Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Songs from the Saddle: Cowboy Chord Conspiracy

Cowboy look is the one I sought
Can't change now cause the clothes are bought
To be a true cowboy was my fate
I can't help it if I was born late
( I couldn't make it as a Punker )
--“I Want To Be A Cowboy” by The Vandals c. 1982

The L.A. punk band The Vandals got regular airplay on my favorite college radio station in the early 1980s, especially the song quoted above, “I Want To Be A Cowboy.” That parenthetical aside was whined as the finale while the band crashed to halt. The song is a witty poke at fashion and musical pretenses, but ultimately a harmless novelty like so much of punk music proved to be. The Vandals are still a going business concern, though the membership has undergone transitions over the years, still grinding out punk rock with sarcastic lyrics that sound more and more toothless with the passing years. Cowboy hats, cowboy music and poetry, and cowboys themselves are still with us, and in some ways the cowboy aesthetic is in a bit of a renaissance as part of the whole roots/Americana/alt-country/pop country movement in music. I love a good punk rock song, and I love my cowboy boots (I’ve rarely been without a pair in 40 years). If forced to choose between the two, I’d keep the boots for sure.

America is a culture dedicated to myth-making, like any other culture, but the special circumstances of American history and geography have given its myths some peculiar characteristics. Founded by commercial speculators, economic refugees and religious/quasi-political dissidents, colonial America almost immediately produced accounts of its own experience to justify its existence in one way or another: the Mayflower Compact, William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation, narratives of settlers captured by Native Americans, John Smith’s A True Relation of Virginia and A General Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles, and various other historical and literary works gradually coalesced into a foundational epic for a new country and new nationality, as if the Aneid or the Iliad were composed by many bards singing of multiple heroes and trials. The young country being born required myths to establish its place in the community of nations, to obscure the fact that it was being carved out of land already occupied by others and being built partly by slave labor, and to justify continued expansion of its borders, political power and economy to imperial dimensions.

Once the Appalachian Mountains were breached and settlement of the mid-west and its great river valleys picked up speed, the foundational myths were augmented by 19th century updates. The frontier scout/trapper/explorer (18th century Daniel Boone followed by 19th century Davy Crockett), the river boatman (Mike Fink), the military hero (Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison) entered the national narrative, each in their peculiar way charged with spreading American civilization and removing such impediments to progress as Native Americans, invading British armies, Frenchmen, Mexicans, and the fearful wilderness itself. The indigenous tribes could be conquered and annihilated and removed to reservations (the tales of which helped Jackson and Harrison to the White House). The British armies could be defeated and sent home (Jackson the best-known political beneficiary of their defeat). The French and Spanish settlers, some of whom were descendants of immigrants arriving 100 years prior to the English, could be incorporated into new states and territories via diplomacy, like the Louisiana Purchase, and conquest, most notably in the Mexican-American war of 1848 that followed the Texas war of secession from Mexico in the previous decade.

This was the literary and historical crucible in which the cowboy was formed. The term as we now understand it first appeared before the U.S. Civil War, in the 1850s, as the earliest American settlers of the southwest established their ranch claims and began raising cattle more or less on the Mexican model of grazing large herds on open range, tended by mounted vaqueros, a tradition begun in Spain with roots in Muslim horse culture. After the Civil War, which had put western expansion on temporary hold, the cowboy as job and mythic subject came into his prime years, which would last about two decades. The man on his horse, close to nature, working a difficult and sometimes dangerous job in a country where law is tentative and personal honor is paramount, was and is a real phenomenon, and Pecos Bill is his best-known mythical expression. Folklorist B. A. Botkin’s Treasury of American Folklore, published in 1944, shows the connection Pecos Bill and other cowboy heroes/villains have to earlier figures such as Davy Crockett and Mike Fink. Cowboy boasts followed the templates of Crockett and Fink:

I’m that same David Crockett, fresh from the backwoods, half-horse, half-alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle; can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride upon a streak of lightning…. (Crockett’s Brag, first published in 1833, Botkin p.56)

I love the women and I’m chockfull o’ fight! I’m half wild horse and half cock-eyed alligator and the rest o’ me is crooked snags an’ red-hot snapping turtle…I can out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an’ out-fight, rough ‘n’ tumble, no holds barred, any man on both sides of the river from Pittsburgh to New Orleans an’ back agin to St. Louiee. (Fink’s Brag, Botkin p. 57)

There wasn’t anything that Bill couldn’t ride, although I have heard of one occasion when he was thrown. He made a bet he could ride an Oklahoma cyclone slick-heeled, without a saddle. He met the cyclone, the worst that was ever known, upon the Kansas line. Bill eared that tornado down and climbed on its back. That cyclone did some pitchin’ that is unbelievable, if it were not vouched for by many reliable witnesses. Down across Texas it went, sunfishin’, back-flippin’, side-windin’, knockin’ down mountains, blowin’ holes out of the ground, and tyin’ rivers into knots…Bill just sat up there, thumpin’ that cyclone in the withers, floppin’ it across the ears with his hat, and rolling a cigarette with one hand. He rode it through three states, but over Arizona it got him…He came down over in California. The spot where he lit is now known as Death Valley, a hole in the ground more than one hundred feet below sea-level, and the print of his hip pockets can still be seen in the granite. (The Saga of Pecos Bill, Botkin p. 183).

