I love to know where these old songs came from, and I write a column for the Western Way Magazine titled Golden Nuggets on the history of classic Western songs. You can read them all on the Western Music Associations website http://www.westernmusic.org but for your convenience, I have gathered them all here, in reverse chronological order (Newest first) I hope you enjoy them!
Billy the Kid
Once again it’s time to take a fine tooth comb to our musical history, and discover some Golden Nuggets. As I write this it’s Nov 23, the putative birthday of Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney better known as Billy the Kid. Born in New York City in 1859 to an unwed Irish immigrant, Catherine McCarty. Young Henry grew up there, until 1868 when Catherine along with Henry, and his half brother Joseph moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. There she met her future husband Henry Antrim, 12 years her junior. After moving around the country doing various odd jobs, the family finally settled in Silver City, New Mexico Territory in 1873. Antrim soon deserted them, becoming an itinerant prospector, and sometimes gambler. Catherine did laundry, took in boarders, and was locally famous for her pies. Sadly, she was already in the final stages of Tuberculosis, and would die in the fall of 1874.
Henry, now a fun loving lad of 14, was taken in by a local family who ran a hotel in Silver City, where he worked for his keep. The manager is reported to have said that McCarty was the only young man who worked there who never stole anything. He was liked by his teachers, and was generally seen as good natured, and mischievous. However life was about to take a turn for the worse. His foster family began experiencing domestic troubles, and he had to seek other lodging, winding up in a boarding house with some unsavory characters. He was arrested in April of 1875 for stealing cheese, and then again in September of the same year when he was found in possession of clothing and a pistol that another boarder had stolen from a Chinese laundry. He was jailed, escaped by shinnying up the chimney, and from that point on spent most of the rest of his short life as a fugitive.
He drifted into Arizona Territory, near Fort Grant, and became a gambler, and horse thief. In August, 1877 he shot and killed Blacksmith “Windy” Cahill after a verbal exchange. In fear of Cahill’s friends, he returned to New Mexico Territory, settling around the Army fort Apache Tejo. Here he continued rustling and gambling, and adopted the alias William H. Bonney. It was his participation in the Lincoln County War, and his murder of Sheriff William Brady that cemented his reputation as a bloodthirsty killer. He is documented to have killed, alone or acting with others, a total of 8 men. Legend ascribes to him a total of 21, one for each year of his short life.
He was killed by Pat Garrett on the evening of July 14, 1881. Several fascinating books on his life have been published, including “To Hell on a Fast Horse” by Mark Lee Gardner. These are highly recommended to any student of history.
He was lauded as a Robin Hood type character by dime novels of the period, and achieved more fame and notoriety in death than he ever did in life.
The song, The Ballad of Billy the Kid, was first recorded by Vernon Dalhart for Victor on April 12, 1927. (His stage name comprised of two Texas towns, where he worked as a Cowboy growing up) Dalhart is best remembered for his recordings of The Wreck of the Old 97 and The Prisoners Song.
The exact origins of the song, like much of the life of its subject, are not totally clear. I’ve been able to trace one branch to a silent film stuntman, and sometimes radio singer named Chuck Haas. Supposedly he got the song to Dalhart, who then recorded it. According to Haas, he reworked an old folk tune and he got the lyrics from none other than Wyatt Earp! This is plausible, as in 1927 Wyatt was making his living as a consultant for Western movies (he would die in Los Angeles in 1929.)
A longer, and more involved retelling of the story, sometimes using the same tune and sometimes the melody from Sweet Betsy from Pike was published in 1928 by Henry Herbert Knibbs.
The version below comes for Jules Verne Allen’s 1933 work “Cowboy Songs and Lore” and is in the Public Domain.
I’ll sing you a true song, of Billy the Kid;
I’ll sing of the des p’rate deed that he did;
‘Way out in New Mexico long, long ago
When a man’s only chance was his old forty four.
When Billy the Kid was a very young lad;
In old Silver City he went to the bad;
Way out in the west with a gun in his hand,
At the age of twelve years he killed his first man.
Fair Mexican maidens play guitars and sing;
A song about Billy their boy bandit king;
How, ere his young manhood had reached its sad end,
Had a notch on his pistol for twenty-one men.
‘Twas on the same night that poor Billy died,
He said to his friends, “I’m not satisfied
There are twenty-one men I’ve put bullets through,
And Sheriff Pat Garrett must make twenty-two.”
Now this is how Billy the Kid met his fate;
The bright moon was shining, the hour was late;
Shot down by Pat Garrett who once was his friend,
The young outlaw’s life had come to its end.
There’s many a man with face fine and fair,
Who starts out in life with a chance to be square;
But just like poor Billy, he wanders astray,
And loses his life the very same way.
JVA Cowboy Songs and Lore, Pg 163 – 164 w/ music.
It’s been recorded by dozens of singers, my personal favorite rendition being Marty Robbins.
Well folks, I welcome your suggestions for future songs. Please address them to Buck@buckhelton.com
Until next time,
Once again it’s time to meander down a musical stream, and pan out a few Golden Nuggets.
This time out we are going to hunt into the origin, and early history of an old night herding tune, Utah Carroll. Like When the work’s all done this fall, and Little Joe the wrangler, Utah Carroll tells the story of a Cowboy getting killed in a stampede, only this one is accidentally caused by the Cowboy’s own good deed. He placed a blanket under the saddle ridden by the Boss’s daughter. It came loose, spooked the cattle, and they stampeded. Utah rescues the girl, and turns the stampede, but is killed in the process.
Most of us probably first heard the tune on Marty Robbins groundbreaking concept album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The lyrics and arrangement on that recording differ a bit from the traditional ballad. As first published on page 66 in the 1910 edition of John Lomax’s work “Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads.” It has 10 verses, which are reproduced at the end of this article.
The first recording of the song was made in 1925 by Charles Nabell on the Okeh label. (Okeh would later record a young Gene Autry.) Followed about 18 months later by Carl T. “Doc” Sprague for Victor. Numerous artists have covered it down through the years, and it has changed with time. Some refer to the Cowboy as Utah Carl, though Carroll is the original name.
The song most likely has its origins in either Texas or New Mexico. In the original lyrics, it speaks of Mexico’s fair lands, while in other versions it’s Texas, or even New Mexico. In the original piece the girl’s name is Varro, which is a Latin name, lending credence to the tune’s border origins. (It means strong or durable) In later versions her name is changed to Lenore. In the 1938 revision of Lomax’s book a footnote mentions that according to J. T. Shirley, of San Angelo, Texas, a cowboy on the Curve T Ranch, Schleicher County, Texas, wrote the song. Another possible author is Jack Thorp. Logsdon, in his notes to Cow Folk CD1, which includes Harry “Mac” McClintock’s rendition of the piece, states definitively that Thorp composed it, sending it to Kenneth S. Clark to be included in one of his Cowboy songbooks. It should be noted however that Thorp did not include the piece in Songs of the Cowboys even in the 1922 edition after Lomax had already published it. Also, I have been unable to locate any reliable source in which Thorp himself claims to have written the song. Of course, Lomax had published Little Joe by Thorp, without permission or attribution, so it is a possibility.
The score, published in the 1938 revision of Cowboy Songs is different than earlier works, and may have been composed by F.C. Thorne of Ft. Worth, TX. (Lomax credits him with giving him part of the song) It is easily available, but will not be printed here due to copyright issues.
