American Cowboy Songs

• Folk and Traditional Styles

American Cowboy Songs

The songs and music of cowboys have held a special place in the musical heritage of the United States for over 80 years. Originally sung by cowboys as a way to pass the time and as entertainment while working the cattle, cowboy songs became a massively popular subgenre within country music in the 1930s. As a result, the life of the cowboy came to be one of the major themes of country music, with the cowboy's freedom, individuality, and closeness to nature appearing in country songs even today.

The first cowboys in what is now the United States were Mexicans who settled in New Mexico. The Europeans who settled on the East Coast mainly came from countries such as England and France without traditions of ranching and open-range cattle herding. The Spanish had originated these traditions, so they adopted them on the plains of the American Southwest. By the 1800s, American pioneers had picked up the techniques of these early vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys, and established cowboy and ranching culture throughout much of the West.

Though documentation is scarce, early cowboys sung songs and recited poetry as they road and at night around the campfire. Their songs and poetry told the stories of their lives-hard work and lonely days. Some cowboy songs still sung today have their roots in this tradition, such as "Old Paint" and "Old Dan Tucker." Songs like "Night Herding Song" and "Get Along Little Doggies" seem to have been sung to drive cattle along the trail, while other songs may have been sung at night to calm the cattle. Though riding a horse left little room for extra possessions, some cowboys carried lightweight instruments like guitars, banjos, or fiddles to accompany them when the work was through.

Cowboy songs first appeared in print beginning in the late 1800s, in popular newspapers, as broadsides, and in songbooks. The first major collections were compiled in N. H. Thorp's Songs of the Cowboy, published in 1908, and the prolific folk music collector John Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910. These collections serve as the best record of the original cowboy songs.


Early Recordings and Hollywood

In the 1920s, improved technology and mass production initiated a tidal wave of commercial recordings in many genres of music. Though not as embraced as some other genres, cowboy singers were recorded as well, including Charles Nabell for Okeh in 1924, Charles T. Sprague (known as the "Original Singing Cowboy") with "When the Work's all Done this Fall" in 1925, as well as the Cartwright Brothers, Goebel Reeves (the "Texas Drifter"), Jules Verne Allen ("Longhorn Luke"), and Harry McClintock.

In 1934 a stampede of interest in cowboy music occurred when Gene Autry began recording songs and starring in numerous Hollywood films. His success began a "singing cowboy" love affair from the American public that lasted the next 30 years through the rise of television. Along with Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Sons of the Pioneers, and many others, Autry sang songs with cowboy themes that musically owed much to the Tin Pan Alley and popular music traditions of the time. Songs like "Back in the Saddle Again," "Riding Down the Canyon," and "Strawberry Roan" often had lush orchestrations-a far cry from the simple songs of real cowboys. Nonetheless, the songs, with their characteristic yodels and languid melodies, had huge appeal and became the standard to which most future cowboy songs adhered.


Cowboy Songs Today

The spirit of the cowboy remains a powerful image in popular country music. However, many artists and groups continue the tradition of cowboy music in the style of Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry, and the other legends of cowboy music. Michael Martin Murphey, Don Edwards, Sons of the San Joaquin, and Riders in the Sky are four of the more well-known and commercially successful purveyors of cowboy music during the last 20 years. Countless other musicians around the country, along with children in music classrooms everywhere, keep cowboy music in its place as a standard of the American musical tradition.