Article Regional Song Sampler: The West

Sidney Robertson Cowell
Ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell of California. Included in this presentation are recordings she made of singers and musicians of various ethnic groups in central California. Select the link to view her biography.

Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah

The American West is defined in many ways. In its broadest meaning, the term includes the states listed below as the "Southwest" and the "Northwest," comprising a land mass that is half of the United States. Historically, continuing westward migration and settlement paralleled the growth of the United States. Several events in the nation's history hastened westward movement. The California Gold Rush (1848-1855) brought hopeful prospectors from all parts of the world, as did the 1859 discovery of the country's first major deposit of silver ore, the Comstock Lode, in Virginia City, Nevada. The stock market crash on October 29, 1929 (Black Tuesday) led to the Great Depression, prompting many Americans to move west in search of jobs and land. Additionally, poor farming practices and a prolonged drought created dust storms during the mid 1930s, forcing millions of people to leave their farms and move westward from the Dust Bowl regions in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and other states. The growth of the middle class after World War I also contributed to the growth of the western states.' In 1940, the population of California was 6,900,000, while the 2010 census counts California's population at 37,000,000. If California were a separate country, its economy would be among the top ten in the world. By the middle of the twentieth century, Los Angeles, California had become an important center for the recording industry.

The American West is the home of the country's highest percentage of American Indian, Asian and Hispanic populations." Although many see the West as the cradle of "cowboy" and "American Indian" cultures, its economic, industrial, and demographic diversity defies broad description. Both Hawaii and Alaska are listed here as part of the West. While each has a distinctive culture and history, they are similar in that indigenous populations strongly influence the culture of each state. In addition, Hawaii's culture is heavily influenced by Japanese immigration. In the late nineteenth century, major fruit and sugarcane industries actively recruited Japanese workers to take agricultural jobs. By the 1930s these immigrants had firm roots in Hawaii, and they play a dominant role in modern Hawaii's history and culture.

Return to Mapping the Songs of America


  • "Big Rock Candy Mountains," performed by Harry McClintock. McClintock claims to have composed this song during his days riding the western rails, and, though some think it may be older, no earlier version has been found. He describes how hobo's camps at hot springs in Utah and Idaho inspired the song. McClintock eventually settled in San Pedro, California, where this recording was made by folklorist Archie Green in 1968. (audio)
  • "Gary Haleamau." Gary Haleamau and his group perform Hawaiian Music and song from Nevada. Nevada has such a high population of Hawaiians that it is sometimes referred to as "the ninth island." (webcast)
  • "Colorado," by Henry Burr and Aaron Campbell (audio)
  • Décima de Ausencia (Décima of Absence), a love song sung in Spanish by Adolfo Chavez. The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle this region, beginning in about 1600. Adolfo Chaves was recorded at his home in Romeo, Colorado, by Juan B. Rael in 1940. (audio)
  • "Yup'ik song about a vision of a sailing ship in 1777," performed by the Nunamta Yup'ik Eskimo Dancers at the Library of Congress in 2003. This song tells of a holy man's vision of sailing ships off the coast of western Alaska a year before they actually arrived. The sails of Captain Cook's expeditionary ship would have been visible between April and September, 1778. (audio)
  • "Lament of the Old Sourdough," sung by Paul Roseland, 1974. This is a song of the Nome, Alaska gold rush, which took place from 1899 to 1909.
    The lyrics were published by Sam C. Dunham in 1901 in "The Goldsmith of Nome." (audio)
  • "Drum Song of Fengyang." An unidentified group of men and women performed this song for ethnomusicologists Chao Rulan Pian and Margaret Speaks in San Francisco, California in 1943. This is a well known folksong with many variations sung by street musicians. The song is in Mandarin, and is widely understood to be a song sung by people forced to flee from floods in the north (where Mandarin was originally spoken) to the Cantonese-speaking region in the south. The song does not tell of these hardships, but is comical, as the woman complains that she must beg because her husband is lazy and the man complains that his wife has big feet. (audio)
  • Agustín Lira and Alma / Quetzal: Cantos de mi Cantón. These two groups of performers from California present songs from the Chicano Movement, past and present. (webcast)
  • "Root, Hog, or Die," sung by Jimmy Denoon. Several versions of this song about the hardships of pioneer life in California are available in this presentation as both sheet music and audio recordings. (audio)
  • The Beehive Band: Mormon String Band Music from Utah (webcast)
  • "The Handcart Song," sung by L. M. Hilton. This song was sung by Mormon pioneers, many of whom packed their belongings in small hand-drawn carts to make the journey from Illinois to Utah. Recorded by Austin Fife in Ogden, Utah, 1946. (audio)
  • "Aloha oe," sung in Hawaiian and English by E. K. Rose in February 1917, composed by Queen Liliu'okalani in 1878. For the Hawaiian people at the time of this recording, this song had come to symbolize the imprisonment of the Queen in 1895-1896 and the loss of Hawaiian independence. The Queen died in November of the same year this recording was made.

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