Below are the public domain original lyrics to the tune, under its original name, Utah Carroll.
1. And as, my friend, you ask me what makes me sad and still,
And why my brow is darkened like the clouds upon the hill.
Run in your pony closer and I’ll tell to you the tale
Of Utah Carroll, my partner, and his last ride on the trail.
- ‘Mid the cactus and the thistles of Mexico’s fair lands,
Where the cattle roam in thousands, a-many a herd and brand,
There is a grave with neither headstone, neither date nor name,—
There lies my partner sleeping in the land from which I came.3. We rode the range together and had rode it side by side.
I loved him as a brother; I wept when Utah died.
We were rounding up one morning; our work was almost done,
When on the side the cattle started on a mad and fearless run.4. The boss man’s little daughter was holding on that side.
She rushed; the cattle saw the blanket; they charged with maddened fear.
And little Varro, seeing the danger, turned her pony a pace,
And leaning in her saddle, tied the blanket in its place.5. In leaning, she lost her balance and fell in front of that wild tide.
Utah’s voice controlled the round-up. “Lay still, little Varro,” he cried.
His only hope was to raise her, to catch her at full speed,
And oft-times he had been known to catch the trail rope off his steed.6. His pony reached the maiden with a firm and steady bound.
Utah swung out from the saddle to catch her from the ground.
He swung out from the saddle; I thought her safe from harm,
As he swung in his saddle to raise her in his arm.
7. But the cinches of his saddle had not been felt before,
And his back cinch snapped asunder and he fell by the side of Varro.
He picked up the blanket and swung it over his head
And started across the prairie; “Lay still, little Varro,” he said.
8. Well, he got the stampede turned and saved little Varro, his friend.
Then he turned to face the cattle and meet his fatal end.
His six-shooter from his pocket, from the scabbard he quickly drew,—
He was bound to die defended as all young cowboys do.
9. His six-shooter flashed like lightning, the report rang loud and clear.
As the cattle rushed in and killed him, he dropped the leading steer.
And when we broke the circle where Utah’s body lay,
With many a wound and bruise his young life ebbed away.
10.”And in some future morning,” I heard the preacher say,
“I hope we’ll all meet Utah at the round-up far away.”
Then we wrapped him in a blanket sent by his little friend,
And it was that very red blanket that brought him to his end.
Hope you enjoyed the ride pards! As always, your questions, suggestions, and correspondence are welcome. Send them on to Buck@buckhelton.com
‘til next time,
Get along little Dogies…
Our musical meanderings this time out will take us down the trail of a song about going up the trail.
Get along little Dogies, also known as whoopi-ti-yi-yo, and The Night Herding Song is one of the oldest Working Cowboy songs. It dates from approximately 1871 when Texas Steers began to be driven into Wyoming territory. Like many of the early Cowboy songs, it has its roots in The Old Sod. In this case County Dublin around 1850. The original tune tells of a man rocking a crying baby, whilst bemoaning the fact that his unfaithful wife has left him at home to tend another man’s child while she goes out on the town. It’s titled The Old Man Rocking The Cradle. The melody, meter, and even some of the lyrics are borrowed from this earlier composition.
The word “Dogie” (pronounced as doe-gee) has a couple of different possibilities as to its origin. The first being a corruption of the Spanish Dogal, meaning halter which was used on motherless calves to keep them from wandering away from the herd until they were trail- broke. The second possibility is the term Dough-Gut. When a calf is weaned too soon, and forced to eat grass before they are capable of digesting it they take on a paunch that looks somewhat like a sack of sourdough starter, hence Dough Gut. Dogie in either case referred initially to an orphan calf, but later came to be applied to any young bovine.
Like Cowboy’s Prayer, this one came to us from the Journal of Owen Wister. In this case a February 1893 entry, near Brownwood, TX. “I have come upon a unique song… and I transcribe it faithfully. Only a cowboy could have produced such an effusion. It has the earmark of entire genuineness.”
The lyrics we are familiar with today were first published in John Lomax’s 1910 work Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads. The first commercial recording of the tune was made by Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock for Victor in 1928, and sold by mail order through Montgomery Ward. (McClintock was also known for such tunes as Hallelujah, I’m a bum and The Big Rock Candy Mountain.) The bestselling recording of the time was John I. White’s version in 1931. (White was a popular radio singer, known as “The Lonesome Cowboy”). Below are the original lyrics as transcribed by Wister:
As I walked out one morning for pleasure,
I met a cowpuncher a-jogging along.
His hat was thrown back and his spurs was a-jingling,
And as he advanced he was singing this song.
Sing hooplio get along my little dogies,
For Wyoming shall be your new home.
It’s hooping and yelling and cursing those dogies,
To our misfortune but none of your own.
In the Springtime we round up the dogies,
Slap on the brands and bob off their tails.
Then we cut herd and herd is inspected,
And then we throw them on the trail.
In the evening we round up the dogies
As they are grazing from herd all around.
You have no idea the trouble they give us
As we are holding them on the bedground.
In the morning we throw off the bedground,
Aiming to graze them an hour or two.
When they are full, you think you can drive them
On the trail, but be damned if you do.
Some fellows go on the trail for pleasure,
But they have got this thing down wrong.
If it hadn’t bin for these troublesome dogies,
I never would thought of writing this song.
I hope you’ve enjoyed a bit of the history of this old Mossy-horn of a song. It comes by request and I’d love to hear from you if there’s a song you’ve always wondered about. Next time, we’ll look into a great Stampede ballad, Utah Carroll
The Cowboy’s Sweet Bye and Bye
The American Cowboy, being exposed as he was and is on a daily basis to the beauty and wonder of God’s creation has always been a deeply spiritual fellow. You may or may not find him at a Church service on Sunday mornings, but every Cowboy knows there is a Maker of creation, that He is good, for He gave us such beauty, and that we will have to give an account of our lives before him one day. As such, Gospel songs, and hymns have long made up an essential part of the Cowboy’s songbook.
We are going to focus on one this go round that started life as a piece of Cowboy Poetry, titled “The Cowboy’s sweet bye and bye” by D.J. O’Malley. Mr. O’Malley, as you may recall from an earlier column, also wrote the lyrics for “When the works all done this fall” which was the very first hit Cowboy record. Sweet bye and bye was first published in The Miles City Stock growers Journal in Miles City Montana in the mid to late 1880’s (Sorry for the lack of an exact date, I just moved, and don’t have access to all my reference materials right at this moment!) It became immensely popular very quickly. At some point, an enterprising puncher fit the lyrics to the tune of “My Bonnie lies over the ocean” and the song became known variously as Cowboy’s Dream, Cowboy’s Prayer, and Roll on Little Dogies. The Bonnie in the song btw, is not a girl, nor is this a love song, but an early political protest. It is a Scottish song lamenting the usurpation of the throne of Scotland by the English, and the exile of their rightful ruler, Charles Stuart, known to history as Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Like many of the classic Western songs, this one exists today only because someone took the time to write it down. In this instance, that someone was Owen Wister, who gave us the classic Western novel (later film and TV series) The Virginian. He mentioned in one of his diaries hearing “an old trail song” on a drive outside Brownwood Texas.
