Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Cowboy Ballads by Myra Hull

by Myra Hull

February 1939, (Vol. 8, No. 1), pages 35 to 60.

ALL the cowboy songs in this collection are genuine; that is, they have actually been sung by ranchers and cowboys on the range, along the trail, in the night herder's lone vigils on the prairie, or in the cowboy's moments of relaxation around the campfire and in the dance hall in the open cow town at the end of the trail.

None of the songs here recorded have been borrowed from other collections. Some of them I heard as a child, as they were sung by my cowboy brothers, by hired hands, or by the cattlemen who frequently stayed the night at our homestead in Butler county, twenty miles from Jesse Chisholm's trading post, on the old Chisholm trail; others were set down for me as remembered by old-time cowboys of the 1870s, such as N. P. Power; several of the most picturesque ones were contributed by my nephew, Dr. Hull Alden Cook, as they are still sung on the ranches of Colorado, Arizona, and Wyoming.

I have been inspired by such ballad collectors as N. Howard Thorp, Dr. Louise Pound, Miss Margaret Larkin, and John and Alan Lomax, as well as the numerous contributors to the Journal of American Folk-Lore. But all these collections have been used only for purposes of comparison and comment. In every instance, I have observed the tradition of folk-ballad collectors in recording songs exactly as they were sung, being careful not to yield to the temptation to improve upon the text or to synthesize the variants in order to produce an attractive composite song.

Cowboy songs are ballads; that is, they are stories in song. Furthermore, many of them are folk ballads, in a very real, if not in a technical sense. One of the tests of the Old World folk ballad was its anonymity, which was acquired through centuries of oral transmission until its origin was lost in antiquity. Cowboy songs are comparatively young so that one might expect the authors to be known. Some few of them are, but many of the origins have been obscured by word-of-mouth transmission, as they were for the most part not written down but were disseminated by the singing cowboys as they went up the trail or from one ranch to another.

Moreover, although the themes of most of the cowboy songs were indigenous, the cowboy had the habit of borrowing a song or a poem, adapting it to the occasion, and with joyous abandon, adding to it endlessly. The most popular of these songs have countless variants, many of unconscionable length. Much of this re-creation has communal aspects, as the examples will illustrate later.

In composing his song the cowboy might purloin only a line, as in the "Come, all ye" pattern of the "Texas Ranger"; sometimes a stanza would be lifted bodily; and in at least one instance, "The Dying Cowboy," a whole song has been parodied. Some of the tunes are likewise borrowed and may be traced to German folk songs, Irish airs, English and Scotch ballads, popular American songs, or even hymn tunes. Of most of the apparently original tunes as well as the words, it is next to impossible to discover the composer.

Whatever their origin, the cowboy has by his singing and his recreations made them his own, and has unconsciously established a norm with more or less clearly defined characteristics. The cowboy vernacular, the marked accent and verve of the rhythm, the peculiar moods, and themes, tend to give the ballads a certain distinctive flavor by which the collector learns to test their genuineness. And when all allowances have been made for borrowings, there remains a mass of material that impresses one with its freshness, its invigorating atmosphere, its dramatic quality, and its power to revive a real-world in which the cowboy was the dominant figure.

The importance of the cowboy in the development of the West has not been fully appreciated. He appears in the movie and in the radio broadcast as a picturesque figure, dashing over the plains in pursuit of wild and romantic adventures: a more or less isolated phenomenon, dissociated from the serious business of history-making and state-building. As a matter of fact, the cowboy was the central figure not of light comedy and romance but of an enterprise so vast as to assume epic proportions.

According to Joseph Nimmo, a government statistician, between five and six million Texas cattle were driven northward during the twenty years following the Civil War. In one single year, 260,000 cattle crossed the Red River, going "up the trail." That meant an army of 2,600 cowboys, to say nothing of the number required to care for the vast herds on the various ranches. Not only was the cattle industry a great enterprise in itself, but it had very important by-products as well, in the making of trails and in establishing along these roads cow towns that became permanent titles.