Fink and Crockett were actual men as well as folk-tale heroes, so their adventures and boasts retain a historical scale to some degree. Pecos Bill doesn’t appear to have such historical roots, and the monumental scale of landscape his stories occupy is such that it almost demands such an outsized heroic personality. It’s a commonplace observation by now that the boast is a literary form in West Africa that has evolved into the pose of the rapper/hip-hop poet, but boasting is also the folk literary genre animating many “tall tales” of North America, be they about Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, the less rememberd Febold Feboldson and Big-Foot Wallace. Like any oral literary tradition, such boasting and tales were often incorporated into song and poetry.

Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi records a snippet of a song sung on a long river barge trip that might stand for a transitional ballad, with roots in English ballads, performed by a rough fellow in buckskin, a sort of proto-cowboy song:

There was a woman in out towdn
In our towdn did dwed’l [dwell]
She loved her husban dear-i-lee,
But another man twyste as wed’l [twice as well]

Singing too, riloo, riloo, riloo
Ri-too, riloo, rilay----e
She loved her husband dear-i-lee
But another man twyste as wed’l

In Twain’s account, the singer is shouted down after fourteen verses, whereupon he commences a boast about being the son of a hurricane and an earthquake, eating nineteen alligators for breakfast, and so on.

John Lomax was the first major collector of cowboy songs and tales, beginning in the early 20th century, but much of his material dates from 30-40 years prior at least. Cowboy boasts were sometimes that of a “bad man” which meant a rough, tough, and dangerous man but not necessarily the outlaw/criminal:

Raised in a canebrake,
Fed in a hog trough,
Suckled by a she-bear,
The click of a six-shooter is music to my ear!

“I eat humans for breakfast” was another common boast in cowboy folklore. Often, liquor fueled the fiery oratory.

Raised on six shooters till I get big enough to eat shotguns,
When I’m cool I warm the Gulf of Mexico and bathe therein,
When I’m hot there’s an equinox cal breeze that fans me fevered brow,
The moans of widows and orphans is music to me melancholy soul.
--From “The Boasting Drunk in Dodge” c. 1883 (Botkin p.61)

So cowboys were both agents of civilization and uncivilized rogues, men who made the wilderness safe for farms, towns, womenfolk and families, but who themselves could not be trusted in a civilized society. The best cinematic equivalents of this irony are the roles John Wayne played in The Searchers, Ethan Edwards, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Tom Doniphan. Edwards takes years to track down a niece captured by Indians, using all his frontier skills and capacity for violence to find her and return her to relatives in Texas (after being persuaded not to kill her for becoming a “white squaw”), but there is no happy ending for him in the confines of home and hearth and family, on which he turns his back in the film’s final shot. Doniphon kills a notorious outlaw in the pay of cattle barons, but he allows a citified lawyer to take the credit for the act which propels him eventually to the US Senate, while Doniphon dies in obscurity.

The theme song to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, which featured clip-clopping hoof beats and Hollywood orchestra, was a big hit for Gene Pitney:

When Liberty Valance rode to town the womenfolk would hide, they'd hide
When Liberty Valance walked around the men would step aside
'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast---he was mighty good.

From out of the East a stranger came, a law book in his hand, a man
The kind of a man the West would need to tame a troubled land
'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast---he was mighty good.

Many a man would face his gun and many a man would fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

It was not exactly an authentic cowboy song, but it was one of the first western-themed songs I can remember hearing and loving, years before I saw the movie itself. It’s a derivative of the outlaw ballad, and the villain is the only character named in the song, while “the bravest of them all” remains anonymous. The bad man has enduring appeal in any costume and era. They make necessary the heroes who otherwise would remain everymen of no consequence.

The very first cowboy song I recall loving was “Streets of Laredo“, which my father would sing as a lullaby as he strolled the halls of our four-bedroom ranch house in the old New England town where I grew up. The bedroom my brother and I shared had cowboy wallpaper (our choice as I recall) with cowpokes riding bucking broncos, branding cattle, fighting Indians and sitting around campfires. (Historically, cowboys had few serious violent conflicts with Indians, who preferred to charge fees for cattle drives crossing their territory. The U.S. Army fought the Indian wars, not cowboys.) I went to sleep every night with cowboys on my mind.