The concept was also addressed by a biter known writer, Will Barnes for the Saturday Evening Post. Mr. O’Malley’s publication however was first. According to O’Malley, he got the idea from one of the hands on the N-bar-N Ranch who was fond of hymns, and frequently sang the Sweet bye and bye, with the ending refrain “I wonder if ever a Cowboy would drift to that sweet bye and bye. Below is the original text.
To-night as I lay on the prairie,
Looking up at the stars in the sky,
I wonder if ever a cowboy
Will go to that sweet by-and-by.
For the trail to that bright mystic region
Is both narrow and dim, so they say,
While the broad one that leads to perdition
Is posted and blazed all the way.
Now I wonder whose fault that so many
Will be lost at the great final day,
When they might have been rich, and had plenty
Had they known of the dim narrow way.
I hear there will be a grand roundup,
When the cowboys, like others, will stand,
To be cut by the riders of judgment,
Who are posted and know every brand.
Then perhaps there may be a stray cowboy,
Unbranded, unclaimed by none nigh,
To be mavericked by the riders of judgment,
And shipped to the sweet by-and-by.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this look at one of the Cowboy’s favorite early Gospel songs. I’ve moved, as I mentioned, and your author can now be reached at P.O. Box 89276 Tucson, AZ 85752.
‘til next time, Happy Trails!
My love is a Rider…
Well, this go-round, as promised we’re gonna delve into one of the earliest Cowboy love songs, from the ladies perspective. The purported author however was no lady, but a notorious bandit queen. Born Myra Maybelle Shirley in Carthage, MO in Feb of 1848, the young girl who would one day be known as the Outlaw Belle Starr came by her scrappy nature honestly. Her mother was a Hatfield, of the famous feuding clan. Her father, John Shirley was a prosperous innkeeper, and young Myra received a classical education at the Carthage Female Academy. She was well liked by her classmates and instructors, and had a flair for playing the piano. Said classical education included as a matter of course both poetry, and music. Belle’s brother Bud was a friend of and fellow rider with Quantrill, and Bloody Bill Anderson. She and her family also counted as friends the Youngers, The Reeds, and the James Brothers, Frank and Jesse.
As the War of Northern aggression was drawing to a close, her family’s fortunes fell, and they moved to the Dallas suburb of Scyene, TX. In 1864. Within 2 years the Youngers were using the Shirley home as a safe house, and hide-out. Young Belle was smitten with Cole Younger, and there is much speculation that her daughter Rosie Reed, aka Pearl Starr was in fact Younger’s child instead of her husband Jim Reed’s. (Belle later changed her daughter’s last name to Younger, adding credence to the rumor.) Photographs of the period also show that Pearl did not favor Reed, but bore a striking resemblance to Younger. Belle would marry at least 3 times that are documented, to Reed, Sam Starr, and also to Jim July Starr. A widely reported marriage to Cole Younger’s uncle Bruce in 1878 lacks official records, and may or may not have occurred.
Belle bootlegged, robbed, and rustled her way across Indian Territory, crossing paths with the Hanging Judge Isaac Parker several times, but only once was she sent to prison. She was shot from ambush two days shy of her 41’st Birthday, and her murder remains unsolved to this day.
The song, My love is a rider, or The Bucking Broncho is attributed to her by several collectors, including Jack Thorpe, who published it in his 1908 Pamphlet, Songs of the Cowboy. It was first published as a poem however in a 1904 story “The Rawhide” by Stewart Edward White, in McClure’s Magazine and the words were claimed by James Hatch (1882). Only 3 stanzas appeared in the story. Thorpe was a reliable narrator; however Belle was notorious for exaggerating her exploits. It is reasonable to presume that Jack Thorpe reliably reported on their meeting and interview; however Belle may, or may not have been truthful in her claim. We do know however that she was an accomplished pianist and was exposed to poetry growing up, so such authorship is not implausible. Supposedly, the rider in the poem’s title was Cole Younger who did indeed leave her, just as the final line suggests. There are also many bawdy variants of the song as well, appearing as early as 1910.
The song was very popular after Belle Starr became a featured character in Dime Novels of the period, and in the Police Gazette. It was first recorded for Bluebird in 1934 by Powder River Jack & Kitty Lee, and the following year for the same label by the Girls of the Golden West.
My love is a rider, wild bronchos he breaks,
Though he’s promised to quit it, just for my sake.
He ties up one foot, the saddle puts on,
With a swing and a jump he is mounted and gone
The first time I met him, ’twas early one spring,
Riding a broncho, a high-headed thing.
He tipped me a wink as he gaily did go;
For he wished me to look at his bucking broncho.
The first time I saw him ’twas late in the fall,
Swinging the girls at Tomlinson’s ball.
He laughed and he talked as we danced to and fro,
Promised never to ride on another broncho.
He made me some presents, among them a ring;
The return that I made him was a far better thing;
‘Twas a young maiden’s heart, I’d have you all know;
He’s won it by riding his bucking broncho.
Now all you young maidens, where’er you reside,
Beware of the cowboy who swings the rawhide;
He’ll court you and pet you and leave you and go
In the spring up the trail on his bucking broncho.
Mr. Hatch’s claim is documented by J. Frank Dobie thusly. “While I was at Platte City, Nebraska, in 1882 with a trail herd, I composed ‘The Bucking Bronco.’ I was with the Ed Nicholson outfit and was horse wrangler. With the same outfit was Billie Davis, a San Antonio cowboy and also a wrangler. —He made up the tune, by whistling, to go with ‘The Bucking Bronco.”
Quoted from J. Frank Dobie, 1928, “More Ballads and Songs of the Frontier Folk,”
Regardless of the original authorship, it’s a wonderful early Cowgirl song, and should be performed more often.
Join us next time, when we’ll celebrate a wonderful Cowboy Gospel song, from the diary of Owen Wister.
Little Joe the Wrangler
Well, this go-round we are going to look into the history of one of the favorite Cowboy songs of the last hundred years, Little Joe the Wrangler, and its author, Nathaniel Howard “Jack” Thorp. It is biographical, and the events contained in the song happened exactly as related, with no embellishment on the part of the writer. It was written on a cattle drive from Chimney Lake, NM to Higgins, TX. The same one on which Joe perished, in 1898. (Yes, believe it or not, cattle were occasionally driven into Texas, as well as the usual practice of driving Longhorns out of Texas)
The story tells of a young man (early teens at latest, perhaps as young as 12) who left his home after his father remarried, when he could no longer stand the beatings delivered by his stepmother. He finds a cattle drive, and despite having no experience working livestock, convinces the trail boss to hire him. The Boss trains him as a wrangler, and puts him in charge of the herd’s remuda (Spare horses for the Cowboys to change mounts, as well as special purpose mounts for cutting, night herding, etc.) One evening there is a stampede, and all the hands ride out to try and turn the herd. Unknown to the rest of the drovers, during the stampede little Joe’s horse rides into a washout, and both Joe and the horse are killed. He is found the next morning, still beneath his mount and is mourned by his companions, who had grown quite fond of their “little Texas stray”.
Thorp himself had a very interesting life. Born in the East in 1867 to a wealthy New York City Lawyer, he was raised in the lap of luxury. Summering in Rhode Island, playing polo, and receiving the finest education available at the time, including a few years at Harvard. He was a contemporary and friend of future president Teddy Roosevelt and seemed destined for the life of the idle rich. However, by the time he was twenty, his family’s fortunes had turned, and he had to make his own way in the world. As generations of young men before him had done, He followed the advice of Horace Greely, and headed West. He became a Cowboy, and that set him on what would be his life-long quest to collect, preserve, and publish the Songs of the Cowboy, and the West. He would also add several of his own compositions to that collection, including his most famous, Little Joe.