The most important of these trails, the Chisholm Trail, began as a traders' trail, established by Jesse Chisholm, in 1865, in order that the Indians of the Southwest might have access to the supplies of his store, which was in the vicinity of present Wichita. From this trading post the "Traders' trail" ran southward deep into present Oklahoma, crossing the Kansas line near Caldwell. Two years later the Texas drovers were traveling this trail, on their way to Abilene, to which the Kansas Pacific railroad was completed in 1867. 

Eventually, the whole cattle trail from the Red River station northward through the Indian territory and the Kansas towns of Caldwell, Wichita, and Newton to Abilene, a distance of over 600 miles, was known as the Chisholm Trail. As railroads and settlers carried the frontier westward, other towns, such as Ellsworth and Dodge City, received Texas cattle. 

The most original cowboy songs were those about "the long drive up the trail," and the most famous of these ballads is "The Old Chisholm Trail." Miss Margaret Larkin rightly calls this the cowboy's classic: "Its simple beating tune, . . . its extemporaneous yelps, whoops, and yips; its occasional departures from singing into shouting, are as exciting as the clatter of horses' hooves on the hard prairie." 

N. Howard Thorp, whose version is the earliest I have found in print, says: "The origin of this song is unknown. There are several thousand verses. . . . Every puncher knows a few more. . . ." 

The song is sung from Mexico to the Canadian line; and if one had all the versions reduced to a composite whole, it would furnish most of the colorful episodes of the cowboy's strenuous life. The stampede, the most dreaded event in the cattle drive, is recorded in almost all the versions:

I popped my foot in the stirrup and gave a little yell,
The tail cattle broke and the leader went to hell. (Thorp)

Oh, the wind commenced to blow and the rain began to fall,
And it looked, by grab, that we was gonna to lose 'em all. (Hull)

The song pictures also the long, hard drive, through storm and flood, the monotonous fare of bacon and beans, and the unsatisfactory pay-off, with hints of wild carousals in the saloons of the cow towns.

Tune "A," given below, was contributed by my brother, O. J. Hull, now of Ontario, Cal. I do not know when he first heard it, but probably comparatively early, for he lived near the old Chisholm trail as early as 1873 when the treks of the longhorns from Texas to Caldwell and Wichita over Chisholm's traders' trail were only well begun. The tune of the stanzas is similar to Margaret Larkin's second version, but the refrain is entirely different from hers. 

The words of Version "A" are so nearly like those of Version "B" that I have recorded them only once. Version "B" was contributed by Dr. Hull Alden Cook, now of Sidney, Neb., as he heard it in Colorado. He also sings the more common tune of the first version, to the accompaniment of his guitar.


Oh come along, boys, and listen to my tale,
I'll tell you all my troubles on the of Chis'm trail.


Come a-ti yi youpy youpy ya youpy yay,
Come a-ti yi youpy youpy yay.

On a ten-dollar horse and a forty-dollar saddle,
I was ridin', and a-punchin' Texas cattle.

We left of Texas October twenty-third,
Drivin' up trail with a 2 U Herd.

I'm up in the mornin' afore daylight,
An' afore I sleep the moon shines bright..

It's bacon and beans most every day,
I'd as soon be eatin' prairie hay.

Old Ben Bolt was a blamed good boss,
But he'd go to see the girls on a sore-backed hoss.

Old Ben Bolt was a mighty good man,
And you'd know there was whisky wherever he'd land.

I woke up one mornin' on the Chisholm trail,
With a rope in my hand and a cow by the tail.

Last night on guard, an' the leader broke the ranks,
I hit my horse down the shoulders an' spurred him in the flanks.

Oh it's cloudy in the west, and a-lookin' like rain,
And my damned of slicker's in the wagon again.

Oh the wind commenced to blow and the rain began to fall.
An' it looked by grab that we was gonna lose 'em all.