I loved watching western movies and still do. Television in my youth had old movies galore, and weekend days (and, eventually, late nights) I spent with John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Audie Murphy, and other cowboy movie stars as they rode, shot, whooped, and died into cinematic immortality. Some cowboys sang in their movies, and I found this a little confusing--who had time for a song when outlaws were about? Singing was a little too feminine, although I was too young to think in such terms. Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey had the horses, the guns, the strife with bad men, but they never seemed to sweat. Even the poor young cowboy who knew he’d done wrong in “Streets of Laredo” was “shot in the breast” which sounded awfully girly to me.

Still, my dad’s baritone and his Irish-American melancholy sounded perfectly haunting when he sang the song, and I prefer remembering him singing the song to any recorded version I’ve ever encountered. Johnny Cash did an admirable job with his weathered, cracked old pipes on the tune for one of his late albums, American IV: The Man Comes Around. Cash had the tough-but-weary thing down cold, so despite his early life on a cotton farm, his career in the US army and then as a professional musician, he could deliver a cowboy song with force and feeling. He paid a lot of attention to American experience at large, not just his own personal version of it, and his theme albums from the 1960s, Ballads of the True West and Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, though recorded during one of his most difficult periods of addiction and emotional turmoil, are among his most interesting and even courageous albums.

The True West album has the delightful “Sam Hall” (credited to Tex Ritter) as well as an earlier version of “Streets of Laredo”. Both songs derive from English ballads, “Streets of Laredo” from “The Rake’s Lament” and “Sam Hall” from a similarly titled ballad in which Sam is a chimney sweep bound for the gallows for robbery.

Oh me name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep, chimney sweep
Oh me name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep
Oh me name it is Sam Hall and I've robbed both great and small
And my neck will pay for all when I die, when I die
And my neck will pay for all when I die

I have twenty pounds in store, that's not all, that's not all
I have twenty pounds in store, that's not all
I have twenty pounds in store and I'll rob for twenty more
For the rich must help the poor, so must I, so must I
For the rich must help the poor, so must I

By the time Sam gets to America and learns American ways, he’s changed from a poor working stiff with a Robin Hood streak to a genuine bad man:

Well, my name it is Sam Hall, Sam Hall.
Yes, my name it is Sam Hall; it is Sam Hall.
My name it is Sam Hall an' I hate you, one and all.
An' I hate you, one and all:
Damn your eyes.

I killed a man, they said; so they said.
I killed a man, they said; so they said.
I killed a man, they said an' I smashed in his head.
An' I left him layin' dead,
Damn his eyes.

But a-swingin', I must go; I must go.
A-swingin', I must go; I must go.
A-swingin', I must go while you critters down below,
Yell up: "Sam, I told you so."
Well, damn your eyes!

I saw Molly in the crowd; in the crowd.
I saw Molly in the crowd; in the crowd.
I saw Molly in the crowd an' I hollered, right out loud:
"Hey there Molly, ain't you proud?
"Damn your eyes."

Then the Sherriff, he came to; he came to.
Ah, yeah, the Sherriff, he came to; he came to.
The Sherriff, he come to an he said: "Sam, how are you?"
An I said: "Well, Sherriff, how are you,
"Damn your eyes."

My name is Samuel, Samuel.
My name is Samuel, Samuel.
My name is Samuel, an' I'll see you all in hell.
An' I'll see you all in hell,
Damn your eyes.

Unsentimental acceptance of fate and consequences is part of the cowboy character’s appeal, no matter what side of the law he may inhabit. Doubt, ambivalence, and most of all betrayal are the sins which the cowboy finds hard to forgive. John Hardy, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid all achieved ballad immortality by seductive vice and violence, not virtue, although Jesse James had a “darling loving wife”, John Hardy’s daughter in her dress of blue said, “Poppy, I’ll be true to you” to her father in his death-row cell despite his crime of killing a Chinese gambler over a losing hand staked by Hardy’s mulatto female companion, and Brooklyn-born Billy, by all accounts a calm and cold-blooded killer, was the “boy bandit king” of “fair Mexican maidens” playing their guitars and singing his praises.

