An Excerpt from 'Singing in the Saddle' by Douglas B. Green
Singing in the Saddle, by Douglas B. Green, recounts the history fo the singing cowboy.
Author and musician Douglas B. Green, better known as Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky.
Photo: Seņor McGuire (from the album Songs of the Sage).
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The Cowboy and Song
When studying the popular portrayal of the cowboy, it is fascinating to
reflect how few of these men are shown actually tending cattle. Folklorist J.
Frank Dobie observed that Owen Wister's The Virginian is "the classic cowboy
novel without cows," and Wister's book is far from alone in this peculiarity.
In films this contradiction is exaggerated to the extreme. The cowboy
hero is often a lawman or ranger, openly or undercover; he may be a
cattleman or ranch foreman; he may be a drifter, a doctor, or a two-fisted
newspaperman -- but seldom is he portrayed as a bottom-level workaday
cowpoke. In a significant number of the singing-cowboy films, he is a radio,
stage, or film performer, righting wrongs with fists and guns between performances.
What he is, really, is a professional hero, with no need to perform
such messy chores as dehorning or branding.
It is plainly that spirit of independence, of owing nothing to any person,
of living up to a personal code, that generations have valued in this western
hero, investing him with properties real cowboys may or may not have
possessed. This is why the cowboy hero is frequently a man from nowhere;
why it is convenient to have him come to town or ranch with no past, no
baggage, no ties; why it is simple for him, in these morality plays, to right
wrongs and clear up injustice with quick decisions, quick draws, quick fists,
and occasionally a song or two. In an increasingly industrial and bureaucratic
age, the appeal of a lone figure answering only to his own conscience is strong indeed, and popular culture has settled this longing, this need, this fantasy, upon the lowly figure of the cowboy.
So the young, displaced skilled laborers who were the real cowboys
have taken on a huge psychic and cultural load. They have become, through
the imaginative eyes of writers and singers and songwriters and filmmakers,
the repository of our national dreams, transmogrified into heroes and peacemakers.
In addition they carry the weight of nostalgia, for they represent for
us the wilderness we will never know, an era we can never experience, yet
one that we seem to feel is priceless beyond measure. All these conflicting
and complementary impulses are inherent in western music as well. This is
why the cowboy, whose numbers have always been few, has come to mean
so much to us, why the image and sound of his music -- no matter how far
parted from reality -- has continued to fascinate us and move us for more
than a century and a quarter.
Popular mythology has cowboys crooning soft lullabies and yodels to
the cattle on the open ranges to pacify jittery longhorns, singing old familiar
songs and hymns from back home, or creating new songs or new verses to
existing songs in the long dark hours of the night. Although this image has
long been highly romanticized, the association of music and the cowboy is
not purely fictional. Anywhere working men have been isolated for periods
of time in particular circumstances, a tradition of song by or about those
men and their work develops. Sailors, loggers, railroad workers, boatmen,
miners, and others all have musical traditions.
As for cowboys, even witnesses who were there in the days before singing
became a profession on record and radio and film can't seem to agree.
Journalist John Baumann wrote for the Fortnightly Review of April 1, 1887:
"The younger hands are whiling away the time 'whittling' and 'plug chawing,'
drawling out yarns of love and sport and singing ribald songs, until someone
strikes up the favorite wail 'Oh bury me not on the lone prairie, Where
the coyotes howl and the wind blows free.'"
Harry Stephens, claiming authorship of "The Night Herding Song," told
John Lomax: "Well, we always got night-herd years ago when they didn't
have so many fences and corrals, and that was the biggest job for the cowboy.
We generally have a two-hour shift, and two to four men on a shift
according to the size of the herd. And when I made up this song, why, we
always had so many different squawks and yells and hollers a-trying to keep
the cattle quiet, I thought I might as well have a kind of a song to it." The
highly regarded Texas folklorist and historian J. Frank Dobie remarked that
"no human sound that I have ever heard approaches in eeriness or in soothing
melody that indescribable whistle of the cowboy," while stockman Joseph
McCoy wrote in 1874 that he had "many times sat upon the fence of a
shipping yard and sang to an enclosed herd whilst a train would be rushing
by. And it is surprising how quiet the herd will be so long as they can hear
the human voice.... Singing hymns to Texas steers is the peculiar forte of a
genuine cowboy, but the spirit of true piety does not abound in the sentiment."
Other contemporary accounts point to "Sam Bass" or "Red River Valley"
as songs frequently sung by cowboys. J. Frank Dobie agreed: "Of course
not all the cowboys on all days sang. Many a waddie could no more carry a
tune than he could carry a buffalo bull. Often all hands were too busy fighting
and 'cussin' them dad-blamed cattle to sing. But in general the cowboys
sang." Ramon Adams recalled: "Away back at the beginnin' of the cow
business it didn't take the cowman long to savvy that the human voice gave
cattle confidence, and kept 'em from junin' around.... The practice got to
be so common that night herdin' was spoken of as 'singin' to 'em.' " And
E. C. Abbott (Teddy Blue) painted the legend in detail in his landmark book
We Pointed Them North:
One reason I believe there was so many songs about cowboys was the custom
we had of singing to the cattle on night herd. The singing was supposed
to soothe them and it did.... I know that if you wasn't singing, any little
sound in the night-it might be just a horse shaking himself-could make
them leave the country; but if you were singing, they wouldn't notice it. The
two men on guard would circle around with their horses at a walk, if it was a
clear night and the cattle was bedded down and quiet, and one man would
sing a verse of a song, and his partner on the other side of the herd would
sing another verse; and you'd go through a whole song like "Sam Bass."
Likewise, Charles Siringo, whose A Texas Cowboy was one of the very first
looks at the life of the cowboy written by a cowboy, unequivocally paints a
portrait of cowboys singing, referring to a 1874 trail drive: "The steers showed
a disposition to stampede but we handled them easy and sang melodious
songs which kept them quieted. But about one o'clock they stampeded in
grand shape.... I finally about three o'clock got them stopped and after
singing a few 'lullaby' songs they all lay down and went to snoring." Later
he describes a typical night on the trail: "The nights would be divided up
into four equal parts -- one man 'on' at a time, unless storming, tormented
with mosquitoes, or something of the kind, when every one except the cook
would have to be 'out' singing to them."
On the other hand, Jack Thorp, the first collector and one of the first
composers of cowboy songs, proclaimed bluntly: "It is generally thought
that cowboys did a lot of singing around the herd at night to quiet them on
the bed ground. I have been asked about this, and I'll say that I have stood
my share of night watches in fifty years, and I seldom heard singing of any
Regardless of how much singing was done on night guard, it is a fairly
safe bet that in the days before radio, anytime men were gathered together
for long periods of isolation and boredom, any man who could come up
with the slightest fragment of entertainment besides poker or some other
card game was providing welcome relief from the endless hours not actively
spent at work. In lonely bunkhouses, in line camps, and at trail sides
some of the more creative of the band of men loosely defined as cowboys
doubtless dreamed up the poems that, when put to old familiar melodies,
became cowboy songs. Thus D. J. O'Malley's 1893 poem "After the
Roundup" -- initially printed in the Stock Grower's Journal -- was popularized
by cowpokes who learned the verses and set the lyrics to two very different
melodies: the jaunty popular song "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane," and
the tender waltz "After the Ball." Only three decades later, having finally
evolved a tune of its own, this plaintive tale became the first recorded cowboy
music hit, in Carl T. Sprague's 1925 version on Victor Records, under
its now much more commonly known title "When the Work's All Done
From Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy
© 2002 by Douglas B. Green
Published by The Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press
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