I jumped in the saddle an' I grabbed a-holt the horn,
The best damned cowpuncher ever was born.

I was on my best horse, and a-goin' on the run,
The quickest-shootin' cowboy that ever pulled a gun.

No chaps, no slicker, and it's pourin' down rain,
An' I swear, by God, I'll never nightherd again.

I herded and I hollered, and I done pretty well,
Till the boss said, "Boys, just let 'em go to Hell."

I'm goin' to the ranch to draw my money,
Goin' into town to see my Honey.

I went to the boss to draw my roll,
He figgered me out nine dollars in the hole.

So I'll sell my outfit as fast as I can,
And I won't punch cows for no damn man.

So I sold old Baldy and I hung up my saddle,
And I bid farewell to the longhorn cattle.

"Whoopee Ti-Yi-O," one of the most picturesque songs of the trail, traces the drive of the cattle from Texas to their "new home"in Wyoming. "Early in springtime," in fact as early as March, the ranchers of northern Texas began to round up the cattle that had been running on the range. Those not already branded were marked. 

Then the horse-herd, the "cavvyard," was brought in by the horse wrangler. It consisted of a "string" of six to ten horses for each cowboy. A cattle king with 15,000 cattle to drive north would divide them into herds of 2,500 each, with about twenty-five cowboys in attendance, so that 150 horses might be in each "cavvy."

When they were at last ready to "throw the dogies out on the long trail," the order of march was usually as follows: The two leading cowboys, one on each side, rode at the head, "pointing the herd." At regular intervals other cowpunchers rode along the flanks, and still others brought up the rear. Usually the chuckwagon followed the herd, and next came the "cavvy." A herd of two thousand cattle would string out for a mile or two, and might be on the road from Texas to northern Idaho from March to August.

Cattle were driven north to the railway markets, or to feed on the lush grass of the high plains, or to furnish "beef for Uncle Sam's Injuns" on the reservations of the Northwest.

"Whoopee Ti-Yi-O" is one of the most interesting of the cowboy songs in its picturesque cowboy vernacular and in the weirdness of its tune. The tune of my version is similar to Owen Wister's, as recorded by Lomax, except that mine is further complicated by an additional refrain, which makes another peculiar turn in the melody.

As to the age of the song, Miss Larkin thinks it dates from somewhere in the 1860's. But so far as I have been able to learn, neither the exact date nor the author is known. N. Howard Thorp says that he heard it sung by Jim Falls, in Tombstone, Ariz. Wister's date, 1893, seems to be the earliest thus far noted. 

The version here recorded, as set down by Dr. Hull Alden Cook, is still sung on the ranges of Colorado and Wyoming.


As I was a walk-in' one morn-ing for pleas-ure,
I saw a cow-punch-er a rid-in' a-long.
His hat was throwed back and his spurs was a ,jing-lin;
And as he a approached he was sing-in' this song,

Chorus (to be sung after each stanza)

Whoo - pee: Ti- yi- o, Git a long lit-tle dog-ies;
It's your mis- for- tune, And none of my own,
Whoopee: Ti-yi-o, Git a - long lit-tle dog-ies,
For you know that Wy-om-ing will be your new home.

Oh, early in the springtime we round up the dogies,
Mark 'em and brand 'em and bob off their tails.
Then round up the horses, and load the chuckwagon,
And then throw the dogies out on the long trail.

Oh, some boys goes up the trail for pleasure,
But that's where they gets it most awfully wrong.
For you have no idea the trouble they give us,
While we go a-driving them all along.
Oh, your mothers was raised away down in Texas,
Where the jimpson weed and the sandburs grow.
Now we'll fill you up on prickly pear and cholla,
Till you're ready for the trail to Idaho.

Oh, you will be soup for Uncle Sam's Injuns,
It's "Beef-heap beef" I hear them cry.
Git along, git along, git along little dogies,
You'll be beef Steers bye and bye.