I don’t recall where I first heard the “Ballad of Jesse James“. It was very likely a Burl Ives recording--a Burl Ives album is one of the first I remember from growing up, probably a release from around 1955. I vividly recall “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (what child would not remember candy mountains and lemonade springs?), and it is probably Ives’ burly baritone that put “that dirty little coward/that shot Mr. Howard/and laid Jesse James in his grave” deep into my memory. He also famously recorded “Streets of Laredo” under it’s alternative title “Cowboy’s Lament” as well as “John Hardy”. My brain is probably mixing his “Laredo” with my dad’s, but I have no recollection of “John Hardy” until much later. “The Ballad of Billy The Kid” version I recall hearing first is the marvelous Ry Cooder rendition on his classic Into the Purple Valley lp from the early 1970s. Cooder plays slide guitar and mandolin on it, and the song was one of the first songs I taught myself on slide guitar off his recording.

Cooder changed the song considerably for his version, moving it from ¾ to 4/4 time, dropping the prominent diminished chord and the final verse. The song itself is not a folk song but was written by Andrew Jenkins in 1927 during a period when commerical country music was first establishing itself. It was a hit for Vernon Dalheart, one the biggest stars of his day who was a professional entertainer and Broadway/vaudeville performer with little connection to cowboys, the American west or rural culture. Dalheart’s charming version can be heard on My Rough and Rowdy Ways: Early American Rural Music, Badman Ballads and Hellraising Songs Vol. 2 (Yazoo 2040), one of the best compilations I’ve heard but lacking in genuine cowboy-type songs and instead favoring more general bad man ballads and blues. “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is more of an exercise in nostalgic preservation than an authentic folk song, recorded just before the singing cowboy became a movie-screen presence, but well into the period of interest in cowboy lore and ballads that John Lomax helped initiate in 1910.

My Rough and Rowdy Ways Volume 1 (Yazoo 2039) has Ken Maynard, the original singing cowboy, singing “Jesse James” in a 1930 recording. Maynard first gained fame singing two songs, “The Lone Star Trail” and “Cowboy’s Lament“, in the early talkie western The Wagon Master (1929). His voice, no match for a pro like Dalheart, has an amateur nasal twang and breaks on some notes, but Maynard’s honest affection for the song comes through just fine, and the film led to recording session in 1930 that produded 10 cowboy songs. Maynard was a rodeo rider and stunt man in westerns--the “most daring horseman of the movie cowboys” according to Douglas Green in his book Singing Cowboys (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2006)--who convinced Universal studio honcho Carl Laemmel to make the first true musical western film, The Fiddling Buckaroo, in 1933. Maynard was not as good a singer as he was horseman--his high tenor voice is thin and plain, and on “Jesse James” his guitar playing is only adequate strumming. The cd that accompanies Green’s book includes Maynard singing “The Lone Star Trail” from the 1930 session.

I am a lonely cowboy, and I’m off the Texas Trail
My trade is cinching saddles, and pulling bridle reins
But I can twist a lasso with the greatest skill and ease
Or rope and ride a bronco most anywhere I please

Oh I love the rolling prairie that’s far from trail and strife
Find a bunch of longhorns, I’ll journey all my life
But if I had a stake boys, soon wed I would be
For the sweetest girl in this wide world just fell in love with me

The very unadorned amateur quality of Maynard’s song gives it lasting interest--whatever limits his acting skills on screen might have had, on record he sounds like a true cowboy singing a song rather than a actor/musician singing a song about cowboys. That tone of authenticity is not easily achieved or maintained in a genre that was largely nostalgic for a lost world by the time films and recordings fixed the iconography of the American west. The song’s lyrics display many of the signifiers of cowboy life and identity--self-sufficiency, delight in occupational skills and horsemanship, love of natural surroundings, and a longing to earn enough to settle down with a good woman.

Green’s book is a fun and informative read, full of color pictures, film still, posters and biographies of all the major singing cowboys and cowgirls, and the cd makes audible the progression of cowboy songs from folklore artifacts to slicked-up Hollywood product. Patsy Montana, Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey, the Sons of the Pioneers, Rex Allen and other stars are represented on the cds 10 cuts, and many more in the biographical chapters. If Maynard stands for the primitive source, Rex Allen’s smooth baritone and string-laden accompaniment on “Too-lee Roll-’um”signal the end of the singing cowboy on film at least. Allen’s career in film closed out the genre in 1954 with Phantom Stallion, the last musical western. Like Maynard, Allen had real spurs on his boots--he was raised in Arizona, performed in rodeos, and knew the west well. He turned to music and had hits before his film career--”My Dear Old Arizona Home” was a Tin Pan Alley composition but still a lively western swing hit in the 1940s for Allen. “Too-lee Roll-’um” is a smooth ballad.