The quest started with another Joe, a song about a mischievous steer called Dodgin’ Joe that he heard from a black cowhand named ‘Lasses when he wandered into a Texas Cow camp one evening. Thorp was curious as to the songs origin. ‘Lasses didn’t know where the song came from, and only knew two verses. Thorp decided then and there that he would devote his life to collecting, and preserving these vanishing songs of the range, while there were still some folks who knew them. Dodgin’ Joe wound up in Thorp’s 1908 pamphlet (one could not really call it a book at only 50 pages) Songs of the Cowboys, which has the distinction of being the first published collection of Cowboy songs, predating John Lomax’s first volume by 2 years. It also included the now classic Little Joe the Wrangler, which became popular from the first time it was performed, by the writer in a saloon in Weeds, NM. It was set to a popular tune of the period written in 1871 by a songwriter and poet named William Shakespeare Hays entitled “the little old log cabin in the lane”. This tune was used for many things; including little old sod shanty, the well-known hymn Lily of the Valley, and dozens of others. An interesting side note, although he was unable to prove it conclusively due to a fire destroying the papers, Hays is also commonly believed to be the author of the Southern anthem, Dixie.
As his son Alan would do later with The Sierry Petes, John Lomax, without permission or attribution included Little Joe the wrangler in his 1910 work “Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads” Like his son, he would be sued by the author. And as would later happen to Gail Gardner, Thorp would lose control of his composition, and would receive little, if any money from the piece during his life. Below is the original text from the 1908 (Public Domain) edition of Songs of the Cowboys of Little Joe the Wrangler.
Little Joe, the wrangler, will never wrangle more;
His days with the remuda- they are done.
‘Twas a year ago last April, he joined the outfit here,
A little Texas stray and all alone.
‘Twas long late in the evening he rode up to the herd
On a little old brown pony he called Chow;
With his brogan shoes and overalls, a harder- lookin’ kid,
You never in our life had seen before.
His saddle “t was a southern kack built many years ago,
An O.K. spur on one foot idly hung,
While the “hot roll” in a cotton sack was loosely tied behind,
And a canteen from the saddle horn h’ed slung.
He said he’d had to leave home, his daddy’d married twice,
And his new ma beat him every day or two,
So he saddled up old Chow one night and “lit a shuck” this way-
Thought he’d try and paddle now his own canoe.
Said he’d try and do the best he could if we’d only give him work
Though he didn’t know straight up about a cow;
So the Boss he cut him out a mount and kinder put him on,
For he sorta liked that little stray somehow.
Taught him how to herd the horses and learn to know them all,
To round ‘em up by daylight if he could;
To follow the chuck-wagon and to always hitch the team
And help the “cosinero” rustle wood.
We’d driven to Red River and the weather had been fine,
We were camped down on the south side in a bend,
When a norther commenced blowin’ and we all doubled up our guards,
For it took all hands to hold the cattle then.
Little Joe, the wrangler, was called out with the rest,
And scarcely had the kid got to that herd,
When the cattle they stampeded; like a hailstorm, long they flew,
And all of us were riding for the lead.
‘Tween the streaks of lightnin’ we could see that horse far out ahead-
“T was little Joe, the wrangler, in the lead;
He was ridin’ “Old Blue Rocket” with his slicker ‘bove his head,
Trying to check the leaders in their speed.
At last we got them milling and kinder quieted down,
And the extra guard back to the camp did go;
But one of them was missin’, and we all knew at a glance
‘T was our little Texas stray, poor Wrangler Joe.
Next morning just at sunup we found where Rocket fell,
Down in a washout twenty feet below;
Beneath his horse, mashed to a pulp, his spurs had rung the knell
For our little Texas stray, poor Wrangler Joe.
Jack Thorp says this: “Written by me on trail of herd of O cattle from Chimney Lake, New Mexico, to Higgins, Texas, 1898. On trail were the following men, all from Sacramento Mountains, or Crow Flat: Pap Logan, Bill Blevins, Will Brownfield, Will Fenton, Lije Colfelt, Tom Mews, Frank Jones, and myself.”
For a more detailed look into his life, I highly recommend the short film “On the trail of Jack Thorp” featuring Don Edwards.
Next go round we will hunt down the origins of one of the earliest popular Cowboys songs, from the ladies point of view, though the author was not a lady, but a notorious Bandit Queen!
Tyin knots in the devil’s tail
Our nugget this go-round is somewhat unusual, in that while it is definitely a classic Cowboy song, we have a much better ability to get to all the facts concerning its writing and there are many still with us who knew the original author, Gail Gardner. Also, I won’t be printing the lyrics themselves as the song is still under copyright. Gail was born in Prescott, Arizona Territory in the waning days of the Old West on Christmas Day, 1892. He lived most of his life in the house he was born in, when he wasn’t working or traveling.
As a young boy, he worked in his father’s store and one of his favorite jobs was to grind the coffee. He was not a very tall boy (He would never grow beyond 5’7”) and he couldn’t always get the candy that Arbuckle’s packed in their coffee out of the hopper. He ground it anyway, and sometimes folks would come back asking for more of that peppermint flavored coffee. Gail might just have started the trend that still goes on today of adding flavorings to coffee! He was educated at Dartmouth (He received a B.S in Math, but “decided I’d druther count cows”) and traveled all over the country, but his goal in life was to be a Cowboy. And in that, he succeeded brilliantly. Gail was also a Cowboy poet and songwriter of great renown. After his retirement from the range he became Postmaster of Prescott, AZ. For 26 years.
His best known piece, “The Sierry Petes” aka “Tyin knots in the devils tail” was written as a poem while he was on a train ride to enter the Army Air Service in WWI in 1917. He spent the remainder of the Great War teaching others how to fly the Curtis JN-4 in Texas. Whilst riding through Kansas, he saw a peaceful herd of domestic cattle contentedly grazing in a pen, with a couple of farmers walking around them checking things. He recalled a recent round-up he’d finished shortly before near Copper Basin, in the shadow of Thumb Butte and the juxtaposition of the mossy horns he and his crew had to deal with versus those placid bovines he saw out the window of his train car spawned the verse.
In the poem, Gail, known as Buster, and his friend “Sandy” Bob Heckle were rounding up strays near Prescott, and get tired of the smell of scorched hide and decide to go on a bender. They head into town and attempt a popular local challenge, to down a shot of whiskey in each of the towns 40 saloons. Upon achieving this, they are somewhat unsteadily riding back to camp when they encounter the devil, who tries to claim their souls for drunkenness. They tell the devil to go to hell, rope him, earmark him, brand him, tie knots in his tail and leave him necked up to a black jack oak. It’s said the moaning winds coming down from the Sierry Petes (really the Sierra Prietta range, part of the AZ transition, near the Mogollon Rim) is the devil bellerin’ about the knots tied in his tail. All of the events up to meeting the devil occurred exactly as written. Sandy Bob on the way back to their camp on the Dearing Ranch expressed his concern that “The devil gets Cowboys for doing what we did” to which Gail replied that if Ol’ slitfoot showed up, they’d “rope and brand him, and leave him tied to a Black Oak.”