Oh, I ain't got no father; I ain't got no mother,
My friends, they all left me when first I did roam.
I ain't got no sister; I ain't got no brother,
I'm a poor lonesome cowboy an' a long ways from home 

"The Texas Ranger," another ballad of the trail, is of the familiar "Come, all ye" pattern. It introduces an incident that is a reminder of the fact that the cowboys were useful to the on-coming settlers in repelling Indian attacks and in pushing the frontier westward.

The words of this song are recorded by Louise Pound, Mellinger Henry, John A. Lomax, and others, but the tunes seem to be rare.  

Of the version here recorded, both words and music were contributed by N. P. Power, Lawrence, February 18, 1938. He set the song down from memory as he heard it in 1876, while a cowboy on the John Hitson cattle ranch, eighteen miles north of Deer Trail, Colo. Mr. Power says that he has never seen the song in print and has no knowledge of the author. His version is much the earliest that I have found.


Come, all ye Texas rangers, wherever you may be,
I'll tell ye of some trouble that happened unto me.
Come, all ye Texas rangers, I'm sure I wish you well,
My name is nothing extra, so that I will not tell.

When at the age of Sixteen I joined the jolly band,
That marched from San Antonio down to the Rio Grande.
Our Captain he informed us, I suppose he thought it right,
"Before you reach the Station, my boys, you'll have to fight."

We saw the Indians coming, we heard them give the yell;
My feelings at that moment, no human tongue can tell.
We saw the glittering lances, the arrows round me hailed;
My heart it sank within, my courage almost failed.

We fought them nine long hours before the Strife was o'er,
And the like of dead and dying I never saw before.
Twelve of the noblest rangers that ever roamed the West,
Were buried with their comrades and Sank in peace to rest.

Then I thought of my dear mother, who through tears to me did say,
"These men to you are strangers; with me you'd better stay."
But I thought her old and childish, the best she did not know,
For my mind was bent on rambling and rambling I did go.

Perhaps you have a mother, perhaps a sister, too;
Likewise you have a sweetheart to weep and moan for you.
If this be your condition and you're inclined to roam,
I'll tell you by experience you'd better stay at home.

The words and music of "Jake and Rome" were sent to me by Dr. Hull Alden Cook, with this note of explanation: "This is the song as I obtained it from a Navajo girl at Kayenta, Ariz. Her adopted name is Betty Wetherill, and she has been adopted into John Wetherill's family. She and her sister sang this to me one night in June, 1935, at the Wetherill ranch home, in the heart of the desert."


Jake and Rome were ridin' along,
Jake was singin' what he called a song,
When up from a gully what Should appear
But a mossbacked sooky and a bald-faced steer.

Jake started after with his hat pulled down,
He built. himself a 'locker that would snare a town,
But the steer he headed for the setting sun,
And believe me, neighbor, he could hump and run.

Rome followed up his partner's deal
Two old waddies that could head and heel
Both of them a-workin' for the Chicken
Coop With a red hot iron and a hungry loop.

The sun was shinin' in old Jake's eyes,
And he wasn't ready for no great surprise,
When the steer gave a wiggle like his dress was tight,
And he busted through a juniper, and dropped from sight.

Old Jake's pony done a figure 8,
Jake done his addin' just a mite too late.
He left the saddle a-seein' red,
And he landed in the gravel of a river bed.

Now Rome's horse was a good horse, too,
But he couldn't figure out just where Jake flew;
So he humped and he started for the cavvyard,
And he left Rome sittin' where the ground was hard.

Jake Sat a-holdin' up his swelled up thumb,
Says he, "I reckon we was goin' some!"
When Rome he bellered, "Get away from here,
Or you're goin' to get tangled with that bald-faced steer!"

Rome clumb a-straddle of a juniper tree,
"There's no more room up here," says he.
So Jake he figures for himself to save
By backin' in the opening of a cutback cave.