Too-lee roll-’um, tee-rail-’um, tee-rile-’um, tee-ro
I’m an Arizona cowboy, and the desert’s my home

I was born in Arizona, among the cactus and hills
And the memory of my childhood is warm within me still
A mother and dad and the old folks at home
Where cattle is king and the longhorns still roam
Where a horse and a man become partners at dawn
And night found me singing this cowpunchers song

Too-lee roll-’um, tee-rail-’um, tee-rile-’um, tee-ro
I’m a lonesome old cowboy, and the desert’s my home

The sentiment is irresistible when Allen sings the introduction and verse; female voices pick up the refrain and the song turns cinematic, nearly operatic. Hollywood and the recording studio have civilized the cowboy, suitable for mixed company, ready for the museum. Allen had a long career after Phantom Stallion, as actor, recording artist, narrator of several Disney films, and ambassador for the cowboy life-- is dedicated to his legacy.

I recently bought three collections devoted entirely to cowboy songs, and I’ve had great fun listening to them even as some issues of authenticity and sentimentality in the genre became clear. When I Was A Cowboy: Early American Songs of the West Vol. 1 (Yazoo 2022) contains 23 songs recorded in the 1920s and 1930s and is a sonic time capsule (like many of Yazoo’s anthologies). The cd begins with the Cartwright Brothers 1928 recording of “Utah Carroll”--

In a far off western country, where friends are few and dear,
Where cattle roam in thousands and skies are always clear

We were rounding up one morning, and the work was nearly done
When the cattle all stampeded in wild and maddened run
‘twas the boss’s little daughter, was holding on that side
She tried to check the cattle, ‘twas a wild and dangerous ride

Beneath that lassie’s saddle, early on that fatal morn,
I placed a scarlet blanket, a mistake I’ll always morn
When the cattle saw that blanket, it breaked their maddened brains
They bore down on the lassie, and death rode wild again

The boss’s little daughter rode the best horse all-around
But he stumbled in a dog-hole and threw her to the ground
The cattle thundered toward her, and she surely would have died
But someone spurred his cow-horse like lightning to her side

He hung down from his pony and caught her from the ground
But the cinches broke beneath him and once more hurled him down

From desperate Utah Carroll, a blanket waving gay
He led off from an angle, and the cattle came his way
This task of his accomplished, and the child safe on the side
He stopped to face the cattle, a wild and maddened tide

His pistol flashed like lightning and sounded loud and clear
He failed to stop the cattle, but he dropped a leading steer
A thousand hooves were pounding, and a thousand slashing horns
Snuffed out the life of Utah, the bravest hero born

In a far off western country, where friends are few and dear,
Stands a humble little headstone, where the skies are always clear
And the rancher’s little daughter, now often comes to pray
For the man who died so freely, to save her live that day.

The song is a classic narrative ballad, with a melody Woody Guthrie borrowed for “Pretty Boy Floyd”. Bernard and Jack Cartwright were from west Texas, but I’m having difficulty finding out much more about them. Jack apparently is strumming a guitar and singing, Bernard playing the melody on fiddle in tandem with the vocal. Guitars came late to balladry--ballads were originally sung a capella, then with fiddle accompaniment, then banjos before guitars became popular and affordable. The Cartwright recording retains the marks of this cumulative development of a genre and style, and the lyrics maintain the ballad tradition of swift narrative conveyed through concrete detail with minimal adornment and stock phrases to aid the rhyme. Marty Robbins, Arlo Guthrie and others have recorded the song (mostly based on Robbin’s very different re-write of the same basic story), but I much prefer the primitive sound of the Cartwright Brothers. You can hear why at which has a free download of this public-domain classic.

So cowboy songs are folk songs, about work and danger in a beautiful if sometimes savage land, about honor and sacrifice as much as outlawry and hell-raising. Other classics are on the Yazoo cd such as Ken Maynard‘s “Cowboy‘s Lament”, Carl Sprague’s “The Mormon Cowboy” and “ The Last Longhorn”, and Edward L. Crain’s “Bandit Cole Younger.” Maynard’s melody is the not quite that used by Johnny Cash or Burl Ives or my dad on “Streets of Laredo” but a plainer and probably earlier one. “The Bandit Cole Younger” concerns the famous outlaw meeting the even more famous James brothers on “the ‘brasky plains” and the Northfield Bank robbery in “Minnesotio.” These early folk ballads have simple chord changes organized around couplets--the often sound like half a song repeated over and over, a mnemonic device of the oral tradition with melodic conventions freely adapted to ¾ or 4/4 time and whatever tale needed telling. Many of the songs are in fact waltzes, and it’s easy to imagine a group of cowboys around a fire after a long tough day’s work on the open range entertaining one another with tall tales, boasts, and song, maybe waltzing with one another if the mood struck them.

