Special thanks to Gibbs Smith Publishing for reprint permission.
See a list of other cowboy music books here.
Hal Cannon's introduction below is included in our feature, What is Western Music?
Old-Time Cowboy Songs
by Hal Cannon
To many westerners, any country music played at taverns is cowboy music. In contrast, to working cowboys and ranch people, cowboy songs are those whose stories tell the occupation of riding horses and raising cattle.
It used to be that cowboy and western music were synonymous in the minds of most Americans. But there are differences: country music is based on traditions of the rural Southeast. A new western traditionalism in music has been growing which resents the "western" being taken out of country and western. Working cowboys (and cowgirls) take seriously the mythic qualities of their lives. They still dress like cowboys, stake a good percentage of their earnings on fancy saddles and hand-crafted fear, many recite poems and sing cowboy songs. They risk all to cultivate the immense amount of skill it takes to be a good hand, taking seriously values such as valor, gentlemanliness, and honest work in the open lands of the West.
People of the West came to this part of the country from all over the world. They brought their old traditions with them, adapting and keeping some, discarding others. Just as western settlement was at its peak, means of communication in the world changed dramatically; telephones, phonographs, film, and radio brought popular culture to a new height of importance in people's lives.
Westerners needed some basis for identity in a rapidly changing technological world. Simultaneously, Americans became fascinated with cowboys. A handful of artists, writers, folklorists, and poets began to record the music, craft, and work skills. Recording artists of western songs in the twenties were primarily working cowboys who sang the folk music of their occupation. Often these boys put a simple melody to any old cowboy poem, making a song. (Many of those narrative songs are better suited for recitation, but a couple with good melodies are included here.)
As western movies became popular, many of their songs were composed in New York, performed in four-part harmony and fully orchestrated—a far cry from the cowboy folk music which preceded. The best of this new music, however, still responded to the heartfelt romance for cowboy lifestyle, and was therefore claimed by westerners. Over the last half century the power of popular culture is unmistakable. In some sense, applying the technologies of popular culture to folk expression is like putting a jet engine in a model T Ford. With the cowboy song, sometimes the wheels flew off the old fliver, but sometimes the supercharged cowboy song with overtones of jazz and pop styling worked quite nicely and was embraced by the folks of the West.
Many cowboys and western music enthusiasts are now looking back to early recordings made by working cowboys and western musicians to find a sense of tradition which responds to the unique land, sky, climate, and settlement of the West. Thanks to a few pioneering folklorists there is a good record of the text of cowboy music, and regional record companies captured the spirit of early cowboy singers. Many of the selections in this book were composed between 1880 and 1930. Even for the most familiar of them, I have chosen old and often archaic versions.
The songs herein were picked as favorites by a loose group of musicians called the Bunkhouse Orchestra, or the Deseret String Band. Most of the tunes are simple—sparse like the desert—so for decades they have been overlooked for their musical value; yet, just about every song in this volume has a melody that will cling to you like a bur.
This is a simple, sturdy little song book which was made to be used. Take it out in the wilds, like any field guide, where the singing of old western songs can be accompanied by the sputter of a campfire or the soft percussion of wind through the aspen leaves.
by Hal Cannon
Old-Time Cowboy Songs (Gibbs Smith, 1988)
© 1988, Gibbs Smith Publishing
Reprinted with the express permission of the author and the publisher.
photo by Lloyd Shelby, Kanab 2002
Songs Included in the Book
*those included on the recording
"Annie Laurie" by William Douglas and Lady John Scott
"A Bad Half Hour" by Charles Badger Clark
"Back to the Range" traditional
*"Blue Mountain" by Fred Keller
"The Boaster (Gay Paree)" by McGlennon, Conley and Sayers
"The Bravest Cowboy" traditional
"The Brazos" traditional
*"The Bunkhouse Orchestra" by Charles Badger Clark
*"Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" attributed to Rev. E. H. Chapin
*"The Cowboy and the Lady" traditional
"The Cowboy's Dance Song" James Barton Adams
"Cowboy Jack" traditional
*"A Cowboy's Life" traditional
"The Cowboy's Soliloquy: by Allen McCanless
"Custer's Last Charge" traditional
"The Days of Forty-Nine" by Charley Rhodes
"Dryland Farmers" traditional
"The Dying Ranger" traditional
*"The Gol Darn Wheel" traditional
"Golden Slippers" traditional
"Herding Sheep for the Granville Pace" by Lot Alexander
*"Hittin' the Trail Tonight" by Bruce Kiskaddon
"Home on the Range" by Brewster Higley
"I'd Like to be in Texas for the Roundup in the Spring" traditional
"Little Joe, the Wrangler" by Jack Thorp
"'Longside of the Sante Fe Trail" traditional
*"Maid of Argenta" by Jimmy Driftwood
"Mormon Cowboy" traditional
"Mustang Grey" traditional
"The Night Herding Song" attributed to Harry Stephens
"Nightime in Nevada" traditional
"Old Alberta Plains" by Wilf Carter
"The Old Chisolm Trail" traditional
"Old Paint Waltz" traditional
"Old-Time Trapper" traditional
"Powder River, Let 'er Buck" attributed to Jack Lee
"Railroading on the Great Divide" by The Carter Family
"Red River Valley" traditional
"Red Whiskey" traditional
"The Roving Cowboy" traditional
"The Strawberry Roan" by Curley Fletcher
"Texas Rangers" traditional
"Trail to Mexico" traditional
"Utah Carol" traditional
"Utah Trail" by Bob Palmer
"We Left Our Homes in Utah" by John Averett and Dave Cook
"Western Pioneer" traditional
"When the Work's All Done This Fall" by D. J. O'Malley
*"Whoopee-ti-yi-o Git Along Little Dogies" traditional
*"Wyoming Home" traditional
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