The Steer he charged with his head 'way down,
A-rollin' his eyes and a-pawin' the ground
Hookin' and a-sniffln' and a-turnin' about,
Every time he quit old Jake come out!

Rome said, "You old fool, back out of sight,
You act like you're hankerin' to make him fight!"
When Jake he answered sort of fierce and queer:
"Back, hell, nothin'; there's a bear in here!"

A favorite theme of cowboy songs is the death of the cowboy on "the lone prairie." It is not strange that the thought of such a tragic end was uppermost in his mind, for life on the trail was hazardous. On this point Everett Dick says that a horse's stepping into a prairie dog or badger hole might throw its rider under an on rushing herd, where he would be trampled to death."

In trying to turn a herd, it was not uncommon for a cowboy to ride off a cliff or into a gully, where his comrades found his mangled form the next day. Along the trail another mound was made, which bore mute witness to the fact that a cowboy died doing his duty." 

The fragment, "Blood on the Saddle," treats of such an episode; and though the song is sung in a humorous fashion, its connotation was anything but funny to cowboys. I know nothing of the origin of the song, but I am inclined to agree with Dr. R. W. Gordon, formerly of the American Folk-Lore archives of the Library of Congress, that it does not quite ring true as a genuine cowboy song.

My niece, Dr. Winifred Hull Salinger, New Haven, Conn., sang this song for me in 1930, as Austin Phelps had heard it in Arizona.


There's b-lood on the saddle,
There's b-lood all around.
And a great big puddle
Of blood on the ground.

Oh, pity the cowboy,
So bloody and red.
His pony fell on him,
And mashed in his head.

"The Dying Cowboy," or "The Lone Prairie," has for its theme the cowboy's lonely grave on the prairie. N. Howard Thorp says that he first heard this song from Kearn Carico, Norfolk, Neb., in 1886. The authorship, he says, has been accredited to H. Clemons, Deadwood, Dak. 

However, as I have mentioned before, the words are obviously a parody, stanza for stanza, of "The Ocean Burial," a song, according to Phillips Barry, familiar to folk-singers of the Eastern states nearly a hundred years ago.

Alvin B. Cook, of Dodge City, remembers hearing his mother sing "The Burial at Sea," the same song, in western Kansas some forty years ago.

Of the many tunes of "The Dying Cowboy," my version "A" is the most common. It is similar to the Lomax and the Larkin tune. Version "A" was sung by Dr. Leroy W. Cook, Boulder, Colo., as he heard it in western Kansas forty years ago. Version "B" was sung by Joe M. Hull, now of Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, as he heard it in southern Kansas, probably in the early 1890's. I have never seen this tune in print.

The complete song as recorded by Thorp and others is six or eight stanzas long.


Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie,
Where the wild coyote will howl o'er me,
And the rattlesnake coiling there o'er me.

Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie.

"Oh, bury me not," and his voice failed there;
But they listened not to his dying prayer;
In a narrow grave just six by three
They laid him there on the lone prairie.

Where the dewdrops fall and the butterfly rest,
The wild rose bloom on the prairie's crest;
Where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free,
They buried him there on the lone prairie.


Another prime favorite with the cowboy was "The Cowboy's Lament." N. Howard Thorp says that he heard a version of this song in 1886. The authorship, he adds, is accredited to Troy Hale, Battle Creek, Neb.  But here again there is obviously a borrowing at least of the refrain,

Beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
And play the dead march as they carry me on.

This, Phillips Barry points out, bears a striking resemblance to a passage in the Irish song, "The Unfortunate Rake" (Ireland, 1790). 

But whatever its origin, the cowboy by his re-creations has made it his own. There are innumerable versions. Of these, Thorp's is the earliest. Lomax has a much longer variant.

The opening line of Dr. Pound's version is unique:

As I walked through Tom Sherman's bar-room.

One of the commonest beginning lines is Thorp's-

As I walked out in the streets of Laredo.

