Browse Topics



An Excerpt from 'Singing in the Saddle' by Douglas B. Green

'Singing in the Saddle' book cover
Singing in the Saddle, by Douglas B. Green, recounts the history fo the singing cowboy.

Douglas B. Green
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).

moreReturn to the main page.

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 kind."

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 This Fall."

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

moreReturn to the main page.