It was later set to music by Gail’s friend Bill Simon, and became popular amongst rodeo cowboys, as well as sang around campfires at gatherings. It was at one such that a Dude Wrangler named George German heard it in 1929, and asked Gail if he could record it, alongside another of Gail’s pieces, “The Moonshine Steer”
It was recorded for a station in Yankton, South Dakota and George, not being a Cowboy according to Gail “Bitched up the words somewhat to suit the sensitive cars of his radio audience, deleted the damns and hells and changed phrases he didn’t understand. I suppose that is where those radio punks first got hold of it. I would hear it sung by some guitar plunker who didn’t know which end of the cow gets up first.” (Journal of AZ History, Vol 15, No 3.)
Gail spent years sending out letters notifying others of Copyright infringement, and trying to be more widely recognized as the author. He wasn’t stingy; many times he’d give permission to record the piece for nothing more than proper attribution. Probably the most colorful of these wranglings happened when Alan Lomax, a well-known and respected musicologist, and son of famed Cowboy Song collector John Lomax put the tune in his 1960 work “Folk Songs of North America” not only without proper credit, but with the accusation of plagiarism. “Tying a knot in the Devil’s Tail . . . is a ballad from the dude ranch period and the sort of haywire song the guide serves up to his Eastern charges around some nice comfortable camp-fire in the mountains. A ranch poet, desperate to find something to match the tourists’ idea of the wild and woolly West, remade the Charles Badger Clark poem, which began, Way high up in the Mokiones…” (Folk Songs of North America, Alan Lomax. 1’st edition, 1960)
Gardner responded to this scurrilous notion with a letter including the classic line “Professional singers of cowboy songs and editors have much in common, neither knows which end of a horse the hay goes in or which end of a cow gets up first … Proper credit was indeed given in future editions.
There are mild similarities between the two works, Both tunes are re-workings of the old folksong “Polly Wolly Doodle” and both take place along the Mogollon Rim; however Clark’s “The Glory Trail” aka “High Chin Bob” refers to a Cowboy roping a Mountain Lion, and then being unable to either reel him in, or turn him loose. Gail lived to see his songs become popular all across the country, and indeed sung around the world. He died on November 23, 1988 at the age of 95.
If you’d like to learn more about this great piece, read some fascinating articles on Gail’s other works, and get the full text of his original poem, I recommend you visit one of the WMA’s partners, CowboyPoetry.com. You can find a few of my pieces there as well.
‘til next time,
The Yellow Rose of Texas
Time to ride once again our musical trail into those thrilling days of yesteryear. This go round we are doing something a little different in that what we are exploring is not a Cowboy song, per se. However without the events of the song in question, Texas as we know it might not exist. And without Texas, the Cowboy might never have come to be.
Texas, April 1836. With the fall of the Alamo on March 6’th , Santa Anna felt he was close to crushing the rebellion and placing the Texians once again under Mexico’s yoke. He believed that as soon as he caught up with Sam Houston’s forces, he would dispatch them quickly and the rebellion would be over. He didn’t realize, arrogant worm that he was, that he was being directed to a battlefield of Houston’s choosing. Nor that a prisoner he’d recently taken, and was rather taken with, would be his undoing.
That prisoner was a young Quadroon (1/4 Black) woman named Emily D. West. Born in New Haven, CT. some 20 years prior, Emily was a “Free Person of Color” as they were legally termed. In late 1835, in New York, she had entered into a one year indenture as a servant (not slave) to Captain James Morgan of New Washington, TX. (now Morgan’s Point) as a housekeeper at the Colonial Hotel there. On April 16, 1836 Emily, now carrying the surname of her employer as was the common practice for indentured servants at the time, was taken captive along with several other staff and residents of the hotel by Santa Anna’s forces.
Here is where the totally documented facts end, and the legend begins. According to legend, Emily had a sweetheart, initials J.K. (his name is lost to history) who was a Black Texian soldier. After Emily had been taken prisoner, she managed to send a message through one of the servants in Santa Anna’s camp to her sweetheart and from him to Houston that she had caught Santa Anna’s eye, and could probably keep him distracted for a time of their choosing. A return message set that time as the morning of April 21. All through the night of the 20’th, Champagne corks popped in Santa Anna’s tent, and there amidst lavish settings of crystal, silver, and fine china, Emily was wined and dined, and she kept the Napoleon of the West suitably entertained, distracted, and more than slightly inebriated.
On the morning of April 21’st, pretending a drill and marching to an old fiddle tune “Come to the Bower” The Texian forces suddenly took up the shout “Remember the Alamo!” and stormed the Mexican camp in an utter bloodbath. In 18 minutes, at the cost of only nine lives on the Texian side, over 600 of the Mexican army were slaughtered and hundreds more wounded. Santa Anna was forced to flee with his pants down. And indeed was recognized when captured only by the diamond buttons on his shirt. (Which was all he was wearing, so suddenly did his fate come upon him)
Emily’s papers, designating her as a Free Person had been lost in the assault on the hotel, and Maj. Isaac Moreland, commander of the Texian Garrison at Galveston vouched for her free status on her passport application. She returned to New York in 1837, and vanished from the pages of history, and might indeed be unremembered for her contributions to Texas Independence were it not for an English Historian and essayist named William Bollaert. In 1842, he had visited Texas, and had the battle for its independence described to him by eyewitnesses, including Maj. Moreland. He wrote in that essay “The battle of San Jacinto was probably lost to the Mexicans, owing to the influence of a Mulatta Girl (Emily) belonging to Col. Morgan who was closeted in the Tent with G’l Santana, at the time the cry was made ‘the Enemy! They come! They come!’ & detained Santana so long, that order could not be restored readily again.” This was published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1956.
Remember Emily’s sweetheart, J.K.? He wrote a poem expressing his feelings for her, and that original handwritten manuscript is today in the archives of the University of Texas. The original poem is as follows:
There’s a yellow rose in Texas, that I am going to see, No other darky [sic] knows her, no darky only me She cryed [sic] so when I left her it like to broke my heart, And if I ever find her, we nevermore will part.
She’s the sweetest rose of color this darky ever knew,
Her eyes are bright as diamonds, they sparkle like the dew;
You may talk about your Dearest May, and sing of Rosa Lee,
But the Yellow Rose of Texas is the only girl for me.
When the Rio Grande is flowing, the starry skies are bright,
She walks along the river in the quite [sic] summer night:
She thinks if I remember, when we parted long ago,
I promised to come back again, and not to leave her so.
Oh now I’m going to find her, for my heart is full of woe,
And we’ll sing the songs togeather [sic], that we sung so long ago
We’ll play the banjo gaily, and we’ll sing the songs of yore,
And the Yellow Rose of Texas shall be mine forevermore.
It was set to the “A” section of an old Irish fiddle tune called “Patsy Geary” and became immensely popular. It was modified slightly by the troops under Confederate General John Bell Hood after their defeat at the Battle of Nashville in December of 1864 with the following ending verse:
Oh my feet are torn and bloody, and my heart is full of woe,
I’m going back to Georgia, to find my Uncle Joe,
You may talk about your Beauregard, and sing of Bobby Lee,
But the gallant Hood of Texas, played hell in Tennessee.