Miss Larkin's first lines are unusual:

My home's in Montana,
I wear a bandana.

Interesting, too, is Miss Larkin's concluding stanza:

And take me to Boot Hill And cover me with roses,
I'm just a young cowboy And I know I done wrong.

Version "A," contributed by Freda Butterfield, was sung by her father, Oscar G. Butterfield, as he learned it in western Kansas in the late 1880's. Miss Butterfield is in doubt about some of the lines, particularly of the first stanzas.


Come sit beside me and hear my sad story
Tell one and the other before they go.
further to stop their wild roaming before it's too late.

My friends and re-la-tions they live in the na - tion:
They know not whith- er their poor boy has roamed,
I first took to drink - ing and then to card play- ing,
Got shot in the bos- om and death is my doom,

My friends and relations they live in the Nation;
They know not whither their poor boy has roamed;
I first took to drinking and then to card-playing,
Got shot in the bosom and death is my doom.

So write me a letter to my gray-haired mother,
And write me a letter to sister so dear,
Then there is another who's dearer than my mother
Who'd weep if she knew I was dying out here.

Then beat the drums slowly and play the fife lowly
And play the dead march as you carry me along;
Take me to the graveyard and lay the sod o'er me,
For I'm a poor cowboy, and I know I've done wrong.

Version "B," as sung by Joe M. Hull (about 1890), has which I have not seen in print nor heard elsewhere.


Sometimes the cowboy songs are cynical in mood. Such a one is "I've Got No Use for the Women," as sung by Freda Butterfield, Iola. 

I know nothing as to the origin of this "gambler and gunman" song. Such terms as "mesquite," "chaparral," and "vaquero" indicate that it hails from the Southwest.


I've got no use for the women;
A true one may never be found;
They'll stand by a man when he's winning,
And laugh in his face when he's down.

My pal was a straight young puncher,
Honest and upright and square;
He became a gambler and gunman,
And a woman sent him there.

If she'd been the pal that she should have,
He might have been raisin' a son
Instead of out there on the prairies
To fall by the ranger's gun.

When a vaquero insulted her picture
He filled him full of lead.

All the night long they trailed him
O'er mesquite and gay chaparral;
And I couldn't help think of that woman
As I saw him pitch and fall.

He raised his head on his elbow,
The blood from his wounds flowed red;
He looked around at his comrades,
Whispered to them and said:

Oh, bury me out on the prairie
Where the coyotes may howl o'er my grave.
Bury me out on the prairie,
Some of my bones to save.
Wrap me up in my blanket;
Bury me deep in the ground,
Then cover me over with boulders
Of granite huge and round.

So we buried him out on the prairie,
Where the coyotes still howl o'er his grave;
And his soul is now a-resting
From the unkind touch she gave;
And many another young puncher
As he rides by that pile of stones,
Recalls some similar woman,
And envies his mould'ring bones.

Cowboys in their hours of leisure and relaxation in the winter evenings on the ranch or in the saloons and dance halls, swapped songs that they had brought with them from the East and South or picked up here and there from some settler or chance acquaintance. 

Such a song is "Springfield Mountain," one of the very few American ballads based on an actual incident. Its history is discussed in exhaustive articles by W. W. Newell and by Phillips Barry, according to whom the original ballad was a serious one, recounting the tragic death of "Lieutenant Merrick's only son."

(The name varies, as Curtis, Carter, etc.) But the song has become debased by oral transmission and re-creation until it is a ludicrous comedy.

The song here set down by Dr. Hull A. Cook as it is still sung in Colorado has a tune different from any that I have seen in print.


On Spring-field moun - tain there did dwell
A come - ly youth, I knew him well
Ti - roo - ri, roo - ri, roo - ri - ray;
Ti - roo - ri, roo - ri, roo - ri ra - a - ay, roo - ri - ray.

On Monday morning, he did go Out in the meadow for to mo-o-ow.

