Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Folk songs are words and music transmitted orally from one generation to another within particular groups; usually there are musical and textual variants of the songs. However, in the twentieth century, recorded sound and the printed word made it possible for folk songs to be learned outside the traditional group experiences, and they also reduced the number of variants that accompanied the oral transmission process. Folk songs can be ballads– songs that tell a story; folk songs can be lyrical– songs that communicate an emotion without necessarily telling a story; and folk songs can be functional–lullabies, songs for dancing, play-party songs, work songs, and songs that enhance other human activities. For many decades it was a common belief that folk songs were perpetuated and sung only by the illiterate and that only art and popular songs had cultural merit. That uninformed criticism has been slow in disappearing.

The groups in which traditional songs evolve are families, communities, churches, occupations, ethnic, regional, and many others. Great Plains folk songs, therefore, are diverse, including a wide variety of Native American songs that were inspired by musical sounds in nature. Other traditional songs, mostly of western European origin, came with the expansion of the western frontier. They include those from Spanish traditions that initially dominated the Southern Plains, but which by the twenty-first century had moved into the central and northern portions of the region. Mexican corridos (ballads) and other Hispanic songs are now heard throughout the Great Plains along with Anglo-American and African American spirituals, Czech polkas, Germanic or Scandinavian songs and schottisches, a wide variety of fiddling tunes and styles, blues, Southeast Asian music, klezmer (Jewish) music, and the music of numerous other ethnic and immigrant groups. However, the most widely known or recognized folk songs are those that have their origins in English, Scottish, and Irish song.

Folk songs also can be associated with singing styles, influenced by the openness of the Great Plains–no tight throat sounds emerged here–in contrast to the vocals from the mountain regions of the South. Even ethnic groups modified singing styles to the expanses of the Plains by adopting open vocals.

By the 1960s folk songs had acquired a broader definition and included songs that had not gone through the long oral transmission process but were written and/or sung by individuals who referred to themselves as folksingers. A musician with a guitar or at least a banjo singing a ballad was a "folksinger"; often social protest songs were defined as folk songs, even though their life expectancy was sometimes no longer than the duration of the topic being protested. Long before this popular interpretation evolved, however, two specific folk-song groups had emerged from specific Great Plains experiences: cowboy and western songs and songs about the dust storms.

The cattle industry is one of the oldest European American commercial ventures in the Plains, dating back to early Spanish explorations when cattle and horses were brought to the North American continent. The romanticized American cowboy who emerged after the Civil War capitalized on the traditions of the Hispanic industry, using their tools, techniques, and vocabulary. However, cowboy songs came from southern traditions and were based on the old English, Scottish, and Irish songs sung throughout the South. In recent decades, historians and pop culturalists have shown African American influences on traditional cowboy songs, but the western European song style had greater influence on African American song during the late nineteenth century than did African American song style on cowboy songs.

The cowboy idiom did not mature until the early 1870s, at which time songs with a cowboy theme appeared. Cowboys had been singing the popular parlor and folk songs of the day, as well as hymns; in short, a cowboy song was anything a cowboy wanted to sing. The most popular was "The Old Chisholm Trail," an English lyrical song that dates to as early as 1640 and was modified by the cowboy idiom. Most of the songs that came from the post.Civil War trail-drive days were either tragedy or humor, the two faces of drama; there were very few lyrical songs, and most of those were written by unknown poets. However, Montana poet D. J. O'Malley wrote a few poems in the 1880s and 1890s, such as "When the Work's All Done This Fall," that were set to music by unknown musicians. In the early 1900s South Dakota poet Charles Badger Clark Jr. wrote "Border Affair," which was later adapted to a folk song, and New Mexico cowboy N. Howard "Jack" Thorp wrote "Little Joe, the Wrangler" in 1898, which also was adapted to a folk song. Some cowboy folk songs were bawdy, and most working cowboys did not (and do not) have outstanding singing voices. Some of their singing would start a stampede, not settle down the cattle.

The cowboy became the folk hero of the nation, and a romanticized singing cowboy enhanced the image. In the mid-1930s Hollywood developed the singing-cowboy movie genre for Gene Autry, who started his career as the "Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy." Soon other singing cowboys were featured in the movie houses. Some of the songs they sang, along with those on records, entered the oral transmission process and are considered by some singers to be folk songs; indeed, a few of the songs, such as "Cool Water," "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," or "Riding Down the Canyon," have become traditional songs of the cowboy and the Plains. The cowboy singing and songwriting traditions have been continued into the twenty-first century by numerous performers such as the popular horseman- singer-songwriter Ian Tyson of Alberta.

Cowboys love to dance; each cow town had dance halls, and they were not always associated with saloons. In the 1920s Bob Wills, a fiddle-playing son of a cotton farmer in West Texas, started playing ranch-house dances. His desire to play dances eventually developed a dance genre known as western swing. While the music has elements of jazz and blues, it actually evolved from the specific merger of cowboy and farmer folk song and instrumentation.

In the early 1930s, when drought struck the Great Plains and continued through the decade, the Southern High Plains was designated the "Dust Bowl." Woody Guthrie was born and reared in Okemah, Oklahoma, but moved to Pampa, Texas, in 1929. There he experienced the Dust Bowl storms that devastated farms, ranches, and towns from Canada to Mexico; his songs "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," "Talking Dust Bowl," "Do, Re, Mi," "Dust Can't Kill Me," and many more chronicle the era, as does his autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory (1943). Guthrie and his Great Plains songs were instrumental in creating the folk-song revival that swept the nation in the 1950s and 1960s. In such ways, the folk songs of the Great Plains are cultural contributions to the world of music, and they will be sung and played as long as there is music in the soul of mankind.

See also FILM: Autry, Gene / MUSIC: Cowboy Music; Guthrie, Woody; Wills, Bob.

Guy Logsdon Tulsa, Oklahoma

Guthrie, Woody. Bound for Glory. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1943.

Logsdon, Guy. "The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing" and Other Songs Cowboys Sing. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Lomax, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America. Garden City NY: Doubleday and Co., 1960.

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