Gene Autry and Roy Rogers both used the song in their films in the 30’s and 40’s, and the song received renewed popularity in 1955 when a sanitized version by Mitch Miller became a #1 national hit. It was featured in the movie “Giant” and was also recorded by Elvis, and featured in one of his films as well. Homer and Jethro parodied it as the yaller rose of Texas, and your author used the tune for the Gospel Song, Rose of Sharon.
So, Ten Gallon hats off in salute to Emily West, without whom Texas might still be part of Mexico. Long may her legend be sung!
‘til next time,
Red River Valley
Howdy friends and neighbors! With all the talk of secession of late, I thought a border song would be appropriate for this issue’s musical meanderings. And like many things concerning boundaries, there’s some confusion in most folks noggins on this one, though every Cowboy singer alive has known it from early childhood.
The ditty in question is Red River Valley, and while most folks firmly believe that this poignant love song tells of the dividing line between Texas and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) it is, in point of fact about the Red River Valley that is the border between N. Dakota and Minnesota, part of which also marks the boundary between the US and Canada.
The earliest manuscript under the name Red River Valley comes from Harlan, Iowa and is dated 1879. The song is also known as Bright Mohawk Valley, Bright Laurel Valley, Bright Sherman Valley, and Cowboy Love Song, amongst other titles. The first sheet music of this, under the name Bright Mohawk Valley appeared in New York, in 1896.
Many believe the lyrics were written by someone associated with the Wolsely Expedition in Manitoba in 1870. (This was the nail in the coffin of the Red River Rebellion, which was an attempt by the Metis people to resist the new Canadian government. The Metis are the offspring of French, English, or Scottish fathers and mothers of various First Nations tribes such as the Cree, and Algonquin)
The tune has a distinctly English flavor, and is most likely a reworked version of an earlier composition, as are so many early Cowboy songs. It was first recorded by our old friend Carl T. “Doc” Sprague in 1925, at the same sessions which produced “When the work’s all done this fall.” But it was another Texan (are we seeing a pattern here?) Jules Verne Allen from Waxahachie, in 1929 who’s recording of the tune, under the title “Cowboy Love Song” gave the song its greatest popularity at that time. Allen stated that he had learned the song in Pennsylvania, and he also believed it had come over from Europe. (J.V. Allen, Cowboy Lore, 1933) The tune has also been used by Connie Francis, and Willie Nelson amongst others for their songs “Drownin’ my Sorrows” and “Can I sleep in your Arms” respectively. Johnny Cash also parodied it with his “Please don’t play Red River Valley” in 1966. And your beloved columnist used the tune for a Gospel song entitled “The Wedding Supper” Like most easy to perform pleasing melodies, the tune gets around.
Red River Valley has also been featured in many Westerns, as well as The Grapes of Wrath, and The Last Picture Show. It has been recorded hundreds of times, and regardless of the confusion over its origin, has become an all-time Western classic.
Next time, we’ll look at a tune celebrating one of the heroines of Texas, during that time when we were first voted “most likely to secede.” One Emily Morgan, or as you probably know her, The Yellow Rose of Texas.
From Whence came the
Contrary to what you might see in Roy Rogers movies, chuckwagons
did not commonly carry all the instruments (including
an upright bass) for a five piece band. And as fast as Trigger was,
he couldn’t really outrun Nelly-Bell. Working Cowboys weren’t
in the habit of wearing rhinestones. Embroidery and fancy work
were mostly for girl’s clothes, and the only fringe to be found was
However, long before there were Cowboy Movies or records,
there was Cowboy Music, and Cowboy Poetry. Many Cowboy
songs started out as poems. “Home on the Range” for example,
started out as a poem called “My Western Home,” by a Kansas
physician. The very first hit Cowboy record, “When the Works
All Done This Fall,” started life as a poem by D. J. O’Malley
called “After the Round-up.” Another O’Malley piece, “The
Cowboy’s Sweet Bye and Bye,” set to the tune of “My Bonnie
Lies Over the Ocean” became “The Cowboy’s Dream.” It came
down to us in that form from the diary of Owen Wister.
Despite the image of the Cowboy singing in the saddle,
strumming his guitar as he rode along, guitars of the period were
rather fragile, had far less volume than today’s examples and were
very difficult to keep in tune. (Gut strings are easily affected by even
small changes in temperature and humidity.) While you might find
one in the bunkhouse at the home ranch, they were not normally
seen on a trail drive. You’d usually find a fiddle or two, harmonica,
and maybe a concertina, or button box. (Early examples of the
Accordion) You’d certainly hear songs like “Home on the Range,”
“The Lane County Bachelor,” and “The Old Chisholm Trail,”
along with bawdy songs like “The Unfortunate Rake,” and “The
Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing.” Often followed, strangely
enough, by a hymn which would be applauded and appreciated
just as much.
Cowboys then, as now, would sing around the campfire and
tell stories and recite poems to entertain themselves. They would
also sing while on night guard to keep the cattle calm. Some of
the “night herding” songs have upwards of sixty published verses,
and hundreds of others not fit to print! It was possible, in theory,
to sing one night herding song through an entire two hour shift,
and not repeat a verse. The first published adventures of the
Cowboy were dime novels, and their British counterpart, the
penny dreadful. A hundred years before Louis L’Amour started
writing Sackett stories, the Cowboy was already a folk hero
known around the world. And wherever the Cowboy went, his
songs and stories went with him.
So when Edison invented motion pictures, and then figgered
out they could be used to tell stories; it’s not surprising that some
of the first stories told were Westerns. Of course, those early
films were silent. But as soon as a way to synchronize sound with
pictures was developed, the movies would be changed forever.
The first commercially successful “talkie” The Jazz Singer” with
vaudeville star Al Jolson was released in 1927. About eighteen
months later, the very first “Singing Cowboy” would appear.
It was Ken Maynard in the 1929 Universal film The Wagon
Master. He only did two songs: “Lone Star Trail” and “Cowboy’s
Lament.” (Both of which he’d previously recorded for Columbia
records.) But those were the most authentic pieces of Cowboy
music ever to have appeared on film at that time. Maynard started
out as a working Cowboy and later appeared as a trick rider
with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He would later join the cast
of the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show, along with
his white stallion, Tarzan. He became an early star of Westerns,
along with Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, and William S. Hart. He
sang only a few times on film, but the seed was planted. Music in
Westerns was here to stay; the quality just needed a little work.
By this time commercially recorded Western music had gained a
firm foothold in the ears and imagination of the country. When
Carl T. Sprague’s 1925 recording of “When the Works All Done
This fall” sold over nine hundred thousand records, it seemed
Cowboy singers were suddenly everywhere.
The singing Cowboy would next appear in the person of John
Wayne. In the 1931 Lone Star release, Riders of Destiny, he played
“Singing Sandy” Saunders. His musical lines were dubbed by Bill
Bradbury (brother of Cowboy star Bob Steele). The Duke would
sing in some of his later films, and he sounded about like you
thought he would, which is why they dubbed him in Riders and
also in The Man From Utah.
By now A former railroad telegrapher was taking the country
by storm. First on KVOO out of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Then, as a regular on the WLS Barn Dance out of Chicago.
Gene Autry wanted to transition into movies,
but while he was a fine entertainer he couldn’t (by his
own admission) act his way out of a wet paper bag. Nat Levine
with Mascot Studios had put Gene under contract, but he hadn’t
quite figgered out what to do with him yet, when Ken Maynard
came riding to the rescue.