As he was mowing, he did feel

A pizen sarpint bite his he-e-el. (Refrain.)

Oh Molly, Molly, come and see
A pizen sarpint bited me-e-e.

Then Molly knelt on her knee
And sucked the pizen out of he-e-e.

But Molly had a rotten tooth
And so the pizen killed them bo-o-oth.

(The song is sung without a break between the refrain and the following stanza.)

Another native ballad that has shown remarkable vitality and longevity is "Young Charlotte." Phillips Barry, who says that he himself knows thirty versions of this song, accredits its authorship to William Carter, "the Bensontown Homer." From Vermont, the author seems to have carried his song to Ohio and Illinois and perhaps even to Utah with the Mormons. This early trek across the continent may account for the song's wide dissemination. After almost a hundred years of "communal re-creation," Mr. Barry believes, the song "has earned the right" to be enrolled "in the number of the nobility" among ballads. 

The song is a "nice long one," and would last out the cowboy's evening, the Barry and the Pound versions each having twenty-six stanzas. Although the words vary slightly in the different versions, the theme is always the same.

Young Charlotte lived on a mountainside, In a wild and lonely spot, There was no house for ten miles around, Except her father's cot.

Young Charlotte was fair but too proud. On a bitterly cold night, she went with Charlie, her lover, to a dance a long distance from her home. Her mother urged her to wrap up in a blanket for fear she would "take her death of cold" during the long sleigh ride to the dance.

"Oh, no, Oh, no," young Charlotte cried,
And she laughed like a gypsy queen;
"To ride in blankets muffed up
I never will be seen."

As the ride progressed, Charlotte complained that she "grew exceeding cold"; but later she murmured faintly, "I'm growing warmer now." As they drove up to the dance hall door, Charlie discovered that his "charming bride" was a "frozen corpse."

Her parents mourned for their daughter dear,
And Charles wept o'er the gloom,
Till at last young Charles too died of grief,
And they both lie in one tomb.

The song ends with a moral:

Young ladies, think of this fair girl
And always dress aright,
And never venture thinly clad
On such a wintry night. 

The tune, which I heard Zeke Paris sing more than forty years ago, is the same one that my mother used in the well-known Civil War song, "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh." 


Cowboy life was enlivened by racy snatches, such as this one from "The Son of a Gamboleer"

-I drink my whisky clear,
I'm a roving rake of poverty,
The son of a gamboleer.

I recall from hired hands' repertoires such choice bits as

She turned up the box and she poured out the pepper,
Whack-fal-de-al-de-ay, whack-fal-de-al-de-ay,
There's whisky in the jar!


In such a category belongs Lomax's "Cowboys' Gettin'-Up Holler," my version of which runs,

Wake, Snake, day's a-breakin'!
Peas in the pot, and the hoe-cake's a-bakin'!

This is one of the countless choruses of "Old Dan Tucker," perhaps the most nearly ubiquitous of all American fiddle tunes. Other dance tunes popular with the cowboy were "Money Musk," "Fisher's Hornpipe," "Devil's Dream," "Arkansaw Traveller," "Rosin the Bow," "Irish Washerwoman," and "Turkey in the Straw" (sung by my mother as "Old Zip Coon"). 

If the fiddler were absent, the caller at the dance would improvise words to many of these tunes. "The Girl I Left Behind Me," that favorite of the Civil War, of ancient lineage, went through almost as many transformations as "Mademoiselle from Armentieres."

In gentler mood, the cowboy of the 1870s indulged in some of the popular sentimental songs, such as "Lorena," "Sweet Evelina," "Bonnie Eloise," "Annie Lisle," "Lillie Dale," and "Sweet Eulalie." In such a mood, no doubt, the "notorious woman outlaw" of the Indian territory, Belle Starr, struck off "My Love Is a Rider." 