Did real cowboys sing to one another? Of course they did. Up to 25% of cowboys were African-american, maybe another 10% were Mexican-american, and the mix of song traditions and skills made for a fertile musical culture in an era when most music really was folk music and all of it was delivered live. The oldest songs with the deepest roots speak in detail about the cowboy life and its appurtenances, dangers and rewards. Guitars on cattle drives were probably a rarity--too fragile, expensive and quiet for the most part. Mexican guitars may have been available--the Spanish southwest had a very active guitar/violin folk music tradition before its acquisition by the United States after the Mexican war. But the occasional fiddle was a more likely cowboy instrument, perhaps a mandolin as well, both smaller instruments that were more popular than the guitar in the 19th century. The Cartwright Brothers’ “Texas Ranger” is a chilling example of ballad singing with only fiddle accompaniment, Jack’s voice and Bernard’s violin in unison on a mixolydian melody with its weird flatted seventh interval lending spooky blues feeling without using the bluesier pentatonic scale

While many cowboy songs are implicit celebrations of valor or rascality, many more sound inconsolably sad, as melancholy and fatalistic as a Delta blues can be. The difficulty, danger and low wages probably made a sad song a necessary expression of cowboy life, and folk music is one of the main culture vehicles for acknowledging the sorrows of life as a means of transcending them. When an oral tradition is vital and primary, the presence of death immediate, laments are a crucial poetic form, and lamentations work their way into the Iliad, Beowulf, La Poema del mio Cid and Anglo-celtic ballads. But the heyday of the cowboy was surprisingly brief--barbed wire and the extension of railroads made open range grazing and big cattle drives mostly unnecessary by 1885 or so. Cowboys didn’t disappear--we still have real working cowboys today on the big ranches of the western United States and Canada. Still, the tone of much cowboy music seems directed at the loss of a way of life, not just the death of a working man or bad man but of am entire culture and a view of the terror and wonder of the land.

A few years ago I was browsing used record albums in a thrift shop--yes, I still own a turntable and hundreds of lp records--and came upon a dozen records in the New World Records Anthology of American Music series, one of the best finds of my life. I bought them all, of course. Among them was the double lp Back In the Saddle Again, 28 cowboy songs from 1928 through 1979, with wonderful liner notes and an essay by Charles Seeman, “The American Cowboy: Image and Reality.” Seeman makes many of the same observations I have made regarding the persistent appeal of the cowboy in story, music, and film. He points to the English ballad tradition behind many cowboy songs, and he writes of the actual lives of true cowboys who lived, worked and died while creating a distinctive American folklore.

Cowboys were not an illiterate lot; many were relatively educated men,
seeking adventure in the west, escaping from the past or simply the pressures
of civilization, . Some of them wrote a great deal of cowboy poetry, much
of which found its way into newspapers and stock-growers’ journals.
often this verse became attached to old familiar folk or popular melodies
and entered oral tradition as folk songs…
(Seeman, copyright 1983)

The two lps have some of the same songs and/or artists as the Yazoo cd, but the range of dates on the recordings puts the progress of cowboy songs into some further historical perspective.

Cowboys had an awareness of the drama, the theatrics, of the life they led. Wild Bill Hickok, a real scout, gambler, gunslinger and occasional lawman, gave the New York stage a try, and Buffalo Bill Cody had a longer and more lucrative career in show business than on the western plains. The early cowboy singers and actors in the 20th century were often the real deal, and show business offered a way to preserve their culture as well as to make a living. Side one of Back In the Saddle Again begins with a rousing 1928 version of “The Old Chisholm Trail” by Harry McClintock, born 1883 and a working cowboy among other occupations in his life of rambling. The song was collected by John Lomax in numerous versions incorporating hundreds of couplets, many quite bawdy, that Lomax edited into a coherent version that has become the standard since its publication in 1910 in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. (Jesse Chisholm of the title was a real Cherokee “Indian cowboy” from Oklahoma who ran a string of trading posts, located along the cattle drive route from San Antonio to Kansas City.) It’s probably the best known cowboy song of all, and McClintock‘s spry rendition sounds like the template for Woody Guthrie‘s version recorded in the 1940s.

Cut 2 is from 1957, “The Pot Wrassler“, a ballad about a cook on a cattle drive sung by Henry Jackson unaccompanied. Jackson, born in 1924, grew up in Illinois, learned cowboy songs from an old cowboy working in Chicago stockyards, and eventually became an artist working with western themes in paint and sculpture. He recorded in the 1950s for the Folkways label. Cut 3 is a live performance by Van Holyoke (b. 1928) at a the 1979 Border Folk Festival in El Paso Texas, of “The Gol-Durned Wheel”, more of a chanted poem than a proper song about cowboys who attempt to ride a new-fangled bicycle with bruising results.

