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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Western and Cowboy Songs

Although it is often spoken of in the same breath as "Country" music, "Western" is a distinct area of American popular music whose roots reach into the frontier era of the 19th century.

Playlist

Five recordings from Library of Congress collections

  • Starving to death on a government claim

    A pioneer song sung by folklorist Vance Randolph, who learned it in Kansas in his youth.

  • The Darned Old Wheel

    A comic cowboy song about the arrival of the bicycle in the West sung by Lum Wilson "Bill" Jackson in 1941.

  • Night herding song

    Composed and sung by Harry Stephens. An example of a work song composed by a cowboy for herding cattle at night.

  • Ragtime cowboy Joe

    Sung by Bob Roberts, Lyrics by Grant Clarke, music by Lewis F. Muir and Maurice Abrahams, 1912. An early example of a highly successful "cowboy song" composed for the popular market by those with little or no experience of the West.

  • The Bar J Wranglers: Cowboy Music from Wyoming

    A webcast of their performance at the Library of Congress, October 2, 2008.

Distinctly "Western" songs began to emerge in the mid-19th century, reflecting the Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma region's unique mix of peoples of Anglo, Celtic, Spanish, and Other European; African; Native; and Central American heritage. In addition, the great trail drives of the 1860s to the 1890s drew young men from all over the country and abroad to work as cowboys. They refashioned old folk and popular song forms to their own tastes, and added serious and comic lyrics about their lives and work, as well as specials calls and hollers to herd cattle and communicate with each other over the vast expanses of the trail. Cowboy poetry also flourished. The westernmost terminals of the railroads became points where cowboy songs were sung, shared, and then taken to new parts of the West by the cowboys returning home. For example, the railhead at Abilene, Kansas brought cowboys together from many Southwestern territories. The pioneer song "Home on the Range," written by Dr. Brewster M. Higley and set to music by Daniel Kelly in about 1874, not far from this railhead, was spread rapidly across the West in the 1870s by cowboys on cattle drives.

As the settlement of Mexico included portions of what became the Western United States in 1848, the Corridos, or ballads, sung by those close to Mexican culture often include both United States and Mexican history. An example is "Corrido villésta de la toma de Matamoros," which concerns the taking of Matamoros by Mexican revolutionary forces in 1913, a battle that had an impact on the United States as many people of the town fled the violence by crossing into Brownsville, Texas. (See also, "Mexican American Song.")

Gene Autry, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. 1953. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-5863. Autry, who grew up on a ranch in Texas, popularized cowboy music on stage, television, and radio beginning in the early 1930s.

Songs of the pioneers, Texas Rangers, and the gold rush also became part of the mix that we call Western music today. Some examples of pioneer songs include "Root Hog or Die," and "Freighting from Wilcox to Globe," and the Mormon pioneer song "St. George." A song of the difficult life of the Texas lawmen is "The Texas Ranger." There are many gold rush songs including "Clementine," about the California Gold rush, and "The dreary Black Hills," about the South Dakota gold rush.

The Western frontier was mythologized in the popular press, and numerous songs celebrating cowboys, Indians, outlaws and the wonders of the western lands were written by tunesmiths who had no firsthand knowledge of the West. Traveling shows such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West were similarly dramatic, but more authentic, and featured frontier personages such Buffalo Bill Cody himself, sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull. Buffalo Bill's show traveled with a full brass band, playing popular favorites of the day, cavalry marches and program material such as Karl I. King's "The Passing of the Red Man." "At the Bully Wooly Wild West Show" by the Peerless Quartet, is a 1913 evocation of these shows.

The region produced distinctive social dance music as well, as Mexican musicians adapted the accordions played by German and Bohemian immigrants to their own music, and even gave their waltzes and polkas distinctive Spanish interpretations. Texas fiddlers developed a repertoire markedly different from that of fiddlers elsewhere in the country, playing many waltzes and other European forms, and favoring tunes with three or more parts, in contrast with the two part tunes that dominated Appalachian and other fiddling traditions. In the 20th century, the Texas "long bow" style of fiddling blossomed, and incorporated blues and jazz influences.

The era of the great cattle drives ended in the 1890s, but even with the closing of the frontier, the appeal of cowboy songs and western music endured. Though cowboys no longer rode the Chisholm Trail north, there was still plenty of work with cattle to be had on ranches and in rodeos, and in songs, drama, popular fiction and movies, the cowboy had fully emerged as an authentic and truly American hero, a kind of knight of the plains. In the cities, this could be somewhat anachronistic, and it was the site of a young Brooklyn boy dressed up as a cowboy that inspired the 1912 song "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," which has since become as standard of the western repertoire. But for those who still own, work, or live on ranches in the west, "real" cowboy songs are generally those written by the people who shared that life as well as pioneer songs of the west that made their way into the cowboy repertoire. Cowboy songs are still written and sung today. Examples available in this presentation include concerts by D.W. Groethe of Montana and South Dakota,The Bar J Wranglers of Wyoming, and Wylie Gustafson and Paul Zarzyski of Montana.