The words of this song, recorded by Margaret Larkin, are strongly reminiscent of the following song, which my mother, Mrs. Eliza Sinclair Hull, brought West with her from Ohio, in 1866.

All I've got is an old iron pot, And a fryin' pan to wash the baby in.


My lover's a rider, a rider so fine;
The steed is his sov'reign; the rider is mine.

Blue eyes and brown hair, and right noble in mien;
Oh, charming and fair is my lover, I ween.
My heart is a castle well-bolted and grim;
My love is the pass-key; it opens to him.

My lover's away; he is over the sea;
I need not be told he is thinking of me.
If you have a lover so noble and true;
I'll finish my song and then listen to you.

Not uncommon among the songs of the cowboy (sung, sometimes, I fear, when he had reached the maudlin stage of inebriation) were the sob-songs of mother, home, and the cowboy's heaven.

Sam Ridings, in The Chisholm Trail, mentions one of these songs, which he calls "Two Thousand Miles Away." It is almost exactly like the chorus of the following song, which I heard Zeke Paris sing when I was a child. I wish it were possible to put into the printed song the great fervor and pathos of the singer!


On the banks of a lone - ly riv- er,
Ten thous- and miles a - way.
Then blame me not for weep - ing;
Oh, blame me not, I pray,
For I've an ag - ad moth - or
Whose hair is turning gray

Then blame me not for weep - ing;
Oh, blame me not, I pray,
For I've an ag - ad moth - or
Ten thou - sand miles a - way.

Of the numerous songs depicting the cowboy's heaven, perhaps the most famous one is "The Cowboy's Dream," beginning

Last night as I lay on the prairie
And looked at the stars in the sky,
I wondered if ever a cowboy
Would drift to the sweet bye and bye.

The song, to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," is an analogy in which heaven, "the trail to the great mystic regions," is compared to the long drive up the trail.

The most picturesque stanza is

And I'm scared that I'll be a stray yearling,
A maverick, unbranded on high,
And get out in the bunch with the "rustler,"
When the Boss of the Riders goes by.

N. Howard Thorp's version, one of the earliest, he says was given him by Walt Roberts, Double Diamond ranch, White Mountains, 1898. The authorship is ascribed to the father of Captain Roberts; of the Texas Rangers.

The loveliest cowboy song of the lone night on the prairie is "Night Herdin' Song." This version, as it is still sung to quiet the restless cattle on the range, was set down for me by Dr. Hull A. Cook. I know of only two tunes for this song, the one I record here and Margaret Larkin's. 


Oh, move slow, dogies; quit roving around,
You have wandered and trampled all over the ground.
Oh, graze along, dogies, and feed kinda slow,
And don't forever be on the go.

Move slow, little dogies, move slow,
Hi-o, Hi-o-o-o-o.

I've circle herded and night herded too,
But to keep you together! That's what I can't do.
My horse is leg weary, and I'm awful tired,
But if you get away I am sure to get fired.

Bunch up, little dogies, bunch up,
on the go. Move slow, lit - tle do - gies, move slow.
Hi-o, Hi-o-o-o-o.

Oh, lay still, dogies, since you have laid down,
Stretch away out on the big open ground.
Snore loud little dogies and drown the wild sounds
That will all go away when the day rolls around.

Lay still, little dogies, lay still,
Hi-o, Hi-o-o-o-o (Repeat) Hi-o, Hi-o-o-o-o.

There is something singularly moving in this song, as it is sung in the dim light of a Western campfire, to the soft accompaniment of the guitar. One who has slept out under the open sky on the barren high plains of Wyoming is reminded poignantly of the "wild sounds" that haunt the night watcher in that desolate region.

This picture of the "leg-weary" cowboy talking to his restless cattle, pleading with them not to stampede, and finally soothing them to sleep with his plaintive lullaby, brings to a fitting close this brief survey of the cowboy's life in song.

-- end of 1939 article from the Kansas Historical Society.

This is reprinted here as it was published in 1939. 

Tom Correa

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