So in the space of 3 songs, the arc of the cowboy life is traced from a lived oral tradition and occupation to its codification in secondary sources to its enshrinement and celebration in festivals before paying audiences. The “folk boom” of the 1950s was the process by which much of American oral tradition and primitive/rural culture achieved recognition and preservation while America itself became literate (and, sadly, post-literate), urban, removed from physical labor and the homely reminders of mortality.

The two-record collection concludes with thoroughly modern cowboy singers--Glen Orhlin’s 1974 “The Cowboy”, Chris LeDoux’s “Rusty Spurs” from 1979, and “Cowboy Song” by Riders in the Sky, recorded in 1980. Orhlin was also a working cowboy, and his song maintains the plain-spoken twang and calm melancholy of his predecessors, with simple acoustic guitar accompaniment in the standard “cowboy chord” style. He was near 50 at the time of recording, with weather in his voice and longing in his lyrics. Ledoux is quite a bit younger, and is currently one of the biggest cowboy music stars. “Rusty Spurs” is country music with a rodeo theme, fiddle, harmonica, piano, bass, drums and guitar behind him. The song reminds me of someone eager to be seen as a cowboy--the right jeans, boots, shirt, hat, all clean and tucked in and pressed. Not much rust or dust showing in the music, but still pleasant listening. “Cowboy Song” is further diluted/augmented with pedal steel guitar, corny background vocals, banjo, and sentimental paens to the cowboy life studded with longhorns, roundups, western skies and a “whoopee ti-yi-yo” that threatens to become annoying in a song straining to fulfill a genre and failing in the effort. The sadness is gone, the sentiment has turned sentimental, and the song is about the singer more than the subject. It’s the one false moment in an otherwise compelling collection.

Boots, Buckles & Spurs: 50 Songs Celebrate 50 Years of Cowboy Tradition (Sony/BMG Legacy) is a 3 cd-set of cowboy music produced in conjunction with the National Wrangler Finals Rodeo for its 50th year anniversary in 2009. The first National Wrangler Finals Rodeo was in Dallas, Texas, in 1959. Las Vegas is currently the host city, and that alone should set the bunkhouse triangle jangling out a warning. Nevada has plenty of cowboy mojo to its name, but Las Vegas is a city of fakes and frauds, an imitation of life that exists on taxpayer beneficence and the temptation of the gullible and the greedy. The tradition the music celebrates is far closer to the subject of the Vandal’s sneer than that of Carl Sprague, Ken Maynard or the Cartwright Brothers (unless they are named Adam, Hoss and Little Joe), let alone Bill Hickok or Cole Younger.
Most of the 50 songs are by country music artists in cowboy pose. The vintage recordings are the expected stars and songs: Patsy Montana singing “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” (Montana was from Arkansas, went to college in California, and hit upon the cowgirl persona as a way to break into the music business); Gene Autrey’s “Back in the Saddle Again”; “Dusty Skies” by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, a band that had more in common with Bill Basie than with Bill Cody; “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by the Sons of the Pioneers; “Stampede” by Roy Rogers with those Sons backing him; Elton Britt’s “Patent Leather Boots”, a yodeling ode to cowboy fashion that reeks of unconscious narcissism; pop country singer Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call”. These singers all had well-received careers, and the songs are firmly in the Hollywood cowboy tradition. Aside from Bob Will’s lazy-swinging tune, they are all as corny as the painted skies and machine-blown tumbleweeds of a Hollywood soundstage.

The rest of the music is by well-know country stars for the most part--Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, David Allen Coe--and current avatars of cowboy music like Canadian Ian Tyson, Michael Martin Murphy, Chris LeDoux, Trent Willmon. Songwriting aces Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Robert Earl Keen and Rodney Crowell each get a song. Most of the music is mainstream country with western-themed lyrics, slickly produced, radio-ready. For all these biases toward slick production and well-known hits and “I’m not a real cowboy, but I play one in this song” type singing, the collection holds a lot of interesting and sometimes thrilling music. It’s a reasonable but by no means comprehensive survey of the cowboy in contemporary country music.

I’ve always had a soft spot for “Wildfire” by Michael Murphy, his 1972 hit about a young girl and her 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
Oh, they say she died one winter
When there came a killing frost
And the pony she named Wildfire
Busted down its stall
In a blizzard he was lost
She ran calling Wildfire, Wildfire, Wildfire
My favorite version is on Innocence & Despair: The Langley Schools Music Project, an amazing collection of songs performed by rural Canadian school children, some of whom lived on isolated farms and ranches--they sing as if they rode their ponies to school that day, heartrending sincerity and pathos. Murphy's lushly orchestrated original is almost as good.
Guy Clark’s “Rita Ballou” about a wild woman--”hill country honky-tonkin’ Rita Ballou” a cowboy’s heart-throb--is another gem, like most Clark-penned songs. A Texan gone to California, Clark has made a career as luthier, songsmith and occasional performer and recording artist. Not a cowboy, but Texan with a talent as huge as his home state, Clark has a stable of classic country songs to his credit, and the collection might have also included his “Desperados Waiting for A Train” and/or “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” and improved its ratio of cool to corn.

