Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Cowboy music is a folk idiom whose musical progenitors include British ballads, familiar European melodies, Mexican and Spanish influences, and the tunes and traditions of America's mountains, rural areas, and southern states. It emerged just after the Civil War with the establishment of the "open range cattle kingdom" in the Great Plains.

Longhorn cattle were plentiful in Texas, and in the summer of 1867 entrepreneurs began driving herds north along the Chisholm Trail to the railhead in Abilene, Kansas, for shipment to eastern markets. Many more cattle drives followed during the ensuing two decades, and by the 1880s the drives extended as far north as Wyoming and Montana, where rich grazing lands on the open range were plentiful. Though the tradition of cowboy music established during those years continues to the present, a majority of the older songs date from approximately 1870 to 1920. Thereafter, the media (via sheet music, recordings, radio, movies, and television) became a potent force in shaping the idiom and people's ideas about it.

Authentic cowboy songs tell the story of the cattlemen, their often solitary way of life, the animals they rode, herded, and guarded against, and the wide expanse of the Great Plains and American West where they worked. Some of the tunes were functional, like the night-herding songs of cowboys who circled the herd as it lay on the bedding ground. These melodies reassured the restive cattle and helped prevent night noises and events from causing a stampede. Other tunes extolled the lives and abilities of cowboys, real and mythical, eulogized those killed in their labors, or celebrated animals that got the better of their human companions. These include "The Old Chisholm Trail," perhaps the most popular song of the Old West, "The Educated Feller" ("Zebra Dun"), which was sung to the tune of "Son of a Gambolier," "Sam Bass," "The Grand Round Up" ("The Cowboy's Sweet By and By"), whose melody was "My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean," "Little Joe the Wrangler," which used the tune of "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane," "Whoopie Ti Yi Yo," "Goodbye Old Paint," "Windy Bill," and "The Cowboy's Lament." The songs were usually sung by individuals, not groups, and were constantly reshaped and added to according to the particular tastes of the performers. Poems with Western or cowboy themes appeared regularly in journals, newspapers, and magazines, and many of these were set to music. Often, the words of a given song, poem, or narrative were sung to more than one tune. Cowboy song melodies were often rather simple, using few pitches. Some were pentatonic (using but five different note names), while others had strong triadic (a chord of three tones a third apart) underpinnings. Most importantly, the tunes cowboys favored were easily singable and suitable for the lyrics, which in their original form were sometimes colorful and earthy.

Cowboy music represents a rich and unique part of American cultural life. It is the music that we associate with the American West and represents the musings of countless individuals who worked, slept, ate, and sometimes died on the open prairie.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Cowboy Culture / LITERARY TRADITIONS: Cowboy Poetry.

Alfred W. Cochran Kansas State University

Lomax, John A., and Alan Lomax. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1938.

Orlin, Glenn. The Hell-Bound Train: A Cowboy Songbook. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

White, John I. Git Along, Little Dogies: Songs and Songmakers of the American West. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

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