Actually it was Ken Maynard’s manager, wanting Levine to buy
into a new Maynard Western. Ken was getting old, and he was
no longer the top draw he had been, though he was still popular.
Well, Levine agreed to buy into the picture on one condition:
Gene Autry had to appear and sing in the movie. This was
unheard of at the time. The few times music had been featured
in Westerns, it had always been the star doing the singing. Ken,
however, was all for it, even if his manager was a bit skeptical.
The 1934 film, In Old Santa Fe, was a huge hit. Gene stole the
show, despite only being on screen for a few minutes.
In 1935 Tumbling Tumbleweeds was released. The very first
“Singing Cowboy” movie. A genre created especially for Gene
Autry. He was followed by Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, Tex Ritter,
Jimmy Wakely and many others. (Also, a little known fact. Gene
always said that if it hadn’t been for Ken Maynard he wouldn’t
have had a career. When Ken had to leave the movies due to declining
health and his battle with alcoholism in 1944. Gene Autry
quietly supported him for the rest of his life.)
So there you have it friends and neighbors, the true story of
how the West was “sung.”
When the works all done this Fall.
This time around, we are going to trace the history of the very first hit Cowboy record. Nowadays, if a previously unknown artist were to sell 900,000 copies of a single, that would be a very enviable achievement, even with all the different ways there are to do so. CD, download, Amazon, streaming, etc. Now, imagine someone performing that feat in 1925! There weren’t even Electric phonographs yet. But a Texas Cowboy, and instructor at Texas A&M named Carl T. “Doc” Sprague did just that. Despite his Texas roots, he had to travel to Camden, NJ. to record his first five 78’s. The first one out of the chute was his most successful, and indeed at the time it was the second best-selling record of any kind, ever. (A 1904 recording from the Opera Pagliaci by Enrico Caruso was the first million seller, and in 1925 still held the all-time sales record.)
According to Sprague, he learned what he described as a traditional Cowboy song from his father when he was a small child. And while the composer of the tune remains unclear, we know exactly who wrote the lyrics. It was another Texas Cowboy, named D. J. O’Malley. O’Malley hailed from San Angelo (must be something in the water, my little travel sized bass player, Kelly Kingston comes from there too, also.) but grew up in Kansas, and spent most of his time in the saddle in Montana. And indeed that’s where he penned the poem “After the roundup” that would become when the works all done this fall. It was first published in the Miles City Stock Growers Journal in 1893. The Journal ran many of O’Malley’s poems over the years, usually under the name “Kid White”, or the N-Bar-N Kid. (Mr. White was O’Malley’s stepfather)
The poem tells the now classic tale of an old Cow-puncher who has wasted his youth and wages, and has finally ‘figgered out that all he really wants is to go home to his family. However, the very night he makes the decision to head homeward he is killed in a stampede. O’Malley has penned several other notable verses / songs including Charlie Rutledge, and the Cowboy’s sweet bye and bye, which, having been set to the tune of “My bonnie lies over the ocean” comes down to us as “The Cowboy’s Dream” courtesy of the diary of author Owen Wister.
Below are the lyrics to the tune that started the whole “Singing Cowboy” phenomenon. And next time we ride this trail, I’ll tell from whence came the (singing) Cowboy.
After the Roundup (When the Work’s All Done This Fall)
A group of jolly cowboys discussed their plans at ease,
Said one, “I’ll tell you something, boys, if you please—
See, I’m a puncher, dressed most in rags;
I used to be a wild one and took on big jags.
I have a home, boys, a good one you know,
But I haven’t seen it since long, long ago.
But I’m going back home, boys, once more to see then all;
Yes, I’ll go back home, boys, when work’s all done this fall.
After the roundup’s over, after the shipping’s done,
I’m going straight back home, boys, ere all my money’s gone.
My mother’s heart is breaking; breaking for me, that’s all;
But with God’s help I’ll see her when the work is done this fall.
When I left my home, boys, for me she cried,
Begged me to stay, boys, for me she would have died.
I haven’t used her right, boys, my hard-earned cash I’ve spent,
When I should have saved it and to my mother sent.
But I’ve changed my course, boys, I’ll be a better man
And help my poor old mother, I’m sure that I can.
I’ll walk in the straight path; no more will I fall;
And I’ll see my mother when the work’s done this fall.”
That very night this cowboy went on guard;
The night it was dark and ’twas storming very hard.
The cattle got frightened and rushed in mad stampede,
He tried to check them, riding at full speed;
Riding in the darkness loud he did shout,
Doing his utmost to turn the herd about.
His saddle horse stumbled and on him did fall;
He’ll not see his mother when the work’s done this fall.
They picked him up gently and laid him on a bed;
The poor boy was mangled, they thought he was dead.
He opened up his blue eyes and gazed all around;
Then motioned his comrades to sit near him on the ground:
“Send her the wages I have earned.
Boys, I’m afraid that my last steer I’ve turned.
I’m going to a new range, I hear the Master call.
I’ll not see my mother when the work’s done this fall.
Bill, take my saddle; George, take my bed;
Fred, take my pistol after I am dead.
Think of me kindly when on them you look—”
His voice then grew fainter, with anguish he shook.
His friends gathered closer and on them he gazed.
His breath coming fainter, his eyes growing glazed.
He uttered a few words, heard by them all:
“I’ll see my mother when the work’s done this fall.”
D.J. O’Malley – 1893
‘til next time,
Streets of Laredo, or The Cowboys Lament
As promised I’ll now tell you the tale of how a political / religious protest ballad from the late 1700’s came to be one of the best known Cowboy songs in history.
In its original form it was titled the Bard of Armagh and told a bit of the story of Patrick Donnelly, Bishop of Dromore.
Born in County Tyrone in 1650, Donnelly was a Roman Catholic Priest. He was ordained in 1673, and after serving in the Priesthood for some time he was sent to Paris for study. Upon his return in 1697 he was named Bishop of Dromore, by then Archbishop (later Saint) Oliver Plunkett. This was the same year that the Bishops Banishment Act was issued by the Church of Ireland. (Which was the Irish equivalent of the Church of England) In order to minister to his flock Bishop Donnelly had to remain a free man and in order to do that with a price on his head, he turned to the age old art of subterfuge; creating the persona of the traveling Harper (Minstrel) Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh. Though he was arrested once in 1706 (released a year later for lack of evidence against him) he continued to serve as Bishop, working mostly in County Armagh until his death a decade later in 1716.
The song which told his tale remained popular down through the years as the rebellious Irish celebrated one of their heroes and kept his story alive for future generations. Like many of the tunes that became Cowboy songs, this one arrived in great numbers with the Irish immigrants after the potato famine of the mid 1840’s.
Variants of the song began popping up almost as soon as it was first heard on these shores. The most popular of which were some variation on the theme of a once handsome ladies’ man, now disfigured and dying of syphilis. The most well-known of these was the Unfortunate Rake, but dozens of similar lyrics were put to the same tune.