Marty Robbin’s sweet tenor is heard on the horse homily “Strawberry Roan” which is a waltz at a similar tempo as “El Paso” but about a very different kind of love, for a horse that can‘t be tamed. The lyric is based on a poem published in 1931, by one Curley Fletcher:

I"m a-layin' around, just spendin’ muh time,
Out of a job an' ain't holdin' a dime,
When a feller steps up, an' sez, "I suppose
that you're uh bronk* fighter by the looks uh yure clothes."
"Yuh figures me right-I'm a good one, I claim,
Do you happen tuh have any bad uns tuh tame?
He sez he's got one, uh bad un tuh buck,
An fur throwin' good riders, he's had lots uh luck.
He sez that his pony has never been rode,
That the boys that gets on 'im is bound tuh get throwed.
Well, I gets all excited an' asks what he pays,
Tuh ride that old pony uh couple uh days.
According to his daughter, Fletcher was a bit fussy about his poems and did not like them set to music, but he did colloborate with several musicians on some songs, and “Strawberry Roan” became one of his more famous works. The Robbins song smooths out the lyrics quite a bit:

I was hangin' 'round town, just spendin' my time
Out of a job, not earnin' a dime
A feller steps up and he said, "I suppose
You're a bronc fighter from looks of your clothes."
"You figures me right, I'm a good one." I claim
"Do you happen to have any bad ones to tame?"
Said "He's got one, a bad one to buck
At throwin' good riders, he's had lots of luck."
I gets all het up and I ask what he pays
To ride this old nag for a couple of days
He offered me ten; I said, "I'm your man,
A bronc never lived that I couldn't span."

Another highpoint is Suzy Boguss singing Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon” which Judy Collins also recorded early in her career. Tyson was half of Ian & Sylvia, a hit-making folk duo in the 1960s. Sylvia loved Appalachian ballads and old bluesy hollers, Tyson leaned more toward love songs and cowboy songs, and once they dissolved their musical partnership and marriage, Tyson headed for the Canadian west where he still lives, ranching, riding, and writing cowboy songs. Tyson himself sings “Leaving Cheyenne” which is a variant of the traditional “I Ride an Old Paint”. It’s yet another cowboy waltz, done right with hearfelt vocal, restrained mandolin and fiddle and dobro along for the ride.

The Waylon/Willie/Cash material is exactly what you’d expect at this point and in no need of my comment. Chris Ledoux hits a rock tempo with “Hooked for an 8 Second Ride” about at rodeo bull rider, and like so much contemporary country music, the song is big on guitars and drums and rock and roll hooks, with a little twang in the vocal to place it in the right market, but it’s about as “authentic” as Johnny Mercer’s “I’m An Old Cowhand” without the irony. The overwrought guitar crescendo finale is just a sad comment on the business of country music.
The low-point of the set is definitely Moe Bandy’s “Bandy the Rodeo Clown”--if clowns terrify you, this song will set you running like a spooked mustang. It is a creepy, sentimental uptempo cowboy version of “Mr. Bojangles” sung in the first person to no good effect. The song was written by Lefty Frizzell, who had a special way with creepy sentiment that could work for 3 minutes. Moe Bandy just murders the song with smarmy vibrato, a busy arrangement no has-been rodeo clown could ever summon on his own, and not a trace of humor or irony.

Fortunately, the cowboy and cowboy songs and poetry are alive and well beyond Las Vegas--done by real cowboys and by musicians with real taste. The cowpoke has a few rides left in him yet before embalming, and not on any mechanical bull or Las Vegas casino stage. I’ll return to the theme in a future blog, after I have a chance to do a little more listening and research. Meanwhile, I’ll take my leave with a few lines I learned from my dad fifty-plus years ago:

Get six jolly gamblers to carry my coffin
Six pretty maidens to bear my grey pall
Throw dozens of roses on top of my casket
Roses to muffle the clods as they fall

Then beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly
Play the death march as you bear me along
Take me to the green valley and lay the sod o’er me
For I’m a young cowboy, and I know I’ve done wrong


Dave said...

Please sign and support our Petition to bestow upon Audie Murphy, America’s Most Decorated Soldier of WWII and beloved actor the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, our Nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his lifelong devotion to our Nation and his many cultural achievements in life.
Thank you!
Dave Phillips
Audie Murphy Presidential Medal of Freedom Petition Drive

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