In 1908 and 1910 two pioneering print collections were published: Jack Thorp's Songs of the Cowboy and John Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Both helped ensure that in the future at least some of the best known cowboy songs could be traced back to real cowboys. A few such songs were recorded commercially, some even sung by former cowboys such as Jules Verne Allen and Harry McClintock, or by singers with first hand experience of the West, such as Carl T. Sprague, who popularized "When the Work's All Done This Fall" and "The Dying Cowboy." [1] Beginning in 1933, John Lomax and his son Alan recorded the songs and stories of many real-life cowboys in English and Spanish as they gathered field recordings for the Library of Congress.

A few cowboy songs found their way to other genres. In 1923, Massachusetts-born baritone Royal Dadmun recorded art song settings of two cowboy songs: "Rounded Up in Glory," a song collected by John Lomax, which was set to music by Oscar J. Fox, a Texan from a ranching family who set other cowboy songs; and "A Roundup Lullaby," written by cowboy poet Charles "Badger" Clark, and set to music by composer Gertrude Ross, who taught composition to Eleanor Remick Warren. "A Roundup Lullaby" found a wide audience and was even sung by Bing Crosby in a 1936 film, Rhythm on the Range.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. 1953. National Broadcasting Company, 1954. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-126394. Roy Rogers formed the cowboy music group The Sons of the Pioneers with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer in 1934.

When sound films arrived in the late 1920s, the singing cowboy became a staple hero of Westerns. Ken Maynard, a rodeo cowboy and veteran of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, started in silent films, but came into his own in the talkies as the screen's first singing cowboy. Many singing cowboys followed, and Maynard was eventually eclipsed by enormous success of Gene Autry, who came from a Texas ranching family, and Roy Rogers, an Ohio native who cofounded the Sons of the Pioneers, a Western singing group whose other members hailed from Oklahoma, Texas and Canada.

Autry enjoyed many national hits, some of which he co-wrote such as his theme song "Back in the Saddle Again" and "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine." Before he left the Sons of the Pioneers to pursue his movie career, Rogers recorded "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" with the group, a major hit, and a celebration of the romantic image of the wandering, footloose cowboy. The Sons of the Pioneers regrouped without Rogers, and continued to great success with a combination of tight harmonies, western themes, and the unique swing flavorings that Hugh and Karl Farr, two Texas bothers of Scotch-Irish and Cherokee descent, added with their fiddle and guitar work.

In the 1930s a large migration of people fleeing the dust bowl of the Southwest and Midwest occurred. A large portion of these people heading for California to become migrant workers. They brought their music with them, and so this migration had an impact on Western music as traditional music of agriculturalists blended with the popular Western music that was emerging. Most notably, singer Woody Guthrie emerged as a singer and songwriter who called attention to the plight of the dust bowl migrants. His album Dust Bowl Ballads, published in 1940, was the most successful album of his career. [2]

In this period, the style now known as "Western Swing" emerged. Groups such as Milton Brown and his Musical Brownie and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys led the way, playing an often raucous mixture of Western, pop, jazz and folk influences, and featuring electric guitars and drum kits, setting themselves apart from the Appalachian based styles produced by the emerging country music establishment in Nashville, Tennessee A western swing tune might feature an old fiddle tune enlivened with blues and jazz phrasing, a bit of a German or Czech melody played with a Spanish lilt, set to a fast, driving Dixieland rhythm. Western Swing also took western music all the way west to California, where many artists entertained before huge audiences of recent arrivals from Texas and Oklahoma in the 1940s and 1950s.

Texas and Oklahoma singers such as Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman also emerged in the 1940s. Though they were not thought of as Western Swing artists, they incorporated its influence in their style. Their songs often celebrated (or cursed) what Hank Thompson called "The Wild Side of Life" in one of his songs. By this time, the influence of the western scene was so strong that country artists began to copy it. Hank Williams, a native of Alabama, called his band "The Drifting Cowboys," and their sound owed much to the Western style.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a generation of Western singers and songwriters emerged with a style influenced by Western artists, as well as a frank, plainspoken lyrical approach that set them apart from the Country and pop music establishments. Bakersfield, California, where many westerners had settled in the 1930s and 1940s, became a new center for western music, with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard leading the way. Texas born artists such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings returned to Texas after sojourns in Nashville, and pursued their individual styles to eventual great success. George Jones, considered by some to be the greatest singer in the Country or Western fields, is also a native of Texas.

In the 1970s, Western Swing experienced a revival in popularity that has carried it down to this day. Merle Haggard recorded two tribute albums to Bob Wills in 1970 and 1973, and performed Wills's material live with many original Texas Playboys. Young groups such as Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen played Western Swing for audiences raised on rock. More recently, Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett has incorporated and adapted much Western Swing into his work. Riders in the Sky, a highly skilled trio inspired by the Sons of the Pioneers achieved wide popularity and even hosted a children's television show with a mix of classic Western Swing and the singing cowboy styles of Hollywood. Today, young groups like the Quebe Sisters, a trio of fiddlers from Fort Worth, are keeping Western music alive and swinging in the 21st Century.

Notes

  1. This presentation includes field recordings of "The work's all done next fall" sung by Beal Taylor and "The dying cowboy" (also known as "Bury me not on the lone prairie") sung by Frank Goodwin. [back to article]
  2. This presentation includes songs of dust bowl migrants collected in California by Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin in 1949 and 1941. See the article: "Songs of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Migrants." [back to article]
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