The tune had long since spread across the Western states when one Frank H. Maynard got a hold of it in Medicine Lodge, KS in 1876, and reworked the lyrics into what he titled The Cowboys Lament. (He later published a book by this name in which he spoke of his early life as a Cowboy) In time most would come to refer to the song by its first line, the Streets of Laredo. The song was first performed in Dodge City at the funeral of Maynard’s friend, Marshall Ed Masterson (brother to Bat Masterson) in April of 1878. The first nationally distributed version of The Cowboys Lament appears on page 74 of the 1910 edition of John Lomax’s work Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads, and the first recording of one of its variants, Tom Sherman’s Barroom was made in Dallas, TX on Oct 13, 1929 by Dick Devall for Victor. (Note: Tom Sherman is a corruption of Tom Sheran, who took over the running of the Bull’s Head Saloon in Abilene, KS in 1871) The song is now considered a folk standard, as well as a Western classic. Hundreds of variations on the theme exist in virtually all genres of music; including the great New Orleans blues number St. James Infirmary.
Today Streets of Laredo is known the world over, and is one of the most recorded songs that come from the days of the Old West. A full accounting of even a small portion of its variants is beyond the scope of this small article, but I encourage you to do a little research on your own and tell a bit of the story whenever you perform it. Whether you are singing for a few friends around a campfire as Frank Maynard did in his youth or on national TV with an audience of millions. This Golden Nugget will be appreciated and treasured by all.
The Greer County Bachelor
The Greer County Bachelor, also known as Starving to death on my Government Claim is a song that came out of the time shortly following the Homestead Act of May, 1862. At the time, large tracts of previously unoccupied land were thrown open for settlement in 160 Acre tracts. A hardy soul had but to live on the property for 5 years, and make improvements or “prove up” on the claim and then it became their legal property, all for a (relatively) small filing fee. A great number of them gave up and returned to their former homes long before the 5 years were up.
Greer County is in Far S.W. Oklahoma, and is bordered on the South by the Red River, and the original tract, before it was later divided when OK became the 46’th State in 1907 had the North, and Dog fork of the Red as its Eastern, and Western Boundaries. There was a question from the 1880’s, until 1896 since the Red shifts it’s course from time to time as to whether Greer County properly belonged to Texas, or Oklahoma. (Then Indian Territory) Texans being the hard headed sort we are, eventually prevailed and that’s why Greer County is kept in Oklahoma to this very day!
The song as we know it today began, like many do, as a poem. And like our previous nugget, Home on the Range, it has its roots in Kansas, specifically Lane County. Frank Baker wrote the poem, and submitted it to the North Topeka Mail, a local newspaper in 1889. Though it was never published, the Editor, George Root saved it in the archives as a memento. The original unedited verse was published by the KS State Historical Quarterly in 1939.
The lyrics in use today were published for the first time in John Lomax’s 1910 edition of Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads. Later editions give the footnote “from Tom Hight’s scrapbook, OK City 1909.” It was first recorded by “Cowboy” Ed Crane for Conqueror Records in 1932. Many early texts say it was sung to the tune of Will Hays 1871 song “The little old Log Cabin in the Lane” (the same tune that was used for Little Joe the Wrangler, Little old Sod Shanty on my Claim, and the hymn Lilly of the Valley) but in modern times, to give a more spritely feel, and to give the impression of keeping up a cheerful opposition to all the disasters that befall the would-be settler it has become traditional to use the tune of an old Celtic Jig “The Irish Washerwoman” albeit slowed down to a singable speed.
The song has been adopted, and adapted in the early part of the 20’th century, and there are versions of it placing the unfortunate bachelor in Lane Co (KS) Greer Co (OK) Bent Co (CO) and many other locations in the US, as well as a Canadian variant “The Alberta Homesteader.” Below is the text from the 1910 (Public Domain) edition of Lomax’s Cowboy Songs
Tom Hight is my name, an old bachelor I am, You’ll find me out west in the country of fame,
You’ll find me out west on an elegant plain, And starving to death on my government claim.
My house is built of natural sod, Its walls are erected according to hod;
Its roof has no pitch but is level and plain, I always get wet if it happens to rain.
How happy am I on my government claim, I’ve nothing to lose, and nothing to gain;
I’ve nothing to eat, I’ve nothing to wear, From nothing to nothing is the hardest fare.
How happy am I when I crawl into bed, A rattlesnake hisses a tune at my head,
A gay little centipede, all without fear, Crawls over my pillow and into my ear.
Hurrah for Greer County! The land of the free,
The land of the bed-bug, Grass-hopper and flea;
I’ll sing of its praises And tell of its fame,
While starving to death On my government claim.
Now all you claim holders, I hope you will stay And chew your hard tack till you’re toothless and gray;
But for myself I’ll no longer remain To starve like a dog in my government claim.
My clothes are all ragged as my language is rough, My bread is corn dodgers, both solid and tough;
But yet I am happy, and live at my ease On sorghum molasses, bacon and cheese.
Good-bye to Greer County where blizzards arise, Where the sun never sinks and a flea never dies,
And the wind never ceases but always remains Till it starves us all out on our government claims.
Farewell to Greer County, farewell to the West, I’ll travel back east to the girl I love best,
I’ll travel back to Texas and marry me a wife, And quit corn bread for the rest of my life.
Next time our trails cross, I’ll tell you tale of the Bard of Armagh.
The National Anthem of the West … Home on the Range
This classic, and Official State Song of Kansas has its beginnings in 1872. A young Physician named Brewster Higley had come to Smith County, KS from Ohio to escape an unhappy marriage. He built a small one room cabin near the banks of Beaver Creek, and there hung out his shingle and lived with his new wife, Sarah, and raised 4 children. Dr. Higley was well liked and respected in his community, and had a remarkable sense of humor as well as being a talented poet. One afternoon, while walking the banks of Beaver Creek, as was his habit Dr. Higley was inspired by the beauty around him, and wrote a poem which he entitled “My Western Home”.
Dr. Higley wrote the poem for his own enjoyment, and after doing so, placed it between a couple of books, where it remained until the following Spring. In April of 1873 Dr. Higley’s friend Trube Reese of nearby Smith Center, KS went to borrow one of the doctor’s books after dinner. The sheet of foolscap with the poem fluttered to the floor, and upon picking it up and reading it, Mr. Reese encouraged him to publish it. Dr. Higley showed the poem to his friend Daniel Kelley, who played with his Brother’s in law as the Harlan Brothers Orchestra. Dan liked the poem, and composed the melody that it is still used today. The song, was first performed at a dance at the Harlan family home in late April of 1873, and was first published, as a poem in the December, 1873 edition of the Smith County Pioneer (which is still in publication today)
The song was an instant success, and spread across the country, changing slightly as it went. The original authorship was soon forgotten, and it came to be considered a true folk song. Home on the Range received renewed popularity when it was included in the 1910 edition of John Lomax’s book “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads” and was given another boost in 1932 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt claiming it as his favorite song. It was also a favorite of Admiral Byrd, who played his recording of it while on his famous expedition to the South Pole, and then when his phonograph froze, singing it himself, much to the consternation of his companions who felt that as an entertainer, the Admiral made a great explorer!
A lawsuit claiming copyright infringement by an Arizona couple in 1934 caused a hunt for the true authorship of the song, and it was then that the Smith County Pioneer article was found, finally re-establishing Dr. Higley as the Lyricist, and Daniel Kelley as the Composer. The song was named as the official State Song of Kansas in 1947, and has been played on every continent of the world. It’s the unofficial anthem of the West, and I know of at least one instance, at a pyrotechnics competition in Monaco in 1984 where it was mistaken for the U.S. National Anthem.
The cabin in which the poem was written was restored in 1954, and stands on its original foundation on the banks of Beaver Creek approx. 8 miles from Athol, KS. It remains open to the public.
‘til next time,