorded, went to New York for his 1922 audition, he wore cowboy attire for the event. Even native New Yorkers soon dressed the part if they wanted to sing the music, as did John White, who captivated audiences as the “Lonesome Cowboy.” In 1925, cowboy music achieved its first genuine hit record with Carl T. Sprague’s version of “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” which sold almost a million copies and was recorded by dozens of other artists in the following decades. But a greater impetus to the music at this time came from motion pictures. Although Western plots were popular in silent films, the advent of sound furthered the idealization of the semi-mythical singing cowboy figure. From the mid-1930s until the early 1950s, the character was a Hollywood staple. Gene Autry, who made his movie debut in 1934 with In Old Santa Fe, epitomized the role, parlaying it into a successful career in other areas. Autry’s net worth eventually surpassed $300 million, making him the most successful singing cowboy in history—quite an achievement for someone who couldn’t ride a horse, shoot a gun, or rope a calf when he first arrived in Hollywood. But he could sing passably well and looked good in the saddle or with a guitar in his hand. These advantages, combined with the mystique of the Wild West, were enough. Autry’s success as a performer proved so irresistible that other cowboy stars imitated it. Even John Wayne was prodded into singing on-screen (his voice dubbed by a professional).

In the 1930s, publishers released countless collections of so-called cowboy songs, but they were mostly the work of songwriting hacks who had never ventured anywhere near where deer and antelope play. Few of these songs had been or ever would be sung by real cowboys. But this did not prevent them from finding a ready audience. The proliferation of cowboy music fed off the glamour of movie Westerns, and even film stars who could hardly carry a tune issued songbooks. Tom Mix Western Songs, published in 1935 by M. M. Cole of Chicago, gives composer credits to that silent movie cowboy; and cowboy actor Ken Maynard, who was a flop as a singer (after bringing him into the studio, Columbia smartly decided to keep most of the nasally, kazoo-like vocals locked up in the vaults) could issue successful music books under his imprimatur. Long before the end of the Great Depression, cowboy music had stopped being a folk genre, having devolved into an entertainment-industry niche.

The popular imagination, fed by business interests, continues to fixate on a romantic image of the “lonesome cowboy” who sings to counter the isolation and anomie of his solitary profession. How much historical truth is contained in this stereotype? After all, much of the singing took place in the evenings around the campfire, as part of the socializing after the day’s labors ended. In other instances, however, cowboys sang to encourage their four-legged companions. A persistent belief among mule-skinners held that that mule would work harder and longer if entertained by a song. Some animals were even said to come to their master the moment they heard singing. Teddy Blue Abbott, in his firsthand account of cowboy life, We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, explains:

One reason I believe there were so many songs about cowboys was the custom we had of singing to the cattle on night herd. The singing was supposed to soothe them and it did. . . . I know that if you wasn’t singing, any little sound in the night—it might be just a horse shaking himself—could make them leave the country; but if you were singing they wouldn’t notice it.

Charles Siringo, in his classic 19th-century memoir, A Texas Cowboy, concurs, telling how necessary it was to sing “melodious songs” and lullabies to stop a herd from stampeding. Other old-timers dismissed such romantic recollections. “They whistled and yelped at their cattle to keep them on the move,” wrote Margaret Larkin in Singing Cowboys, “or at most employed the eerie, wailing Texas yodel. If they sang, they declared prosaically, it was to keep themselves awake.” One surmises that, although some cowhands sang on the job, it was not required for employment.

John Lomax managed to record some cattle calls and attempted to document how they were used, but the results were fairly unimpressive: a few pathetic whoops, not much different from what one might hear wandering by the swinging doors to the saloon in any number of Western towns even today. Other collectors hardly concerned themselves with such tepid material, which lacked the allure of the cowboy ballads; but even if they had, it is unlikely that the cattle call would ever rival the field holler or sailors’ chantey in the pantheon of American work songs.

The music of the cowboy is more important for its symbolism and imagery than for its insights into the lives of cowboys. Yet the symbols should not be dismissed as fantasy. Melodic memorials to unfettered freedom and to the untarnished outdoors, reminders of simple human relationships and conflicts between Good and Evil, these emblems of what Americans wanted the West, and the nation, to represent are the ingredients that continue to make this music moving. Even the cowboys themselves could not resist its appeal, often deriving their most resilient images of their work and their society from these simple lyrics. Few occupational songs hold less connection with real labor, yet no music tells better the ideal of work to which one should aspire. For all its sentimentality and affectations, its rough edges and sometimes rougher content, and despite all the later attempts to commercialize and profit from its allure, real cowboy music has a legitimate claim to be ranked with the best vernacular music of the New World.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ted Gioia is a pianist and composer and the author of several books on music, including The History of Jazz and Work Songs.


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